Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “The Birds’ Christmas Carol”

BLOG #48, SERIES #5
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #36
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S THE BIRDS’ CHRISTMAS CAROL

November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)

(1888 First Edition)

 

Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)

(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition

Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

 

* * * * *

So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.

 

WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?

BLOG #12, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?
March 19, 2014

Some people never lose their childlike sense of wonder. Elizabeth Goudge, one of my favorite English writers, never lost the ability to think as a child, no matter how old she got.

Just so, Emily Dickinson, America’s greatest poetess, enchants us still, well over a hundred years later, because she never lost that trait.

Have you ever wondered how you’d respond to a child’s queries about something as prosaic as mornings?

Following is Dickinson’s try at it:

MORNING

“Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I never heard?

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!”

–“Morning,” published in
St. Nicholas, May 1891

Published in: on March 19, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  
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TREASURES FROM THE PAST #1

One of the responses to the survey has already had its effect: it urged me to keep mining the bullion of the past in my blogs.

I have been working around the clock on my eighth collection of animal stories (Animals of the Jungle). As I searched for stories, in a long-ago essay written by Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), published in a magazine for young people early in the twentieth century, I found a timeless treasure of thought perfect as the follow-up to last Wednesday’s blog: “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.”

It was inspired by Emerson’s famous poem:

DAYS

“Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bringing diadems and fagots in their hands,
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.”

THE DOORWAY OF THE DAYS
by Hildegarde Hawthorne

A day is a wonderful thing. It is like a great doorway flung wide for you to pass through into all manner of adventures. One after the other, these doorways open to you, each different, each opening on a fresh prospect. Fresh, yourself, after the rest and the stillness of night, you stand each morning on the threshold, and then you step through and are launched on what that day has for you.

Of course, the day, being as it were just this welcoming doorway, can not make you go out to meet what it holds. You can refuse its mighty invitations. It may be a day that opens on shadowy forest paths, on blue headlands, a day where nature is at her most beautiful best. Again it may hold a splendid hour or two of companionship with some one who could tell you much of this nature, who could give you new insight into her mysteries, who could explain what hitherto you had never understood. It might be a day made for running feet and for laughter and joy. It has opened the wide doorway to all this. But of course you can refuse it all. You can turn your back on the prospect before you, spend your hours indoors, fail to meet the friend who was waiting, sulk over some fancied slight or trouble, worry and exhaust yourself in various ways. The doorway of the day will swing close, at last, and the possibilities on which it opened will have gone, perhaps forever.

Supposing you had only one day to live in, like some of the ephemera, whom you may watch in summer, dizzy with their dancing, in a sunbeam. Just one day! Well, it would hold twenty-four hours. How splendid! How much you could do in that time. And how much to choose for the doing, the seeing, the hearing, the feeling, the thinking! A sunrise and a sunset, stars, a moon maybe, winds swaying tree-tops or ruffling water; and then comrades to play with, a fine book to read, music to hear; a ride, perhaps, in a motor-car or on a horse, a walk in a country lane or along a street filled with all manner of things worth looking at; there would be meals to eat, a lesson to study. You would have the joy of bodily exercise, the joy of loving, the delight of conversation with friends. Each hour would hold its own miracle.

At the end, before sleep came, you would find no words to describe the marvel of a day. Room in it for the exercise of all your faculties, for dreams and for reality, for play and for work. A great round day, and you alive in it.

You see, just because there is more than one day, we get too used to them to remember what they really are. We let them slip through our fingers, with their adventures unlived, their beauty unseen. Many a day has been treated as though it were just a bore, when it was simply bursting with exciting thrills. Many a day that held in it a wonderful thing, which you would have cherished all your life, has been allowed to pass away empty. For only what you take from the offerings of each day is yours.

Do you ever think over the manifold ways in which each day is spent by the people on this earth? How an Eskimo spends the day you have given over to school, to football practice, or a game of tennis or to skiing, to a matinee or a quiet time reading while the storm beats on the windows and shouts over the house? How that same day is being spent by a savage in Africa, by a Russian refugee, a coal-miner, a seaman? You can get some notion of all that a day opens on if you let your mind wander a bit in these directions.

