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  • Writer's pictureSusan Stoderl

Three Turtledoves and a Partridge | Louisa May Alcott and Christmas

Little Women, a Christmas Story, of Louisa May Alcott
Little Women, Middle-Grade and YA fiction by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott, (November 29, 1832—March 5, 1888) was an American author of many children's books, in particular Little Women.

In the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” the turtledoves and a partridge were given as a gift by a young man to show his love for a young girl. I am using this analogy to describe the gifts of Christmas that Louisa May Alcott gave to the world through her Christmas writings.

The first turtledove she gave was living her life as a Christian—one which was defined by deeply caring about suffering all around her, and not standing in judgment of others. That “Christian Duty” seems to be relegated to Aunt March. Through her writing for children, Alcott exposed readers to human suffering and poverty who had little first-hand experience of it. Take for instance the Hummel family—a fatherless German immigrant family who live in a run-down shack where the Marches often helped with contributions of food or firewood for heat. For those who would refer to the Hummels as “lazy, dirty immigrants,” she showed them desperate human beings unable to help themselves from circumstances out of their control heaped upon them. Loving your neighbor is one of the first tenets of Christianity.

In the second chapter, "Merry Christmas," Mrs. March rushes in the front door while her daughters are waiting for her to come home for Christmas breakfast. She bursts in asking them to donate their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, who have no heat and nothing to eat. The Marches get ready and leave for the Hummels, bearing food, clothes, and firewood.

Fortunately. it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the queer party.

It is shocking to read that this behavior would embarrass those acquaintances and relatives.

They seal up the leaks in the windows, start a bright fire and see everyone fed. They left knowing that they had performed a minor Christmas miracle. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning. “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.

The second turtledove which Louisa gives her readers embodies the love of her family and her unwavering responsibility to them. In Chapter 15, "A Telegram," Jo enters the house bearing her contribution to her mother’s trip to care for her war-injured father. She lays down $25.00, an immense sum for that time.

"That's my contribution toward making Father comfortable and bringing him home!" "My dear, where did you get it? Twenty–five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven't done anything rash?" "No, it's mine honestly. I didn't beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don't think you'll blame me, for I only sold what was my own." As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

A woman’s hair was her pride and joy, so Jo had just given her greatest offering which would bring her embarrassment and shame. But it didn’t. She might be self-conscious, but it was how she could love her family.

Those who had children and the children themselves received turtledove three. Over and over, Alcott shows that being without all the creature comforts you feel you deserve falls short when compared to wanting a father and very ill beloved sister to survive.

In Chapter 17, "Little Faithful," self-absorption overcomes the March girls after fulfilling their duty during the first week their mother is gone to take care of their father. When Jo gets a cold, she just can’t take care of Aunt March, so she stays home lying around reading. Amy replaces her housework with art and sculpting. Meg reads the news and writes her mother long letters. Only Beth keeps fulfilling her duties, and in addition, picks up the other’s slack. The exhausting work of caring for the Hummels for which she received no compensation to contribute to the family welfare, besides picking up the added housework of her sisters, likely contributed to her coming down with scarlet fever, even though she had already had it.

Once her illness is discovered, Hannah sends for the doctor. He and the housekeeper believe it will be a light case. Amy, who has never had scarlet fever, is forced to go to live with Aunt March because someone must care for her, and Amy needs to be away from the infected house. Amy believes this to be an unbearable fate. However, this will soon prove to be a very minor concern.

The housekeeper, Hannah, and Dr. Brag keep all but Jo in the dark about Beth’s illness. Jo, who is caring for Beth, realizes the disease is quickly progressing. But Hannah does not want to further worry Marmee while she is taking care of their father. The situation becomes more grave when a letter arrives saying their father has taken a turn for the worse.

The first of December was a wintry day indeed to them, for a bitter wind blew, snow fell fast, and the year seemed to get ready for its death. When Dr. Bangs came that morning, he looked long at Beth, held the hot hand in both his own for a minute, and laid it gently down, saying, in a low voice to Hannah, “If Mrs. March can leave her husband she’d better be sent for.”

In some traditions, the partridge in a pear tree represents the baby Jesus being born on the first day of Christmas. The partridge Alcott offers her readers is the hope Christmas offers. It comes each year regardless of what is happening. As Christmas appears in the darkest, coldest part of the year, the light once again brightens, and perhaps the reason for the title of Chapter 22, “The Pleasant Meadows.” Another miracle is about to occur—Mr. March returns home, albeit still very weak.

Mr. March became invisible in the embrace of four pairs of loving arms. Jo disgraced herself by nearly fainting away, and had to be doctored by Laurie in the china closet. Mr. Brooke kissed Meg entirely by mistake, as he somewhat incoherently explained. And Amy, the dignified, tumbled over a stool, and never stopping to get up, hugged and cried over her father’s boots most touchingly. Mrs. March was the first to recover herself, and held up her hand with a warning, “Hush! Remember Beth.” But it was too late. The study door flew open, the little red wrapper appeared on the threshold, joy put strength into the feeble limbs, and Beth ran straight into her father’s arms.

In that last sentence, we learn why Christmas appeared so frequently in Louisa May Alcott’s writing. Out of great darkness, which she well knew, a light is born—that of love for all humanity, as established in the last line of that quote.

Never mind what happened just after that, for the full hearts overflowed, washing away the bitterness of the past and leaving only the sweetness of the present.
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