Dear Louisa May Alcott,
It is the custom of many families to compose and send holiday letters, some of them freestanding, others tucked inside greeting cards decorated with sleighs, stars, and holly.
Sometimes printed on red or green paper, single-spaced, thick with content, sometimes with photos, seemingly all the news from the year about to pass is shared: births and graduations, engagements, weddings, deaths. Trips to the beach. Hurricanes and tornados. Sentiments about luck and grace and carrying on. I personally enjoy receiving them, catching a glimpse of the lives of people who I seldom see, or people I only know about incompletely.
I have done the same once or twice.
It has also become the custom (or at least an intermittent one) to write and read a letter from this pulpit to an important Christmas figure on this Sunday before December 25th. Mary or Joseph for example. The three wise men. The infant Jesus himself. Asking questions or sharing insights gained through their part in this old and enduring story.
This year, given my choice, I picked you.
After all, for millions of girls around the world, the first line of part one, chapter one of your uber-famous 19th century novel Little Women: Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug is like sacred scripture, the opening of a portrait of an impoverished but lively and remarkably resilient quartet of American girls growing up in New England in the depths of the Civil War.
As one literary critic has observed, many readers have fantasized about being tomboy Jo, a few about being motherly Meg; or Beth, the shy and perfect one; or Amy, the prettiest, the most vain, the artist.
In fact, there has seldom been an instance when I have mentioned this book in the company of other females when I haven’t been asked which of the girls I had wanted to be. Not which I most admired or which I most identified with. No, which of the four March girls had I wished I was after I put the book down at eight years old, which is the very first time I read it, in the form of a quickly dog-eared, pink-covered, easy reading Junior Classic. Racing straight through it, loving every word.
And then read and re-read throughout my childhood — and beyond. Ever propelled to find out whether each of these girls would, despite the hardships that family endured, find their dreams. Marry their men, have their babies, make their music, do their art, write their books. I was captivated over and over again. And I swear I had no idea at the time that this most beloved book was written by a born Unitarian.
Ms. Alcott, I cannot tell you how many times I was asked whether I wanted to be Jo the cosmetically indifferent, strong-minded, literary March girl who dreamed of being a famous author and scribbled her little stories and plays in the garret of that simple house in Concord, Massachusetts.
But the truth is that as a girl I didn’t want to cast my lot with a carelessly dressed young woman with a quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit, as close to home as that description might have hit.
Dear Louisa, I really wanted, desperately wanted, to be dear sweet Beth, the March daughter who becomes ill after caring for those needy neighbor children and tragically dies before she can even consider getting into any unladylike trouble at all.
The perfect child.
This notion of the ever perfect child immortalized especially in the character of Beth March, children who never needed to be taught or reminded about selflessness because they were already utterly inherently unselfish by nature is another deeply engraved American Christmas myth borrowed from European Romantic philosophy, imported by our own Unitarian forebears like Margaret Fuller, and especially your own father, Bronson Alcott.
The historical verdict about your father is quite mixed now, Louisa. Some contemporary writers have pointed out while in Little Women, the daughters spent much of the novel eagerly awaiting the return of their father from war duties, according to Susan Cheever in the latest biography about you, throughout your life your father was often missing in action in terms of supporting you and your mother and three sisters, finding it hard to keep a job, moving 29 times in as many years, putting your family through a failed Utopian community experiment, where you nearly froze and starved.
This biographer has gone so far as describing you as a deliberately impoverished and abused child whose father prodded and bullied, commanded and occasionally rescued you, letting you know what was wrong with you and telling you what to do while accepting the financial support you provided him by the writing of moral tales and melodramas.
And while, like many educational theorists who have found their own children hard to manage, your father held to the idealistic Transcendentalist views of the close knit community you grew up in, your childhood was peopled with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who believed in communing with God through nature, elevating the mind or “self-culture,” and in your father’s case avoiding all forms of oppression. For your father this also included avoiding the purchase of cotton, coffee, and spices produced and distributed through slave labor. It meant not “stealing milk” from cows for milk for you and the other children who lived communally. It meant not spreading animal manure to fertilize the barren soil.
Your father, by many accounts, went even further than most of the Transcendentalists he alternately irritated and influenced. (It is said that Emerson subsidized your father’s writing, which was famously unreadable, by leaving money behind when he visited, stuck in sofa cushions or under a candlestick in that small run-down cottage that you so romanticized in fiction.)
Bronson, sometimes called the most transcendent of all Transcendentalists, was convinced that not only were children born with inherent spirituality and intuition — an immediate knowing — he was certain that they were born righteous, born knowing right from wrong, born unselfish, born good. Born with the capacity and willingness to give up their Christmas goodies, as the sisters did in Little Women that harsh winter, and as Beth did her health and young life, to tend the needy and the sick.
Your father, and those who came to teach with him in his highly controversial Temple School, while believing that all children were precious, perfect, and moral from birth on, also saw life as a disciplined moral and spiritual journey to overcome the material passions and appetites that come with living in the world, a Pilgrim’s progress that needed internal discipline and the gentle, patient, external guidance of teachers and mentors, beginning with parents.
Thus, for you and your real sisters, Louisa, the posted order of interior duties in your family’s cottage, meant to be carried out (quote) with prompt, cheerful, unquestioning obedience.
One writer said about your family that character was everything in the Alcott household. That you and your sisters were encouraged to speak about your feelings and aspirations, not with the purpose that these thoughts and feelings be “indulged” but that in the name of moral education they be molded and directed toward “vigorous actions.” That you were expected to be courageous, loyal, kind, and sweet-tempered.
