Category Archives: Christmas

Literary Gifts

Beezus helps her beloved Aunt Beatrice bring in packages from her cool car. Illustration by Louis Darling in Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona.

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?

–Angela

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…

Remembering Miss Melinda

Miss Melinda

Miss Melinda was a dear family friend. She passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago. It feels strange and sad to write about her in the past tense.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot.

There was always something glamorous about Miss Melinda. Everything about her was big and bold and bright. She had big hair, big eyeglasses, big jewelry, and big cursive handwriting. But it all worked perfectly for her, and was proportionate to her big, warm personality. Miss Melinda was always very put-together, very Southern, in her appearance and demeanor. She gave the impression of some kind of large, regal, maternal bird, one plumped and fluffed and coiffed and sitting tall on its nest, holding court and watching over everyone.

And Miss Melinda loved Christmas. She decorated every inch of her home with beautiful trees, ornaments, and lights. Her house was how I imagine a rabbit’s warren to be: long, low, and dim inside, and completely warm and snug. She had big, comfortable furniture and cozy circles of lamplight everywhere.

As a child, I remember being so impressed by the way Miss Melinda displayed a hardcover copy of The Polar Express as part of her Christmas decorations. It always stuck with me as a classy, creative thing to do. As an adult, I got my own copy of the book years ago with the same intention, but I always forget to set it out at Christmastime. I hope I remember to do so this December, as a little way to remember Miss Melinda.

It’s no surprise that Miss Melinda would decorate with books: She was a high school English teacher and she loved books and writing, especially all the classic young adult novels taught in school. As a kid, I always had a bit of a romantic, idealized view of Miss Melinda’s life, one with her spending her days reading and discussing good books, and then coming home at night to a cozy house and decadent meal, and then waking up the next day to do it all over again in another fabulous outfit. As an adult, I laugh at the idea of Miss Melinda living a life of ease. Being a teacher is hardly a cakewalk, plus Miss Melinda was raising two boys and often caring for seriously ill family members, including her mother and first husband.

But Miss Melinda always managed to keep it all together—her family, her home, her appearance, her thoughtfulness. She never arrived for a visit to our house empty-handed, and she never let you leave her house empty-handed. She always had gifts (books, journals), food, and a piece of décor (a potted poinsettia, a set of Christmas tree ornaments) to give.

But if you ever marveled at Miss Melinda’s prowess, or complimented her on her fabulous outfit, beautiful home, delicious cooking, or thoughtful gifts, she would just laugh with surprise and demur, with total self-deprecation. “Oh, Lordy,” I can just imagine her saying. “This poor deprived child doesn’t even know what she’s talking about, thinking that this is anything but a big ol’ mess.” Miss Melinda had a chuckle-y voice, with a kind of low, reverberating timbre, and she spoke with looooong, slow vowels and looooong, slow words.

And it’s funny the random things you will remember about a person. Miss Melinda once gave me a “Bridges of Madison County” book full of photographs of historic covered bridges in picturesque landscapes. (Why would a bridge be covered? To keep livestock from falling into the water? Ah—I just looked it up. The cover protects the structure from the weather and extends the bridge’s life.) It was an ambitious, flattering gift for a young girl, but I was not yet mature enough to appreciate it. And I remember that once Miss Melinda rented a house to a family of tenants and they completely destroyed the interior. The children drew on the walls and the family removed the wooden trim inside the house (baseboards, window and door frames) and burned them as firewood. Can you imagine?! And I remember that Miss Melinda always had the best party food, with every imaginable nibblet of every kind: cocktail meatballs in a tangy sauce, cheese straws, sugar cookies, etc. And I remember that once Miss Melinda’s storage shed of prized Christmas decorations caught fire and burned down, and she lost everything—her huge collection of beautiful decorations gathered over decades. She began to collect again, but she said it was harder to find things of same quality. I’m not sure if I would have the heart to start all over again, but Miss Melinda did.

I will miss and remember her.