Little Women is one of my all time favourite books and the films, whether the old version Katherine Hepburn or the latest one with Saiorse Ronan, are essential viewing for me and my girls at Christmas. For my throwback posts this month I’m focusing on older books that truly give me those Christmas ‘feels’. That could be because they’re set at Christmas or they might have a special meaning associated with Christmas, such as something we would watch as a family or that I just happened to read at that time of year. As soon as it gets close to Christmas I think of Little Women, and it’s not just that first line of Jo’s; ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’. The book begins and ends at Christmas and it highlights the way the family has changed in that time, who is lost and who has joined the March family. I think the fact that most of the film adaptations have that snowy New England appeal and the contrasting warmth of the March family’s home with it’s handmade decorations and open fire. It’s also the way the family celebrate and their values that really shine out to me. They have traditions, like the play they all prepare for in the evening, having so much fun that the lonely boy living next door with only an old Uncle for company yearns to join them. I see so many parallels with my own family in the Marches, even the love and support they offer to people who are struggling reminds me of the values my parents have instilled in me and my brother.
Our family traditions are smaller, but important and poignant to us, especially as the years pass and people are missing from those celebrations or new members of the family have come along. Back in the late 1970’s when I was around seven years old, my Mum had a beautiful set of nativity figures and my dad made her a tiny stable complete with wood shavings for straw and a single light over the roof to represent the star. Every year we loved to put the crib up and it was the tradition that the youngest member of the family would place baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve. That was my younger brother Terry and I remember him having to be lifted to reach the crib and my mum would steady his small hand to place him in safely. Now my brother is in his forties and is a grandad too, so his grandson Harvey places Jesus in the crib and soon it might be his younger brother Oakley who helps him. To have so many generations in one family is so lucky, but it’s also poignant when I notice that my dad can’t pick up his great-grandson and his hand isn’t so steady. Similarly, for the Marches there’s that bittersweet feeling within the celebration, the acknowledgement that someone is missing from the table. It’s a feeling I share when we have our Polish Christmas Eve tradition that remembers my late husband’s family, something we do alongside my sister-in-law and nephews over in New Zealand, now that she too is a widow. It gives us an opportunity to raise a glass and talk about our loved ones, to have that Christmas phone call and remember them together.
Charles Dickens set the standard for the typical Victorian Christmas, setting in stone some of the traditions we still keep today. In the same way, Louisa May Alcott defines the ideal New England Christmas of the 1800’s. The Civil War rumbles on quietly in the background, but Marmee and Hannah keep the home fires burning despite having little money, but what little they have they are willing to share. There is a glow of nostalgia around their plans that makes me feel welcomed into their world, but also inspires me to have a more simple Christmas where we make the presents and the emphasis is on time together, rather than money spent. In the end it’s the feelings that make the Christmases of the Little Women so appealing. It’s their simplicity when we look at them against the current onslaught of adverts, consumption and pressure to have the perfect Christmas- especially this year, when we had such a quiet one in 2020. There’s an urge to really overspend that’s all about rescuing the economy rather than true Christmas spirit. We could really learn from the March girls’s generosity in using the one dollar they each receive from Aunt March to make Marmee’s Christmas better. There’s a thoughtfulness in the gifts they give, even Amy who has a last minute change of heart and uses her whole dollar for Marmee’s cologne rather than buying the smaller bottle to save money for some drawing pencils. I like to think about the gifts I send, and I do make when I’m able – I’ve made my step-daughters zombie dolls in the past and this year I’m embroidering denim jackets. I also make Christmas Cakes and biscuits for neighbours, sloe gin and jams, because it feels good to put myself into he gifts and it’s lovely to make them with a friend, listening to Christmas music and enjoying the moment. This year we’re having a biscuit and truffle making day together with my carer’s children. It’s this effort to spend time with people that makes Christmas, because it creates memories. This is no different from the March girls practicing their Christmas play together or singing carols at Beth’s piano. My immediate family are not buying presents this year, because we can’t all afford to do it, so instead we’re having a meal together which we’ll enjoy so much more than stuff. To have a March Christmas we need to adopt a simpler approach, guided by values of generosity, kindness, thankfulness and love.
A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in. “Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!” said the poor woman, crying for joy. “Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them to laughing. In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs. March gave the mother the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English. “Das ist gut!” “Die Engel-kinder!” cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze. The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a “Sancho” ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning. “That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I like it,” said Meg, as they set out their presents while their mother was upstairs collecting clothes for the poor Hummels. Not a very splendid show, but there was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles, and the tall vase of red roses, white chrysanthemums, and trailing vines, which stood in the middle, gave quite an elegant air to the table. “She’s coming! Strike up, Beth! Open the door, Amy! Three cheers for Marmee!” cried Jo, prancing about while Meg went to conduct Mother to the seat of honor.
Beth played her gayest march, Amy threw open the door, and Meg enacted escort with great dignity. Mrs. March was both surprised and touched, and smiled with her eyes full as she examined her presents and read the little notes which accompanied them. The slippers went on at once, a new handkerchief was slipped into her pocket, well scented with Amy’s cologne, the rose was fastened in her bosom, and the nice gloves were pronounced a perfect fit. There was a good deal of laughing and kissing and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward.
Little Women. Louisa May Alcott. Amazon Classics. 29th August 2017.