Add that to the prevailing (and still underlying) Unitarian Christian heritage that surrounded you in the New England of your time — the belief in “salvation by character,” an achievement dependent on deeds not creeds within a society where, as one writer put it, God helps those who help themselves.
So the important Christmas message to you and your sisters, which you carried on in your own writing — since you never married or had children of your own — was even as children to adopt the character, follow the teachings of Jesus. To change your ways and become more Christ-like by the day.
No surprise then that your Christmas stories, now all in one place in a handsome collection, are earnest and instructive, filled with little homilies on accepting suffering, becoming more cheerful and self-controlling, awakening to our “better selves.” Stories like A Hospital Christmas, where the patients made do with a few skinny turkeys and six very small pies, and one humble but well-chosen little gift apiece, and where they were gently lectured that “the day on which the most perfect life began,” is a good day for making ourselves readier to follow that divine example.
Stories of hardship, lessons about goodness and happy endings, stories where children at least temporarily trade their own comfort for that of others less fortunate, where grown-ups are helped but are also expected to help themselves. Characters like the servant Patty, an orphan girl in The Quiet Little Woman, who is shown compassion by one member of a family who have abandoned her Christmas Day, but who is also counted on to patiently and cheerfully accept her lot and find what contentment she could in her circumstances.
Like you did Louisa, when you had to accept the charity of others when your own father failed you, yet even as a young woman knowing that you also had to seek exhausting, even dangerous work as a nurse, scribbling stock stories in the cold of night to earn your way in the world.
Louisa, we have spoken from this pulpit in years past how we UUs, Transcendentalists and otherwise, have somewhat ironically been responsible in large part — for good or ill — of much of the standard American Christmas sensibility and traditions. The first American Christmas tree, some of our most beloved American carols, including It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and the most familiar English-language translation of O Holy Night.
Along with these, the Transcendentalist/Unitarian notion of born-perfect children rewarded for their continued moral goodness at Christmas time, and the particular yuletide responsibility of those with money to be directly charitable to those less fortunate.
That in a society with sharp differences between the rich or even comfortable and those who labored for them, there was at least a one-time-a-year obligation to have some contact, in the form of gifts, with those less privileged.
Dear Louisa, your writing, and in fact your life, in part reflected just this, just what your sister-writer Harriet Beecher Stowe described as “the sick, sated and tired prosperous folk” who alleviated their malaise by finding people who had not been “overstuffed with presents,” people, as she wrote, who could be counted upon instead to be grateful for the smallest trifles. A supply of what she unfortunately called “unsophisticated” subjects to practice on. In other words, the poor.
There’s some of this in the chapter in Little Women, when the four girls and their mother go off to give their gifts and breakfast to the more down-in-luck family in their neighborhood, forgetting their own disappointment with an uncharacteristically meager family Christmas, with their father and wage earner away on the battlefield, as they see the appreciative faces of the chronically deprived.
So it was then and so it can be now, a disconcertingly mixed moral bag, this annual acutely Unitarian holiday practice of charity. Salvation by sometimes very conspicuous deeds.
Listen to the newspaper account of 1875 of a Christmas pilgrimage to New York’s Randall Island — home to institutions for the mentally ill and the poor — by a well-heeled and/or prestigious delegation, including you, dear Louisa.
You had by that time become a celebrity of sorts, a literary star. According to the account, you and your party first visited the municipal orphanage, then the children’s hospital, and finally the home for retarded children. At each stop, one newspaper reported, you mingled with the little ones, giving each a doll and some candy, accompanying each gift with some kind greeting.
You were very moved by the experience, as a lengthy letter to your family indicated. You were, you wrote, entranced by the children’s gratitude, the sudden “cries of delight,” the “outstretched hands,” the “cheers of rapture.” You noted this was the very first Christmas you had spent without a family dinner or presents. But you observed that you felt you had had a “splendid feast, seeing the poor babies wallow in turkey soup” and that every gift you put in their hands came back to you in the dumb delight of their un-childlike faces trying to smile.
Ouch. There is something, my beloved Ms. Alcott, disturbingly naïve and patronizing about your relationship with the people you encountered on Randall Island, the objects of your, I am certain, well-meaning benevolence.
And yet, in fairness to you, at the same time your sense of obligation to poor people did not end at Christmas.
And while you expected people to raise themselves to an ever-higher standard of behavior, and believed that virtue was its own rewards, you could see the larger issues of social injustice as well.
As the daughter of one of Boston’s first social workers, you were — as were your Unitarian peers of the time — involved in ongoing work with those in need through community settlement houses and in the radical Christian social gospel movement, which looked at deeper and more basic issues like safe and humane workplaces and fair wages.
I see all this in you, Louisa, and that helps me understand who you were and your legacy to us.
So as we move toward Christmas Day, the coming of hope and peace within each one of us, let’s celebrate our thoroughly Unitarian Christmas, trim our Unitarian trees, sing our Unitarian carols. Let’s practice our Unitarian charity, tempered with self-awareness and discernment as to whether it is patronizing or respectful. Let’s look also for the precious perfection of our children, journeying with them, keeping it alive.
Louisa, you believed that the path from self to selflessness is the path to happiness. All who follow it, you told us, may experience the joy of Christmas.
May it be so this day.
Your faithful and devoted literary fan,