Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
So begins Louisa May Alcott’s timeless classic Little Women, with a complaint that we all certainly can share. Fifteen-year-old Jo (Josephine) March and her sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy are seated around a snug little fire in their New England home, lamenting the gifts they will not receive for Christmas. Jo, an aspiring playwright, wants a new book. Thirteen-year-old Beth, a pianist, wants sheet music. Little Amy the artist hopes for drawing pencils. And Meg, at sixteen, the oldest and considered the prettiest, longs for a new dress.
These good-hearted girls wrestle with their disappointment. They know that their mother, Marmee, would give them these things if she could afford them and that the absence of their beloved Father, who is far from home, serving as a chaplain in the United States Army during the Civil War, is difficult for everyone. Generously, the girls decide that instead of receiving gifts, they will spend their hard-earned money on presents for Marmee. The arrival of a letter from Father confirms their good intentions. His warm greetings to his “little women,” as he affectionately calls them, are mixed with fatherly wisdom and advice:
Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.
Anxious to merit Father’s praise, the girls regret their recent pettiness and resolve to be even more selfless. The opportunity comes, when, on a snowy Christmas morning, they have a chance to help the mother of a newborn and her six hungry young children, who are living in a cold and fireless home. When Marmee and her daughters bring their own holiday breakfast to the poor family, the mother and her children call the Marches "angels." "That was a very happy breakfast," Alcott writes, "though they didn't get any of it." The March family's sacrifice leaves them with empty stomachs, but full hearts:
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.
Alcott’s tale, though told with simplicity, contains rich imagery appropriate for this time of year, when we too are filled with expectations and desires. Like Jo and her sisters, we anticipate our annual celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, with presents and parties, gifts and good food. And although, by today’s standards, the things the March sisters long for are simple, the same longing for things can encroach on our own hearts and distract us from what is truly important. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus came to make known to us the good news that there is another Father, who, like Father March, may seem far away, but in truth is always near us, a Father who, Jesus teaches, gives us “good gifts”—the Holy Spirit and eternal life (Matthew 7:11). The March sisters remind us of both the angels who greeted the birth of Jesus and also the shepherds who left their flocks to worship the newborn King. But the girls also display the love, self-denial, patience in suffering and sharing with those in need that recalls another group of “little women,” the Wise Virgins in the parable (Matthew 25:1–13), who trimmed their lamps and made themselves ready to greet the Bridegroom when he came. We celebrate Christmas because we await the moment when Jesus will come again. Let us prepare by being like Jo and her sisters, anxious to make our Heavenly Father proud of our good works and our love.
Little Women provides a model of the well-ordered Christian home, which is the bedrock of society and the first sphere of government. (Read Rosalie J. Slater's Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History, “Home-Government” pp. 23-27) When mothers and fathers faithfully educate their children to love of God and live virtuous lives, then our communities and nation flourishes. Little Women captures the heart of family living because Alcott’s view of the family is centered on Christian ideals and principles.
In this time of preparation for Christmas, what a wonderful way it is to strengthen the foundations of our own families and prepare to receive the infant Jesus by sharing with our families Little Women and learning its lessons of love, generosity, kindness and long-suffering.
To help you get started on reading Little Women with your family, purchase a copy in the FACE Bookstore, along with the Little Women Teacher Guide. Parents interested in establishing a home based on Christian principles will also enjoy Teaching and Learning America's Christian History, also available in the FACE Bookstore.