“The book, the dear, enlivening, enchanting, stimulating, informing, uplifting book, is the most faithful of all allies, and, after human friendship, the chief solace as well as the most inspiring influence in human life.”Kate Douglas Wiggin
What a dear book this is! The Birds’ Christmas Carol is about a family who stays cheerful, strong, industrious and generous, even amid sad circumstances that require constant sacrifice.
One reason I picked this up was because I was familiar with the author, who is best known for her book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Another reason was because I thought this book had to do with feathered friends! I imagined a delightful story about birds singing in snow-covered pines during the holiday season. But actually it is about a girl named Carol born on Christmas Day into a family with the last name of Bird.
From childhood, little Carol had a sparkling personality, always finding ways to share whatever she had, help other people, compliment them and encourage them. When her brother wondered aloud why she wouldn’t take a bite of food until she’d given some of it away, their mother said, “She is a little Christmas child, and so she has a tiny share of the blessedest birthday the world ever saw!”
As she’d grown older, Carol had “wished everybody a Merry Christmas before it was light in the morning, and lent everyone her new toys before noon.”
She had never been physically strong, and by age 10 she was a helpless invalid, yet that didn’t dampen her spirits. Since she had to spend all of her time in her room, her father renovated it so that it was a conservatory full of windows.
She had the company of birds in cages, and hundreds of books which Carol turned into her own circulating library. Every Saturday she loaned ten books to the children’s hospital, and the patients who read her books would write letters to her to thank her.
In warm-weather Carol had a “window school” where she read to the poor neighbors next door, the Ruggles. She was so contented she called herself a “Bird of Paradise”.
Carol wrote a magazine article about living in her own room for three years, and what she did to amuse herself. With the money she earned from the article, she decided to treat the nine Ruggles children to something they had never before experienced: a grand Christmas dinner—in her own room! She paid for the food and decorations, a Christmas tree and presents.
According to my book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol was first published in 1895. However, on further research, I discovered that it was originally published privately in 1886 by the American author, and copyright in 1888 by Houghton, Mifflin Company, U.S.
My copy of this little 72-page book was published by A. & C. Black Ltd., London, in 1929, and illustrated by Francis E. Hiley, an extremely prolific and popular self-taught artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When I read the inscription, I thought, “Auntie Kate Douglas Wiggin? Did the author give the copy I am holding in my hand to her nieces?” But that isn’t possible, as the author had been born in 1856 and died in 1923.
According to her autobiography, Wiggin described her childhood as happy. But at the age of 9, her country grieved over the death of Abraham Lincoln. She described this event as her “first conscious recognition of the greatness of individual character.” It no doubt helped her form fictional children and adults in her books who developed great character struggling with tragedies.
Another influence was undoubtedly the books she read. Her favorite author was Charles Dickens, and she also read Harper’s Magazine and Littell’s Living Age, the Bible, and the most popular great novels of the era.
She dedicated this book “To all lovers of little children”, which clearly included the author. In 1878 at the age of 22—before marrying Samuel Wiggin—Kate Douglas Smith headed the Silver Street Kindergarten in San Francisco—the first free kindergarten on the West Coast of the United States. She is also credited with leading the kindergarten education movement in the United States. In fact, she wrote this little book and another, The Story of Patsy, to help fund the California Kindergarten Training School, which she helped establish.
Translated into several other languages, The Birds’ Christmas Carol sold over a million copies and remains in print. This little book was so successful, it allowed Kate Wiggin to become a full-time author and to travel extensively in Europe.
I found it interesting when I read references to the toys of that era: “So Donald took his velocipede and went out to ride up and down the stone pavement, and notch the shins of innocent children as they passed by, while Paul spun his musical top on the front steps.” A velocipede is one of the earliest forms of bicycles for children and adults—without pedals—and the musical top is a classic toy available even today.
“The Birds’ Christmas Carol is the most famous of all American Christmas stories; here, if anywhere in the collection, we have Victorian tearfulness; but age has its privileges, and Americans have wept too often over this tale to decline to weep once again.”editor Edward Wagenknecht in The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories
You can read this illustrated book online for free at Gutenberg.org.
I was delighted to discover many more delightful works by this author. One short piece, written about a surprise meeting at the age of 6 with her beloved Charles Dickens, is a must-read, here.
There are 48 of her books and short stories at Gutenberg.org, available in many formats, including the work that sold more copies than any other book (other than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Birds’ Christmas Carol), Mother Carey’s Chickens.
Also at Gutenberg.org are two more Christmas stories by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin: The Romance of a Christmas Card and The Old Peabody Pew.
And Happy New Year!