Making Christmas Bright

Isabella Alden knew all about the Christmas shopping season. She had a large extended family, and she either bought or made gifts for each family member.

Her niece, author Grace Livingston Hill, recalled what it was like when the Aldens, Livingstons, and Macdonalds got together:

Our Christmases were happy, thrilling times. There were many presents, nearly all of them quite inexpensive, most of them home-made, occupying spare time for weeks beforehand; occasionally a luxury, but more often a necessity; not any of the expensive nothings that spell Christmas for most people today.

Isabella—being a clever and creative person—made many of the gifts she gave.

Sometimes she got gift-making ideas from magazines. She subscribed to The Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s Bazar, both of which regularly printed directions for making items to use or give as gifts. Sometimes she passed those ideas and directions on to her own readers.

For example, an 1898 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal published instructions for making this pretty wall pocket:

Drawing of a wall pocket made of a long board or cardboard. At one end is a ribbon so it can be hung vertically on the wall. Spaced evenly down the board are three fabric pockets decorated with different trims.

Isabella liked the idea so much, she wrote simplified instructions that children could follow and printed them in an issue of The Pansy magazine. She told her readers how to make the wall pocket from pine board, calico, buttons, and felt, and hinted it would make a lovely gift “for mamma.” She wrote:

I get the idea and most of the details from Harper’s Bazar. The article from which they are taken says the contrivance is for an invalid, but let me assure you that mamma will like it very much, or, for the matter of that, papa also.

At Christmas she encouraged boys and girls to make gifts not only for family members and friends, but for strangers, too. She wrote this to readers of The Pansy magazine:

How many Pansies are planning the Christmas gifts they will make? In all the merry bustle and happy, loving thoughts, don’t forget to throw a bit of kindly cheer into those poor little lives darkened by distress and want.

If every member of The Pansy Society would make some little gift as a loving reminder to one who otherwise would have none, how many children, think you, would be made happy?

Remember, you do it “For Jesus’ sake.”

There were instructions for making this simple knitting bag, made of fabric, ribbon, and embroidery hoops:

Illustration of a cloth bag made with hoops for handles.

And this case, made from pieces of cardboard and colored ribbons, to hold photos, greeting cards, or pictures cut from magazines.

Drawing of a "case for Christmas cards." Made of square cardboard, it has a photo pasted in the center. It is bound on the left with pieces of ribbon and tied on the right to keep it closed.

She wrote:

What a delightful present that will be when you get it done! I can imagine an ingenious girl and boy putting their heads together, and making many variations which would be a comfort to the fortunate owner.

Isabella always knew how to give those gentle reminders that children (and adults!) sometimes need about the true spirit of Christmas.

Isabella Alden quote: Remember the poor always, but especially at Christmas. It is the kind of giving which our Lord, the Gift of gifts, would most approve.

What is your favorite way to share the message of Christmas with people in need?

Have you ever made a Christmas gift for someone? How was it received?

High Spirits and Halloween

Today we think of Halloween as a children’s holiday, but in Isabella’s lifetime, celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve focused primarily on teens and adults.

Hay rides, parties, and church socials gave single men and women a chance to mix and mingle and, perhaps, meet the special someone they would eventually marry.

Under the watchful eye of trusted chaperones guests played traditional games that centered around romance and love, fate and fortune.

That was exactly the kind of party Sarah Thompson wanted to attend in By Way of the Wilderness.

As a young school teacher Sarah dedicated her life to educating the children in her small town. Although she very much wanted to attend the Halloween party, she found herself forgotten by her neighbors:

They grew to admiring Sarah, being proud of her, boasting of her among themselves, and letting her alone. The first time they seemed actually to forget to invite her to a Halloween frolic, she cried a little. She had not been to any of the neighborhood gatherings for months, she had been so busy; but to be forgotten!

Why was the party so important to Sarah? Perhaps it was because she had fallen in love with Wayne Pierson, the story’s protagonist. The games that were played at Halloween parties in 1900 (when the book was published) might have helped her figure out if Wayne felt the same way about her.

One of the games that might have been played was a variation of bobbing for apples, where the names of the party-goers were scratched into apples before they were placed in separate tubs of water (boys’ names in one tub; girls’ in the other). The apple each guest caught—without using their hands, of course—would name his or her true love.

