Sunday, December 10, 2023

Christmas Every Day

William Dean Howells (1837–1920)
From American Christmas Stories

“The police told them to shovel their presents off from the sidewalk.” Illustration for “Christmas Every Day” by Mildred Howells (1873-1966) in The Howells Story Book (1900).
In the year 1900, William Dean Howells agreed to take over the dormant “Easy Chair” column that the editors of Harper's Monthly hoped to resurrect “in its old place in the rear of the magazine.” From 1863 until his death in 1892, George William Curtis had been responsible for the feature. Although Howells was himself quite famous and highly respected by critics and readers, he knew the bar had been set high by his predecessor.

In his first column, Howells imagined taking Curtis’s old easy chair out of storage. Awakened from its eight-year slumber, the chair begins to speak and remembers the last article Curtis had written, which was about the spirit of the holidays: “You cannot buy Christmas at the shops, and a sign of friendly sympathy costs little. . . . Should not the extravagance of Christmas cause every honest man and woman practically to protest by refusing to yield to the extravagance?”

“That was Curtis!” the chair exclaims. “The kind and reasonable mood, the righteous conscience incarnate in the studied art, the charming literary allusion for the sake of the unliterary lesson, the genial philosophy, . . . the wisdom alike of the closet and the public square, the large patience and the undying hopefulness! Do you think that you are fit to take his place?” The chair then challenges Howells, “What good can you find to say of Christmas?”

At first, Howells is stymied, because “in his heart he was sick of Christmas” and its excesses: the sentimental stories, the gifts, the “heavy Christmas dinners and indigestion,” and all the rest. But he responds that “for the young to whom these things are new, and for the poor to whom they are rare, Christmas and Christmasing are sources of perennial happiness. All that you have to do is to guard yourself from growing rich and from growing old, and then the delight of Christmas is yours forever.” After a while, Howells notices that the chair has nodded off, and he instructs the warehouse agent to return it to storage, quietly adding, “Don’t wake it.”

“The Second Christmas Morning.” One of five
illustrations by 12-year-old Mildred Howells for
the first appearance of “Christmas Every Day”
in St. Nicholas magazine.
Fourteen years earlier, in 1886, Howells had published “Christmas Every Day,” his first work written especially for children. The story combined his cynicism about the excesses of Christmas with his love for his three children and their innocent yet perceptive wonder. It appeared first in St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, with five hand-drawn illustrations by an unidentified “little girl.” The young artist was in fact his 12-year-old daughter, Mildred, who grew up to become a moderately successful watercolorist and book illustrator. In 1900, Mildred provided the illustrations for The Howells Story Book, a selection of the best pieces that her father had written for children, and she used the opportunity to include a far more polished drawing for his Christmas story (reproduced above).

Howells continued to publish children’s stories after the appearance of “Christmas Every Day”; over the next six years he published four tales in the Harper’s Young People magazine and gathered them in the 1892 collection Christmas Every Day and Other Stories Told for Children, the most successful of his books for young readers. He also wrote many holiday items; during the 1880s and 1890s, he published a series of farcical one-act plays, many of which were set at Christmas and appeared in the annual Christmas number of various magazines. “They began to be acted everywhere within a week or two of their publication,” the novelist Booth Tarkington recalled, “and a college boy of the late ’eighties and golden ’nineties came home at Christmas to be either in the audience at a Howells farce or in the cast that gave it.” Howells also wrote half a dozen moderately absurd Christmas allegories for Harper’s over the same period.

Ironically, Howells did not think much of most works of holiday fiction, which he regarded as pale, formulaic successors to Charles Dickens’s Christmas tales and which had become, he wrote despairingly, a “whole school of unrealities so ghastly that one can hardly recall without a shudder those sentimentalities at secondhand to which holiday literature was abandoned.” On the other hand, he respected the “new” children’s literature by the likes of Mark Twain and J. M. Barrie, written to be enjoyed by adults. “The new school of briefer fictionists, who have done so much that is of fresh truth and novel impulse in other sorts, have got rather a new turn in the heart of childhood,” he wrote in the preface for an anthology of children’s stories. “Children like to be taken seriously, and though grown-up people cannot take them quite so seriously as children would like, yet the loving irony of these writers is such as the children would not easily find them out in.”

When Howells died in 1920, he was lauded for his career as an editor, critic, and novelist, and the titles most singled out from among his more than 100 books were The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Hazard of New Fortunes, A Modern Instance, and A Foregone Conclusion—often in that order. Few notices mentioned his works for children. In the century since, Howells’s star has diminished; he has become one of those authors occasionally and deservedly “rediscovered” in the pages of literary periodicals. Released into the public domain several decades ago, “Christmas Every Day” has inspired some two dozen film and television productions, from Groundhog Day to Elmo Saves Christmas to “Donald Duck: Stuck on Christmas.” The critics of Howells’s day—and almost certainly Howells himself—would have been dismayed if they been told that his little Christmas story first published in 1886 in a magazine for children would become, a century after his death, what is almost certainly the most widely read of all his works.

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The little girl came into her papa’s study, as she always did Saturday morning before breakfast, and asked for a story. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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