When I was a Girl on New Year’s Day

In 1889 Isabella wrote this charming recollection from her childhood of a very special New Year’s Day:

I close my eyes and go back in fancy to that morning long, long ago. New Year’s morning when I was eight years old.

Cold! Oh, how cold it was! Great icicles hanging from the eaves, frost covering the window-panes, snow festooning the trees and hiding the ground, and the whole air a-tingle with the music of sleigh bells. How beautiful it all was.

Illustration of a winter day with bright sunshine and a wide avenue covered in snow. two horse-drawn sleighs full of people pass each other going opposite directions and the occupants ave at each other. Behind them are the outlines of multi-story buildings, trees without leaves, and a vivid blue sky.


Those frosted window panes, by the way, were a source of never-ending temptation to me. I wouldn’t like to have to try to recall the number of times my fingers had to be “snapped” for forgetting that I was on no account to indulge in my favorite amusement of making “thimble chains.” I don’t quite understand what the fascination was, or is, but to this day I find it almost impossible to pass a frosted window pane, with a thimble anywhere in sight, and not stop to make just a few of those magic chains in which my childhood delighted.

Illustration of the outside of a home's open window. Snow and frost cling to the panes and the wooden trim around the window. Sprigs of holly adorn the top of the window and the bottom corners. A red robin sits on the window ledge and peeks inside.


What a pity it seemed that the contact of my chubby fingers with the clear glass should soil it, and that my mother, whose artistic taste was not so highly cultivated as mine, would not permit the amusement.

On this particular New Year’s morning the frost was unusually thick, and my sister Mary’s thimble stood on the window-seat. It was father’s warning voice that saved me, just as I was about to make a marvelous chain, which should connect two lovely frost castles.

“Take care,” he said. “Think what a pity it would be if a certain stocking which I saw hanging in the chimney corner should have to hang there all day just because a little girl forgot.”

Illustration of a little girl wearing a red dress and brown pinafore, stockings and boots. In her hand she holds the pull string for a toy wooden toy cart on wheels. She stands beside a basket of plants at a window, where frost and snow flakes have covered the outside of the window.


I set the thimble down with an exclamation of dismay. What if I had forgotten again? Mother had decreed that the stocking, which I longed to examine, should remain untouched until after breakfast, because at Christmas time I had been so “crazy” over my presents as to be unable to eat any breakfast. For a small moment I had forgotten the stocking, though it had been on my mind all the morning, and but for father the mischief would have been done.

I went over to him to express my joy in his having saved me, and to ask him privately whether he really believed that breakfast would ever be ready and eaten and prayers be over, so I could have my stocking.

He laughed, and asked me if I supposed I would ever learn patience. “I suppose,” he said gravely, “that time will travel fast enough for you one of these days. I can remember when a week used to seem longer to me than a whole year does now.”

I exclaimed over that. I said I thought a year was a very long time indeed; that I was really almost discouraged with time, it went so slowly. I said it seemed to me that I had been waiting half a lifetime for this day to come.

He laughed again, said I was at the impatient age; then, looking serious, he repeated these lines:

“Eighteen hundred and forty-eight is now forever past: Eighteen hundred and forty-nine will fly away as fast.”

“Oh, dear me!” I said. “If it doesn’t fly faster than this has, I don’t know what I shall do. It does seem too long to wait for Christmases and New Year’s; I wish we could have two of them in a year.”

Instead of laughing at my folly, father evidently decided to give me something else to think about. He was sitting near the door of the kitchen, where my mother was at work. The kitchen walls were painted. “Mother,” he said, “may we write on the walls, since we mustn’t on the windows?”

“I should not think that would be a very great improvement on window-writing,” my mother said, but she smiled as she spoke. It was evident that it made a great difference with my mother whose plan was to be carried out; she never interfered with anything that my father chose to do. He selected from the box nearby a lovely pine board as smooth as a slate, and handed it to me.

“You may use that, and I’ll use the wall,” he said, “and we’ll see which can write our verse the quickest.”

I had been writing for two years, and prided myself on the speed and neatness of my work, but long before I had finished the lines they appeared on the wall.

“Eighteen hundred and forty-eight is now forever past: Eighteen hundred and forty-nine will fly away as fast.”

“Yes,” said my mother, pausing in her swift movements to glance at the couplet, “that it will. It has begun already; the first morning is flying too fast for me. Come to breakfast.”

I am a long while in reaching that waiting stocking, but that is to correspond with the length of time I had to wait. It seemed longer to me then than it does to look back upon it. At last the treasure was in my arms. What do you think it contained? A lovely dollie about as long as my hand, beautifully dressed, not like a fashionable lady ready for a party, but like a dear little home baby, in a long white slip frilled at the neck, precisely as my own baby slips used to be—indeed I learned after­wards that it was made from a piece of one of them. I cannot possibly make you understand, I presume, how precious that little creature was to me.

Illustration of little girl in red polka dot dress and red hair bow looking up at a stocking hanging from above. The stocking holds a sprig of holly, a long peppermint stick and a doll with short blonde hair and a red tunic over a white blouse.


I suppose you are imagining a wax doll with “real” hair, and lovely blue eyes and rosy cheeks? No, she was not made of anything so cold and hard as wax. She was a rag baby—limbs and face and all—made by my mother’s own dear hand, cut from a pattern which she herself had fashioned. What a work it must have been! I never realized it until a few years ago, when I tried to cut a pattern for a dollie for my little son.

This work was beautifully done. Black eyes, my baby had, and black hair, both made care­fully with pen and ink! Red checks, she had, too, and lovely rosy lips. Will you love her the less, I wonder, when I confess to you that these were made with beet juice?

Illustration of a little girl in 1910 attire of dress, pinafore, stockings and boots. She is holding a doll dressed in white cap and long white dress and wrapped in a blue blanket.


Oh, but she was a darling! Much the most carefully made dollie I had ever owned. Here­tofore I had been content with mother’s little shawl, or her long clean apron rolled up and pinned; now I had a dollie for which clothes had been made not only, but arms and feet; and actually her dress was not sewed on her, but unbuttoned and came off, and a neat little night-gown went on.

Never was I happier in my life than when I made this last crowning discovery.

I named her—you could not guess what, so I’ll tell you at once—Arathusa Angeline, and I thought the name was lovely.

“Take good care of her,” said my father, looking on with a smile of infinite sympathy, “there’s no telling what may happen to her, you know, before ‘eighteen hundred and forty-nine’ has flown away.”

Illustration of a little girl holding a doll looking out a frosty window.


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?