The Little Women’s Christmas by Louisa May Alcott
Published in 1868 and set in New England during the Civil War, Little Women
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father, and mother, and each other, anyhow,” said Beth, contentedly, from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it’s going to be a hard winter for every one; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t,” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
“But I don’t think the little we should spend would do any good. We’ve each got a dollar, and the army wouldn’t be much helped by our giving that. I agree not to expect anything from mother or you, but I do want to buy Undine and Sintram for myself; I’ve wanted it
“I planned to spend mine in new music,” said Beth, with a little sigh, which no one heard but the hearth brush and kettleholder.
“I shall get a nice box of Faber’s drawing pencils; I really need them,” said Amy, decidedly.
“Mother didn’t say anything about our money, and she won’t wish us to give up everything. Let’s each buy what we want, and have a little fun; I’m sure we grub hard enough to earn it,” cried Jo, examining the heels of her boots in a gentlemanly manner.
“I know I do—teaching those dreadful children nearly all day, when I’m longing to enjoy myself at home,” began Meg, in the complaining tone again.
“You don’t have half such a hard time as I do,” said Jo. “How would you like to be shut up for hours with a nervous, fussy old lady, who keeps you trotting, is never satisfied, and worries you till you’re ready to fly out of the window or box her ears?”
“It’s naughty to fret, but I do think washing dishes and keeping things tidy is the worst work in the world. It makes me cross; and my hands get so stiff, I can’t practice good a bit.” And Beth looked at her rough hands with a sigh that any one could hear that time.
“I don’t believe any of you suffer as I do,” cried Amy; “for you don’t have to go to school with impertinent girls, who plague you if you don’t know your lessons, and laugh at your dresses, and label your father if he isn’t rich, and insult you when your nose isn’t nice.”
“If you mean libel I’d say so, and not talk about
“I know what I mean, and you needn’t be ‘statirical’ about it. It’s proper to use good words, and improve your vocabilary,” returned Amy, with dignity.
“Don’t peck at one another, children,” said Meg.
It was a comfortable old room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture was plain, for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded it.
Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty. Fifteen-year-old Jo was tall, thin and brown, and reminded one of a colt; for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. Elizabeth—or Beth, as every one called her—was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen. Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least.
The clock struck six; and, having swept up the hearth, Beth put a pair of slippers down to warm. Somehow the sight of the old shoes had a good effect upon the girls, for Mother was coming, and every one brightened to welcome her.
“They are quite worn out; Marmee must have a new pair.”
“I thought I’d get her some with my dollar,” said Beth.
“No, I shall!” cried Amy.
“I’m the oldest,” began Meg, but Jo cut in with a decided—“I’m the man of the family, now Papa is away, and I shall provide the slippers, for he told me to take special care of Mother while he was gone.”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said Beth; “let’s each get her something for Christmas, and not get anything for ourselves.”
“That’s like you, dear! What will we get?” exclaimed Jo.
Every one thought soberly for a minute; then Meg announced, as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, “I shall give her a nice pair of gloves.”
“Army shoes, best to be had,” cried Jo.
“Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed,” said Beth.
“I’ll get a little bottle of Cologne; she likes it, and it won’t cost much, so I’ll have some left to buy something for me,” added Amy.
“How will we give the things?” asked Meg.
“Put ’em on the table, and bring her in and see her open the bundles,” answered Jo.
“Well, dearies, how have you got on today?” said a cheery voice at the door. “There was so much to do, getting the boxes ready to go tomorrow, that I didn’t come home to dinner. Has any one called, Beth? How is your cold, Meg? Jo, you look tired to death. Come and kiss me, baby.”
While making these maternal inquiries Mrs. March got her wet things off, her hot slippers on, and sitting down in the easy chair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table; Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, overturning, and clattering everything she touched; Beth trotted to and fro between parlor and kitchen, quiet and busy; while Amy gave directions to every one, as she sat with her hands folded.
As they gathered about the table, Mrs. March said, with a particularly happy face, “I’ve got a treat for you after supper.”
A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine. Beth clapped her hands, regardless of the hot biscuit she held and Jo tossed up her napkin, crying, “A letter! A letter! Three cheers for Father!”
“Yes, a nice long letter. He is well, and thinks he shall get through the cold season better than we feared. He sends all sorts of loving wishes for Christmas, and an especial message to our girls,” said Mrs. March, patting her pocket as if she had got a treasure there.
“Hurry up, and get done. Don’t stop to quirk your little finger, and prink over your plate, Amy,” cried Jo, choking in her tea, and dropping her bread, butter side down, on the carpet, in her haste to get at the treat.
Beth ate no more, but crept away, to sit in her shadowy corner and brood over the delight to come, till the others were ready.
“I think it was so splendid in Father to go as a chaplain when he was too old to be drafted, and not strong enough for a soldier,” said Meg warmly.
“When will he come home, Marmee?” asked Beth, with a little quiver in her voice.
“Not for many months, dear, unless he is sick. He will stay and do his work faithfully as long as he can, and we won’t ask for him back a minute sooner than he can be spared. Now come and hear the letter.”
They all drew to the fire, Mother in the big chair with Beth at her feet, Meg and Amy perched on either arm of the chair, and Jo leaning on the back, where no one would see any sign of emotion if the letter should happen to be touching.
