I found a charming blog called A Lovely Inconsequence via Fiona Ferris’s How to Be Chic blog. Donna MacDonald is the writer behind A Lovely Inconsequence and she has a post or two that discusses how much fun it is to read about gift-giving in favorite old books.
I never thought about it, but I love those passages in books, too—the gifts that characters give or receive in different eras and places in the world.
In this post, MacDonald recalls the gifts that the March girls give their mother for Christmas in Little Women. Christmas falls during the Civil War, when their father is away at war, money is tight, and Marmee is exhausted after caring for a poor family in the neighborhood. The girls pool their modest savings and present Marmee with the best, most thoughtful gifts they can muster:
“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 just like you, dear! What will we get?” exclaimed Jo.
Everything 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 my pencils,” added Amy. [She later exchanges the small bottle for a larger one that uses all of her money.]
In turn, Marmee secretly places small devotional books (or maybe New Testament Bibles?) under the girls’ pillows on Christmas Eve, each bound in a different color: a green one for Meg, a crimson one for Jo, a dove-colored one for Beth, and a blue one for Amy.
I also love the gifts that Mary and Laura Ingalls receive in Little House on the Prairie, when their “bachelor” neighbor Mr. Edwards meets Santa Claus and brings gifts to the girls on Santa’s behalf.
I don’t have the book handy, but I think I remember the gifts each girl received: a peppermint stick, a shiny penny, a small cake made with prized white sugar, and a tin cup. The girls were so bedazzled and enchanted by the extravagant (!) gifts and Mr. Edwards’s encounter with the real Santa!
I also recently re-read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona, which I believe is set in 1950’s/1960’s Oregon, and I love the descriptions of Beezus’s gifts for her tenth birthday. At breakfast, Beezus finds “a new dress to wear to school” and some “birthday books,” including 202 Things to Do on a Rainy Afternoon. Her beloved young aunt comes for dinner and brings more surprises, including a cake from a fancy bakery (naughty little sister Ramona had ruined TWO homemade cakes earlier in the day):
Aunt Beatrice always brought such beautiful packages, wrapped in fancy paper and tied with big, fluffy bows.
“Oh, Aunt Beatrice,” exclaimed Beezus, as she opened her first package. It was a real grown-up sewing box. It had two sizes of scissors, a fat red pincushion that looked like a ripe strawberry, and a tape measure that pulled out a shiny box. When Beezus pushed the button the box, the tape measure snapped back inside. The box also had needles, pins, and a thimble. Beezus never wore a thimble, but she thought it would be nice to have one in case she ever wanted to use one.
I love the description of this sewing box. I imagine each item has its own special compartment and that Beezus will have so much fun arranging and re-arranging the items. I also love how wise, cool Aunt Beatrice thoughtfully gives such a sophisticated, flattering present to a growing girl.
In all of these examples, the author perfectly captures the character and spirit of the giver, the recipient, and the time and place in which they live—and so efficiently and charmingly. I love that. In fact, I think that would be a good thought exercise for creative writers: What gift would your character love to receive? What would your character give as a gift to another character?
Do you recall any favorite holidays or birthdays in your own life, or favorite gifts that you’ve received? Do you have any favorite gift-giving passages in books you’ve read?
P.S. When I was writing this post, I also thought about the Christmas gifts exchanged in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and the wonderful Christmas and birthday stories in the American Girl historical character books. Wouldn’t a literary Advent calendar be fun? Like, you read the Christmas passages from different books each day in December leading up to Christmas Day? Hmm…