Friday, December 14, 2012

Louisa May Alcott’s Peek at the Dawning of an American Christmas

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”  With those words Louisa May Alcott began the much beloved children’s novel, Little Women.

Louisa Alcott laid her classic tale during the 1860’s Civil War.  In fact, the story is essentially autobiographical and describes Louisa’s own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840’s.  The real reason for the poverty in her home was that her beloved father, Bronson Alcott, was a starry eyed idealist and dreamer who could not make a living as a school master – not that he was away at war.  Bronson Alcott was a protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson who had invited the family to a home next door to his own in Concord.
Emerson, known as the Sage of Concord, was at the center of Transcendentalism, an American literary and religious movement related to the German and British Romantics with an overlay of personal mysticism borrowed from a first exposure to Hindu religious texts.   Directly or indirectly Emerson subsidized the Alcott family and kept them from starvation.   Young Louisa idolized Emerson and visited him frequently in his home.  The wealthy Mr. Lawrence, who becomes the March family benefactor in Little Women, was modeled on Emerson, although he was much younger when Louisa was a girl than the man depicted as Mr. Lawrence.

In Louisa’s novel, by the time the first chapter is over, Jo and her sisters have received a heartwarming lesson in the true meaning of Christmas from their mother, Marmee.  Marmee convinces the girls to gather up the delicacies of their holiday table, very special in this home mired in genteel poverty, and bring them to the hovel of an ill and starving woman and her children.
Many readers will be less surprised by the character of this story, than by the revelation that Alcott in Little Women was among the first in American literature to depict a middle-class family celebrating Christmas day.

The early Puritans who settled New England despised Christmas for being PapistCatholic—on the one hand and pagan on the other.  In old England Christmas had devolved into debauchery, drunkenness and street revelry so, these early Americans banned Christmas celebrations by law.

Thanksgiving, held late in November after the crops were harvested and the snow had fallen, became the New Englanders’ big holiday, not Christmas.  Even after authorities allowed private Christmas observances in homes, they required businesses to stay open and children to attend school on Christmas day.  Most people who valued the respect of the community abstained from celebrating, even privately.

By about the turn of the 19th Century, more folks, and even respectable Congregational Church people, had begun to chafe at the rigid restrictions of Puritanism.   German Romanticism had begun its “warmth-of-heart” influence.  Within the Standing Order of the established Congregationalist Churches two groups began to emerge.  Some congregations split off and became Unitarian.  The Unitarians in particular and the Transcendentalists who emerged from them in particular warmed to Christmas celebrations.  Whatever the causes, people began to change their attitudes about the holiday.  By the time Louisa was a girl, celebrating Christmas had become a social norm.

Charles Follen, a poet and Unitarian minister, who was also a Harvard professor and an immigrant from Germany, had introduced the first Christmas tree to New England in 1832.   The custom caught on.  And he was a friend of Louisa’s family.  Although Follen died in 1840, at 44 years old when Louisa was just 8, he so impressed her that Louisa modeled the love of Jo Marsh’s life, Professor Bhaer, on Follen.

Besides mentioning the greenery and Christmas tree, Alcott made a passing reference to the children hanging their stockings and even to a visit from Santa Claus.    The Dutch settlers of New York had brought their celebration of St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaus, with them.  An Anglo-New Yorker named Clement Clark Moore had written a poem about St. Nick visiting a home on Christmas Eve that was first published in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823.  By the 1830s this poem circulated widely.

Christmas in Louisa’s time, at least in New England, had become a sentimental, family holiday centered on children and was little connected to the religious celebration of Christ’s birth.  Most New England Churches still did not offer worship services on that day.

Christmas celebrations in the later 19th Century began to be centered more on the birth of Christ with the widespread introduction of crèche scenes and religious carols emerging through large influxes of Catholic and Lutheran immigrants of that period — people who had never had a Puritan interregnum and for whom Christmas had always been a religious festival. 

Christmas has continued to evolve in the 20th and 21st Centuries and to evolve in many different directions, some patently contradictory to others.  Movements to “Put Christ back in Christmas” and the alleged “War on Christmas” are symbolic of just one divide.  And we have those who both enjoy and those who decry its “commercialism.”  Our ongoing multi-ethnic, multi-national, and multi-faith evolution has caused some to embrace the variety of Festivals of Light common at this time of year in many cultures. Others see that as a threat to their cherished traditions —traditions in many cases not much older than their great grandparents.

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