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.

 

Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

Scan_Pic0079

What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

THE CLOCK OF LIFE

“The clock of life is wound but once
And no one can tell you when the hands will stop
At late or early hour;
Now is the only time you have;
Live, love, toil with a will;
Place no confidence in tomorrow
For the clock may then be still.”

Author Unknown

This powerful little poem I positioned at both the beginning and ending of my most recent Christmas story, “The Clock of Life” in Christmas in My Heart 18 (Pacific Press, 2009); in that story, I fictionalized my own recent close call. Over an 18-month period, my body began shutting down on me. Finally, my doctor took one look at my yellow skin and gave me two hours’ notice before checking in at a hospital E.R, Then it was a race against time to find out what was wrong before it was too late.

During those long days and much longer nights, when the clock on the wall above my bed seemed to take forever to indicate one lone minute had passed, I had plenty of opportunities to Monday-morning quarterback my life: Was my life over, my race done? Had I accomplished all I had hoped to in this short soap opera we label “life”? Was I at peace with God? Had I told my wife and children often enough how very much I loved and cherished them? Was my house in order (ready for an exhaustive audit)? If my body continued to close shop on me, was I ready to tie up all the loose ends of my life? Was my wife Connie prepared to shoulder the entire burden of life alone? What could she do with the massive library that has made our 71 books possible? Did I have fences I needed to mend before it was too late? How was I doing on my Bucket List? Did I have any major regrets? Most important of all . . . was I ready to meet my Maker?

After much prayer, I was convicted that I should pour all these variables into my 18th Christmas story. And “The Clock of Life” proved to be the perfect catalyst.

* * * * *

Several days ago, I was debriefing by phone with Tim Kubrock (principal of Monterey Bay Academy) over the alumni breakfast the week before; more specifically, my remarks to the alumni.

Because of all I have gone through during the last couple of years, I was especially conscious of just how fragile is our hold on life—and, by extension, how little time we have in which to accomplish our goals. I used to take all this for granted. I most certainly do not any more.

And so I urged my fellow alumni to not delay in their giving to this school that contributed so much to us in the morning of our lives. I was painfully blunt: “You know, each year we lose more of our beloved classmates—most likely, never on earth will all of us in this room assemble together again. So please don’t delay in your support of our alma mater.”

All this the principal and I referenced in our chat.

Then he told me, “I’ve got to tell you about an experience I had in my office about 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. A 50th anniversary alum walked in (I could tell by the honor ribbon on his shirt). Well, he just wanted to talk about the academy, life in general, his own children (who’d also attended the academy), and some painful things I can’t share. Before he left, I felt impressed to offer prayer for him and his family: that the Lord would help to heal the brokenness in his family. When he got up to leave, there was a softness and peace in his face that had not been there when he came in.

There was then a long silence. . .

Followed by a sigh . . . and

“He died last Friday.”