Sometimes they hung an apple from the ceiling or door frame, and balanced it with a lighted candle. The first person to catch the apple in their mouth (without getting singed by the flame!) would be the first to marry.

In another traditional game a young woman who wanted to know her future husband’s name had to be handy with a knife.

If she could peel an apple or orange in a single, long, winding strip and toss it over her shoulder, the peel would land on the floor in the form of the initial of the man she was to marry.

Players also used walnuts to guess the names of their spouse to be. After writing the names of the guests on walnuts, each person took turns throwing two walnuts into the fire. The walnut shell that cracked first from the heat signified the name of the person they’d marry.

When it came time to serve refreshments, party guests gathered to slice the Halloween cake, which was baked with charms in it. A guest who got a slice of cake with a coin in it could expect a life of wealth; a key meant travel; and a doll meant children. Of course, a ring found in a slice of cake always meant marriage.

Another game was “Bowls of Fate,” where three bowls were filled with colored water: red for good fortune, blue for a trip across the water, and clear for an upcoming honor. Blindfolded guests took turns dipping a hand in one of the bowls (which were rearranged after each person) to learn what their future held.

In other games, mirrors and candles served as props. One variation was for women with strong wills; they walked down the cellar steps backward, with a mouthful of salt, a candle in one hand, and a mirror in the other. If she performed the ritual correctly, the young woman should see the image of her future husband over her shoulder in the glass.

In a variation, at the stroke of midnight a young woman or man had to go to their bedroom with a candle and mirror. If they held both objects correctly and at the right angle, they would see the face of the person they’d marry.

With so many traditional games to play on Halloween, it was no wonder Sarah Thompson was disappointed to realize she would not be attending any Halloween parties.

If you’d like to know if Wayne Pierson ever returned Sarah’s love, you can read By Way of the Wilderness by clicking here. No candles or mirrors required!

Have you ever bobbed for apples or played a variation of any of these Halloween games?

Fathers’ Day

When she was growing up, Isabella was very close to her father. She was twenty-nine years old when he passed away; and throughout her life she remained mindful of the many ways her father set an example for her to live by.

Wise Isabella once wrote this about fathers:

Children like to imitate father. If we are God’s children, let us imitate our Heavenly Father.

On this coming Sunday we wish a happy and blessed Fathers’ Day to dads everywhere!

What To Do with Christmas Cards?

In a February 1883 issue of The Pansy magazine, Isabella turned an average question—What shall we do with Christmas cards we receive?—into a lesson for children in being thoughtful of others.

What Shall We Do with Our Christmas Cards?

All those bright pretty affairs that came flying in from the postman’s fingers at Christmas time to make us so happy—why can’t we make them give happiness to someone else the whole year? Someone sick and suffering, with little to brighten and amuse? Why, they would be very messengers of sweet charity to such.

Here is work for you, dear little Pansies who belong to the “P. S. Society.” Make a scrap book of all those cards which you think it right to give away, saying your whisper motto, For Jesus’ Sake, as you tuck in the dainty bit of color, and the pretty verses, then send it all on loving wing to the Children’s Ward of the hospital of your city.

Think of the eyes that will rest on it when the pain makes the tears come; think of the little ones who must lie on their beds, weary day after weary day, when you are running, and skating, and sleigh-riding!

And best of all, think how the children will love the book, just because some other child made it for them.

How many members of the “P. S.” will do this? Who will be first, I wonder?

If you want to make a very pretty book, cut leaves of white, and pink, and light blue cambric or sateen; tie them together at back with ribbon or braid, putting strings of same on front.

An 1869 home-made cloth scrapbook (from Worthpoint.com).

Paste all dark pictures on the white cloth; all delicately tinted ones on the colored cloth. The effect will be very lovely—I know the “Children’s Ward” will think so.

A cloth scrapbook from the 1860s (from RubyLane.com).

You can learn more about the “P.S. Society” and the “whisper motto, “For Jesus’ Sake” by clicking here.

Do you send and receive Christmas cards each year?

What creative things have you done with them once the holiday is over?