Like many born and bred New Englanders, I have developed a soft spot for Louisa May Alcott’s holiday pieces (1832-1888). Alcott’s literary career, which began with pseudonymously published magazine articles, was followed by beloved books; sprinkled throughout are works seasoned with festive subjects, settings, and themes. Her novels for children (which cue-in these topics) were wildly popular in her lifetime. Admiration has not waned; today it is easy to find reprints of her stories and poems, which have been collected and reissued as classic texts and are available to be read on limitless websites and online resources.[i]
Her semi-autobiographical novel (and most famous work), Little Women, opens with the grumblings of Jo March: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” This frontispiece was from the first volume of Little Women, published in 1868, and was illustrated by Louisa May’s sister, May Alcott. The image features Marmee, the March children’s mother, Amy, Jo, Beth, and Meg and shows the sisters in one another’s company. By the second chapter, titled “A Merry Christmas,” we find a delighted Jo with a gift, having slipped her hand under her pillow to discover “a little crimson-covered book.” (Though unnamed, is perhaps a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress hinted at in the previous chapter.) Sister Meg found the same with “a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes.” Meg opens her “new book and began to read. Jo put her arm around her, and, leaning cheek to cheek, read also, with the quiet expression so seldom seen on her restless face.”
Evidence of books as Christmas presents is found in AAS collection material in everything from appropriate-named annuals and gift books (many lavishly illustrated), to miniature books and temperance addresses, to countless items of children’s literature. Hundreds of books in the Society’s collection are inscribed with either Christmas or the date December 25, usually on the front flyleaf. But it is this scene in Little Women I’ve always been obsessed captivated by—this idea of book-receiving on December 25—and thought it worthy of exploring with Alcott’s works as being the ones gifted. Not only did Alcott create texts on the subject of Christmas (or include poems tucked in such as “A song for a Christmas tree” in The Rose Family: a Fairy Tale), but a search in WorldCat (and even my own personal library) shows that her books were given as holiday gifts as well.
The AAS collection also features several copies of Alcott’s books which bear evidence of Christmas gift-giving of the celebrated and beloved author.
An 1875 illustrated copy of Eight cousins; or The Aunt-Hill, a children’s novel about an orphan named Rose in the care of her aunts (surrounded by energetic boy cousins), has a mechanically-reproduced dedication by Alcott but is also inscribed, “Kittie from Johnnie, Christmas 1875.”
In addition to novels like Little Women and Eight Cousins, Alcott also wrote short stories, such as “My Boys,” published under the series title of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag. Some of these short story collections were created for the holiday market, such as an 1871 edition of the first volume of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, published in Boston by the Roberts Brothers. The preface is dated “Christmas holidays, 1871-72” and addresses her readership as a “large family so rapidly and beautifully growing about me.” This copy of the text also carries a presentation inscription reading, “For Lillie, with a ‘Merry Christmas’ from Alice, Dec. 25, 1871” and features the oft-reproduced story of “Tilly’s Christmas.”
A gorgeous book with gilt title, likely intended for the gift-giving market, is an anthology of poems, The Horn of Plenty of Home Poems and Home Pictures; editorship has been attributed to Sophie May and William Fearing Gill. Published in 1876, it excitedly announces new poetry by Louisa May Alcott and doesn’t disappoint by the placement—the frontispiece illustrates the poem “Merry Christmas,” which appears, along with another Alcott poem called “Our Little Ghost,” on the opening pages. The book is dedicated “to all the little women and little men who have been made happy by Aunt Jo who wishes them a Merry Christmas…by a warm admirer of Little Women and Little Men.” Of the two copies in the AAS children’s literature collection, one is inscribed, “A. Gertrude Kimball, from Aunt Hattie. Dec. 25, ’76.”
Perhaps some of these inscribed, gifted editions of Alcott’s work were slipped under a pillow on Christmas morning mimicking the beloved scene in Little Women? One can dream!