Christmas in Wartime: & a Famous Opening Line

Every December on the blog I feature Xmas scenes and Xmas books. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page. Today’s is one I’m surprised I’ve never done before.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

published 1886

Wartime Little Women

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t,” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

“But I don’t think the little we should spend would do any good. We’ve each got a dollar, and the army wouldn’t be much helped by our giving that.”

Wartime Little Women 2

commentary: This is surely one of the most famous opening lines, and most famous Christmas line, and I’m just surprised I’ve never done it before as a Christmas book. And it was finding the pictures above that made me construct this entry. The top one is from Harper’s Weekly, and is called Santa Claus in Camp according to the Library of Congress – it’s from January 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War. As soon as I saw it I thought of Mr March doing his bit – he’s a chaplain rather than a soldier.

The second picture is from a different magazine in 1873, and the caption (again, Library of Congress) reads ‘New York City - rich and poor; or, the two Christmas dinners - a scene in Washington Market, sketched from real life’. Of course the Alcott books are set elsewhere (Concord, Mass) but the idea of this reminded me that the girls are going to give up their Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummel family…making a connection between the two families that will last. Incidentally in the 3rd book of the sequence, Little Men,  featured on the blog at Thanksgiving, there is a Nursey Hummel working at Jo’s school for boys, whom one can only assume to be one of the original family.

Endless more Louisa May Alcott all over the blog – click on the links below – she got a real going-over at the beginning of this year, after a new TV adaptation was shown over Christmas here in the UK.


  1. Oh, those lines bring back so many memories, Moira! It really is a famous opening scene. And I spent many happy hours with the March family. I'm awfully glad you included this one in your December feature.

    1. I know! for some of us they are Christmas and Little Women rolled into one. When my daughter was young I bought her her own copy (rather than just lending her my well-loved very old one) and then was instantly on at her after two pages: 'are you liking it? Isn't it great? Those opening lines, I can just recite them to you.' And I did, and she looked weirdly at me, and said 'that's not here in the book.' And I found to my horror that I had accidentally bought an abridged, simplified version, and they didn't even keep the opening lines! Was v shocked and had to get the proper one immediately. Little Women does NOT need simplifying!

  2. When I read those first lines of Little Women recently, I thought I might read this book for next Christmas. I just have to remember that now.

    1. Oh that is a good idea Tracy, and although the book covers several years, it is always a Christmas-y book.

  3. Moira: The heading to your post prompted me to look to Christmas poems from WW I where soldiers wrote powerful poetry. An Australian soldier, Leslie George Rub, wrote an irreverent, even sarcastic Christmas poem:

    Christmas Day On The Somme

    ’Twas Christmas Day on the Somme
    The men stood on parade,
    The snow laid six feet on the ground
    Twas twenty in the shade.

    Up spoke the Captain ‘gallant man’,
    "Just hear what I’ve to say,
    You may not have remembered that
    Today is Christmas Day."

    "The General has expressed a wish
    This day may be observed,
    Today you will only work eight hours,
    A rest that’s well deserved.

    I hope you’ll keep yourselves quite clean
    And smart and spruce and nice,
    The stream is frozen hard
    But a pick will break the ice."

    "All men will get two biscuits each,
    I’m sure you’re tired of bread,
    I’m sorry there’s no turkey
    but there’s Bully Beef instead.

    The puddings plum have not arrived
    But they are on their way,
    I’ll guarantee they’ll be in time
    To eat next Christmas Day."

    "You’re parcels would have been in time
    But I regret to say
    The vessel which conveyed them was
    Torpedoed on the way.

    The Quartermaster’s got your rum
    But you may get some yet,
    Each man will be presented with
    A Woodbine Cigarette."

    "The Huns have caught us in the rear
    And painted France all red,
    Pray do not let that trouble you,
    Tomorrow you’ll be dead.

    Now ere you go I wish you all
    This season of good cheer,
    A very happy Christmas and
    A prosperous New Year."

    Sadly he was killed in the fall of 1917.

    1. What an extraordinary poem, Bill, thanks so much for sharing it with us. I had never heard of it before, so very much of its time and yet sadly still relevant...


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