Christmas Comes of Age in Carolyn Wells’s Christmas Alphabet

Christmas Alphabet 1Although Clement Clarke Moore is now recognized as the celebrated Christmas poet, early twentieth-century writer Carolyn Wells (1862-1942) expanded on Moore’s vision of Christmas as a season of wholesome family-centered celebration in her Christmas Alphabet. Issued by New York picture book publisher McLoughlin Brothers in 1900, the Christmas Alphabet weaves evocative verse and gorgeous full-color chromolithograph illustrations to give a more modern cast to the image of a Santa laden with gifts  made famous by Thomas Nast’s illustrations for the Night Before Christmas, published shortly after the Civil War (also by Mcloughlin Brothers).

The Alphabet’s cover (above right) does not show a rakish fur-suited elf, but a dignified gentleman in a red suit with a snowy beard, inspecting a puppet made by his helper, not unlike a manufacturer examining his employee’s product. Santa is flanked by other toys, including a miniature pony, a sailboat, a ball, and a sled; perhaps he is about to load them into his pack!

Christmas Alphabet 7Inside the book, Wells’s poem is accompanied by illustrated vignettes capturing the essence of each letter (the mini illustration for “D” shows a girl walking her new doll dressed in the latest fashion). The alphabet is also interspersed with full-color images of Santa and his elves at work, and children indulging in winter play, making for a delightfully disjointed effect. The poem hearkens to the senses: “C is for Candy to please boys and girls; I is for Ice, so shining and clear; J is the Jingle of bells far and near; S is for Snow that falls silently down; U is for Uproar that goes on all day.”  Besides these sensual pleasures, there are appeals to social expectations: “L is for Letters the children all wrote,” and we see children Christmas Alphabet 11concentrating on writing their requests to Santa asking for gifts.  Wells also alludes to the gently reinforced sociability of Christmas parties: “Q [is for] the Quadrille in which each one must dance,” accompanied by an image of boy and girl couples bowing to each other in a square set.  Santa gets only one letter in the alphabet—“K is Kriss Kringle with fur cap and coat”—presented as more of a statement of fact than an explanation of who Santa is (that was already handled by Moore’s poem).

Christmas Alphabet 9Towards the end of the book is a full-page color image of Santa finishing his work decorating a tabletop Christmas tree, declaring, “There can be no complaints about this tree, surely!”  Beneath the tree are his latest deliveries, including a brand new bicycle (a pretty new-fangled vehicle in 1900), a toy drum, and an elegant rocking horse.  On the table are a set of toy blocks decorated with kittens, not unlike those sold by McLoughlin Brothers in their extensive toy line.  In this one image, supernatural wonder, winter beauty, and mass-produced consumerism all meld together, not unlike the sights, sounds, and expectations rendered in Wells’ poem.  This ABC is a playbook for what Christmas has been, and to a fair extent, what we want it to be.

You can see this delightful book in its entirety through the viewer below or in our image database!

[book id=’23’ /]

Published by

Laura Wasowicz

Curator of Children's Literature, American Antiquarian Society

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