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“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
Little Women opens with these iconic words as the four March sisters sit around dwindling candlelight on Christmas Eve, mourning the temporary poverty that had descended upon their family.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel has many facets. It is a coming of age novel charting the sisters’ transformation from Little Women to Good Wives (the second volume of the book). But it is also a veiled Christmas story: the first volume begins and ends in Christmas bringing the story full circle. While Charles Dickens had already established Victorian Christmas ideals across the ocean through his works such as A Christmas Carol, I believe Louisa May Alcott created a literary prototype for a quintessentially American Christmas in Massachusetts.
The unique glimpse Alcott grants us into the American Christmas scene during the Civil War is more relevant now than ever. In light of the series of unfortunate incidents- the pandemic and the political instability this year – I knew Little Women was THE book I needed to re-read. There is something so utterly endearing about the quaint old-world charm Alcott invokes. The genuine sentimentality that she encourages in the March household is a breath of fresh air for contemporary audiences who have been caught up in the whirlwind of consumerist frenzy in the name of Christmas of today.
In the opening scene of the book, Meg, the oldest sister says: “It’s going to be a hard winter for everyone. We ought not to spend money for pleasure when our men are suffering so in the army.” More empathetic words could have not been spoken. And when I first encountered them during my re-read, I could not help but think how the holidays this year would have a hint of hollowness to them. How could one celebrate heartily when so many loved ones have been lost? And so many more humans are caught suffering amidst disease and oppression? I had turned to fiction for escape, but it ironically gave me the bold reality check I needed.
But all is not somber in Little Women. The girls, with their father at war, navigate through genteel poverty with utmost resilience. Ultimately, like in most Christmas literature, there is a strong instinct to console audiences with an image of simpler times- with the reminder that we really need in life are not material things but people we hold close to us. Whilst the girls discuss their Christmas wishes, Beth innocently says: “All I want this Christmas is for the war to end so that father could return home”. The idea of family and friends as the greatest blessing, though cliché, is also preserved through other Christmas movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life. It is an essential reminder we need right now.
It is of course not to say that the obsession with the haves and the have nots of life is not a concern in Little Women– the Marches are not by any means ascetic or denouncing of the pleasures in life. Jo, the second sister and the protagonist, invests in her literary ambition of becoming a writer. Though the family’s recent loss of fortune pulls them down, they eventually turn to each other for comfort. For entertainment, since “necessity is the mother of invention”, in Alcott’s own words, “they made whatever they needed”, the “girls put their wits to work” and “read stories to each other”.
Whilst the initial impression of the book and of the Marches’ realm of domesticity may seem old school and even a bit restrictive, a feminist re-reading encouraged me to see past the façade created by Alcott to appeal to her contemporary audience. The Marches live in a close-knit matriarchy, presided over by the mama matriarch of the family, Marmee. The female-dominated universe is perhaps the strongest reassurance in the book. Marmee is a fierce feminist who stresses the importance of education and moral character rather than outward appearances. The oldest March sisters work in order to support the family.
The book completely overturns the idea of the need for a male breadwinner in the house… even in the 1860s. Jo also reconciles with conventional expectations such as marriage only after pursuing her career as a writer. Though the book was relegated to the peripheries of the American canon, it has recently been revived through feminist analysis.
But the March sisters are not only self-sufficient, they are also plausibly generous.
On Christmas morning, upon the realization that their neighbors are starving, the sisters give their own scarce resources and food. Their cozy home lacks many luxuries, but when their neighbor Laurie (who eventually marries Amy) looks through the window he sees ample, which is lacking in his own affluent world. He says: “It always looks so idyllic, when I look down and see you through the parlor window in the evenings,” he says. “It’s like the window is a frame and you’re all part of a perfect picture.” Ironically, on the other side of the window, the March sisters peek into his home wondering what it would be like to live with so many luxuries.
I guess there’s that age-old notion of the grass being greener on the other side. Each looks out of the window and sees a facade of perfection through their limited visual scope. The days of looking into our neighbors’ windows might be behind us. But today, we have social media that is our window into people’s lives. We always want what we don’t have and cherish what others do.
Such are the timeless lessons from Little Women, that resonate with contemporary audiences, Christmas or otherwise. The sentiments of gratitude, generosity, compassion, and love present the story as the most authentic portrait of holiday festivity. Considering this year has been as turbulent a time as the Civil War era in which the book was set, I recommend reading this book to learn how to celebrate a grateful, albeit humble and understated Christmas – Christmas a la Alcott.
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