recess radio program

12/24/03
The Bird's Christmas Carol
    by Rita Smith

In an article in the New York Times, critic Perri Klass, suggests that Victorian fiction in both England and America "drew some of its punch from the juxta- position of poverty and privilege, from the sufferings endured by children in the midst of plenty. Christmas," he notes, "provided an ideal setting for such contrast, and also a not-to-be missed opportunity to demonstrate the power of charity especially holiday charity."1 Some well known examples of this literature are A Christmas Carol and The Little Match Girl. A now forgotten example, is Kate Douglas Wiggin's children's story, "The Birds' Christmas Carol", published in 1887.

A girl is born on Christmas day to a family named Bird. She is given the name Carol, because, shortly after her birth, her mother hears a beautiful Christmas carol drifting through the bedroom window from the church next door. Carol is a lovely, perfect child. "Her cheeks and lips were as red as holly berries" Wiggins writes, "her hair was for...the color of a Christmas candle-flame; her eyes were bright as stars;...and her tiny hands forever outstretched in giving."2

At five years of age Carol's health begins to mysteriously decline and by age 10 she is an invalid. Her wealthy parents give her everything: a beautiful room with large windows, illuminated pictures, clothes, toys, games, plants and books. A poverty stricken family of nine children, named Ruggles, lives in a small house across the back alley and Carol decides she wants to give the Ruggles children a "grand Christmas dinner" in her room, followed by lots of presents. This celebra- tion takes place on Carol's 10th birthday and is a huge success. After the party, Carol's Uncle Jack takes the children home and secretly vows, "If anything happens to Carol, I will take the Ruggleses under my wing." Carol, through her angelic nature, has made all those around her better human beings; it is time for her to depart this earth. The notes of the same Christmas carol that her mother heard at her birth waft through the air again, bringing tears to many eyes, but not to Carol's for her heart has ceased to beat. It is a highly sentimental story, filled with elements of pathos and coming to a predictable conclusion. The fact that it is set during the festive holiday season adds power and poignancy to the narrative. Klass suggests that "the very lavishness of the holiday season, as celebrated in 19th century fiction, demanded certain elements of pathos for contrast, for poignancy, for moral justification. In a season marked by the indulgence and gratification of children, poor children, as objects of charity could... allow themselves to be helped and thereby [allow] their wealthy benefactors to enjoy holiday excess with a free conscience. Ill children, suffering bravely, could remind readers of their own good fortune. And dying children, the ultimate angels, could bless the holiday season"3,as they transition into a higher state of being in a place of everlasting peace.

Notes:

1 Klass, p. 7.
2 Wiggin, p. 6-7.
3 Klass, p. 30.

Sources:

Klass, Perri, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Or, The Little Match Girl Syndrome," in The New York Times Book Review, December 2, 1990, p. 7, 30.

Wiggin, Kate Douglas. The Bird's Christmas Carol, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892.

Copyright 2003 Rita Smith

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