It seems to me that the great difference between those who lead a full and interesting life and those who don’t is that the first do not let the fact that there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year dull the wonderful possibilities of each individual day. They look before and after, of course, for the past and the future add richness to the present. But the day itself is the thing. Because tomorrow you are to go on an entrancing journey, or to the dentist, there is no reason for slighting today. It too has its worth and its gift. Live it. The combination of you and a day is too wonderful to be missed. People throw days away as if they were worthless pebbles, and then complain that life is a poor affair. One of Emerson’s noble sayings was, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”; and as you grow older you will cherish also in your memories his brief poem on “The Days.” It is a vivid picture in words of what I have been trying to set forth; and every earnest boy and girl can imagine the days going on about their tremendous business rather bewildered and rather amused. Here we are, they say, full of everything. And look how we’re treated and hear how we’re reviled! What’s the matter with these people, anyway?

And then the Days will show each other the unused things they had ready, which were never asked for, like handfuls of fine jewels shining in the light, but which no one stooped to pick up.

“Funny business!” sigh the Days, and if they had heads, there’d be reasons a-plenty for shaking them.

It is interesting to realize that the day that opens its great gate to you is for you only. No one else has just the same day. Even though you go every hour of the twenty-four close with a sister, a brother, a dear friend, and though what happens to you happens too to him or to her, as the case may be, yet the day will not be alike. Half of everything is the thing itself; the other half, its effect on you; and that effect can never be exactly duplicated. That is why it is that one person will get joy and interest out of a day that another will find merely tiresome.

The best will in the world can not keep dull days and dark days entirely away. You are going to miss quantities of things that you could have enjoyed, because you are tired or out of sorts or disgruntled. Other things will come to you that will be hard to bear and sad to live through. But for all that, the greater portion of your days are good days. The doorway they provide leads to much, and it is your own fault if you get only a little.

The fun of being alive and of having these days opening up, one after the other, is tremendous. Out you go to meet them, with your body, your mind, your senses, your questing spirit. You find things to laugh over, or cry over. You find things that set your mind to keen working or that strengthen your muscles or train the faculty of sight or of hearing, that make more proficient your hands, more skillful the whole bearing of your body. You meet something new to you, and have to readjust yourself and your ideas to take it in. To something else you say good-by for the last time. You will have your own interests, however, and the more, the merrier.

As your mind grows and develops, so the interests of your days should grow and extend, and each day coming ought to be more than the one gone, for you yourself are more. The trouble often is that one drops something for each new thing taken up. The play and the ecstasy of youth is lost with the deeper feeling and growing cares of maturity. But the girl or boy who goes on into maturity without losing too much of that young rapture becomes the best sort of man or woman. Don’t let your life go dry; let it keep its sap and freshness. Artists usually excel in this wisdom. The child lives on in them, making them richer and their days more radiant because it has not withered out of them. Keep what has come, and go on to what is due, and you will not be likely to find life a bore or a burden.

I remember how long a day appeared to me when I was a child—not too long, I enjoyed every moment of it, but so much longer than it does now. I had a better understanding of how great a day is, then. Now it seems short; sometimes I feel as though it merely winked at me and vanished. I can quite imagine that when I move on into eternity that eternity will soon seem to be short enough for all I want to do and be. Think of standing and waiting while the great door of eternity swings open and lets you through! But of course a day is after all a portion of eternity, and maybe it is because we are close to one end of eternity in childhood that days are eternal to us then. Why, any spring morning that was fair and welcoming I remember how I would go to lie under a certain apple-tree where the grass grew thick and the bending branches swept it, making a bower of bloom. And there I would dream away several days in a space that must really have been only a couple of hours. I would like to get back the glorious leisure of those days, to feel the promise of eternity in them; but though I haven’t lost the sense of the magnificence of a day, I can’t hold on to its vastness.

Except always in what it offers.

Now and again a day will come with a gift so splendid that you can not help but recognize it and acclaim it. You will say, as you have heard others say, “That was a great day in my life!” But don’t disdain the other days, that blow no trumpets and open no golden treasure-chests. They have their own wonderfulness, that calls to the wonderfulness in you, and through their mighty doorways you step to everything in life.

St. Nicholas, January 1923