“Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” from Anne of Green Gables (1908)
“Christmas at Red Butte” (1909)
“The End of the Young Family Feud” (1907)
“Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” (c. 1903)
“The Osbornes’ Christmas” (1903)
As December marched quickly on this year, I didn’t expect that I would have time to read anything seasonal this year, but on Christmas day I found myself with some spare time and my copy of Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories at hand. The volume is one of several collections of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories edited by Rea Wilmshurst in the late 80s to early 90s. Most of the stories had been originally published in various newsletters or magazines, although in this collection, given the “Anne” theme, several episodes are chapters selected from the Anne books. I only read the first five this year, which allows me to save the rest for future Christmases.
There is something about Montgomery’s work that I always find delightful. A lightness, I suppose, or a feeling at the end of each tale that everything will be alright—a marked contrast to her own difficult adult life. However, unlike the Louisa May Alcott Christmas stories I wrote about last year, I didn’t feel that they contained the saccharine quality that I had difficulty swallowing—a story may travel from despair to hope, but always as the result of making-do or of a benefactor already in play, not an unexpected and sudden reward for the mere virtue of doing good. That is, the stories felt realistic rather than mere fairy-tale. None of them were the same either—”The Osbornes’ Christmas” was not a tale of a family wishing they could receive Christmas despite the odds, but rather of a family that was so well-off they could no longer appreciate what they did have, and “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” was a story of making a Christmas while snowed in on a train.
The first story, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” is not actually a free-standing short story, but is pulled from Anne of Green Gables. As such, it works best in context of the book, but as a fan of Anne, I could read it over and over again with or without the remainder of the novel. It is such a lovely chapter depicting gentle Matthew and his determination to do something special for Anne, even though this means an attempt to overcome his overwhelming shyness.
“Christmas at Red Butte” is perhaps the most similar to the Alcott stories: a mother is in despair because she cannot afford to give her children Christmas. But where in Alcott a surprise benefactor might arrive, here the niece who makes a great sacrifice to let her cousins have some Christmas joy. Where Alcott speaks of Christmas miracles, Montgomery champions sacrificial giving, a message that sits more easily with me. Finally, “The End of the Young Family Feud” tells what I find seems to be a typical Montgomery story: an old family argument and stubborn pride overcome by a mistake and/or a plucky young woman, and the discovery that the prickly old man is rather nice after all.
One realization as I read these: while I may have decided a few months back while reading Year of Wonders that I am not as much of a fan of historical fiction as I thought, I truly love reading old fiction where the time-frame is from within the author’s memory. Throughout these stories there are little details included that readers of the time would have thought nothing of, but which help provide a fuller—and more accurate—image of the past for the reader one hundred years later. In “The Osbornes’ Christmas,” Montgomery tells us “…Frank and Darby had stoned all the raisins…”, an activity that would never had occurred to me as necessary in this day of convenient store-bought, seed-free raisins, but doubtless Montgomery’s original readers would have known this chore themselves, or have observed others complete it. A writer from today would likely need to complete extensive research to discover this tidbit, and likely would have not inserted it so naturally into the narrative in the concern of ensuring the reader’s complete understanding. I can’t even imagine anyone using that phrasing! And this is only one small instance, one little detail. I’m sure if I paid better attention to my reading of old fiction, I could find many such instances of detail or description that would better illustrate the world of the past for me. A challenge for my future reads! And how lovely to know that I have more of these stories to look forward to next year.