Very few letters were written in those hard times that were not touching, especially those which fathers sent home. In this one little was said of the hardships endured, the dangers faced, or the homesickness conquered; it was a cheerful, hopeful letter, full of lively descriptions of camp life, marches, and military news; and only at the end did the writer’s heart overflow with fatherly love and longing for the little girls at home.
“Give them all my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”
Everybody sniffed when they came to that part; Jo wasn’t ashamed of the great tear that dropped off the end of her nose, and Amy never minded the rumpling of her curls as she hid her face on her mother’s shoulder and sobbed out, “I am a selfish pig! But I’ll truly try to be better, so he mayn’t be disappointed in me by and by.”
“We all will!” cried Meg. “I think too much of my looks, and hate to work, but won’t any more, if I can help it.”
“I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman,’ and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else,” said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South.
Beth said nothing, but wiped away her tears with the blue army-sock, and began to knit with all her might, losing no time in doing the duty that lay nearest her, while she resolved in her quiet little soul to be all that Father hoped to find her when the year brought round the happy coming home.
Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was so crammed with goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise, and slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going the long journey. She woke Meg with a “Merry Christmas,” and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke, to rummage and find their little books also—one dove-colored, the other blue; and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the East grew rosy with the coming day.
“Girls,” said Meg, seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little night-capped ones in the room beyond, “mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once. We used to be faithful about it; but since Father went away, and all this war trouble unsettled us, we have neglected many things. You can do as you please; but I shall keep my book on the table here, and read a little every morning as soon as I wake, for I know it will do me good, and help me through the day.”
Then she opened 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.
“How good Meg is! Come, Amy, let’s do as they do. I’ll help you with the hard words, and they’ll explain things if we don’t understand,” whispered Beth, very impressed by the pretty books and her sister’s example.
“I’m glad mine is blue,” said Amy; and then the rooms were very still while the pages were softly turned, and the winter sunshine crept in to touch the bright heads and serious faces with a Christmas greeting.
“Where is Mother?” asked Meg as she and Jo ran down to thank her for their gifts, half an hour later.
“Goodness only knows. Some poor creeter come a-beggin’, and your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes, and firin’,” replied Hannah, who had lived with the family since Meg was born, and was considered by them all more as a friend than a servant.
“She will be back soon, I guess; so do your cakes, and have everything ready,” said Meg, looking over the presents which were collected in a basket and kept under the sofa, ready to be produced at the proper time. “Why, where is Amy’s bottle of Cologne?” she added, as the little flask did not appear.
“She took it out a minute ago, and went off with it to put a ribbon on it, or some such notion,” replied Jo, dancing about the room to take the first stiffness off the new army-slippers.
“How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,” said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.
“Bless the child, she’s gone and put ‘Mother’ on them instead of ‘M. March’; how funny!” cried Jo, taking up one.
“Isn’t it right? I thought it was better to do it so because Meg’s initials are ‘M. M.’ and I don’t want any one to use these but Marmee,” said Beth, looking troubled.
“It’s all right, dear, and a very pretty idea; quite sensible, too, for no one can ever mistake them now. It will please her very much, I know,” said Meg, with a frown for Jo, and a smile for Beth.
‘There’s Mother; hide the basket, quick!” cried Jo, as a door slammed, and steps sounded in the hall.
Amy came in hastily, and looked rather abashed when she saw her sisters all waiting for her.
“Where have you been, and what are you hiding behind you?” asked Meg, surprised to see, by her hood and cloak, that lazy Amy had been out so early.
“Don’t laugh at me, Jo. I didn’t mean any one should know till the time came. I only meant to change the little bottle for a big one, and I gave all my money to get it, and I’m truly trying not to be selfish any more.”
As she spoke, Amy showed the handsome flask which replaced the cheap one; and looked so earnest and humble in her little effort to forget herself, that Meg hugged her on the spot, and Jo pronounced her “a trump,” while Beth ran to the window, and picked her finest rose to ornament the stately bottle.
“You see, I felt ashamed of my present, after reading and talking about being good this morning, so I ran round the corner and changed it the minute I was up; and I’m glad, for mine is the handsomest now.”
Another bang of the street-door sent the basket under the sofa, and the girls to the table eager for breakfast.
“Merry Christmas, Marmee! Lots of them! Thank you for our books; we read some, and mean to every day,” they cried in chorus.
“Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little new-born baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there; and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?”
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke; only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, “I’m so glad you came before we began!”
“May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?” asked Beth, eagerly.
“I shall take the cream and the muffins,” added Amy, heroically giving up the articles she most liked.
Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread into one big plate.
“I thought you’d do it,” said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied. “You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinner-time.”
They were soon ready, and the procession set out. Fortunately it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the funny party.
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!” cried the poor woman, crying for joy.
“Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them 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 shawl. Mrs. March gave the mother tea and gruel, and comforted her with promises of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if it had been her own. The girls, meantime, spread the table, set 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!” “
“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 and so sweet to remember long afterward.
Beth nestled up to her mother, and whispered softly, “I’m afraid Father isn’t having such a merry Christmas as we are.”
Born in Pennsylvania, Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) lived much of her life in Concord, Massachusetts, a center of literary talent that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. She based the four sisters of