Isabella’s Advice about Christmas Possibilities

For many years Isabella had an advice column in a popular Christian magazine in which she answered readers’ questions—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

While the commercialization of Christmas seems like a twenty-first century problem, this letter from a young woman shows it was a concern in Isabella’s lifetime, too.

Here is the letter:

I know that it is quite too late—or too early—to talk about Christmas, and yet that is just what I want to talk about, or, rather, I want you to.

Ought not something be done about all this Christmas business to give us a different state of things from that which now exists? Why, I know homes whose happiness is simply wrecked by this mania for giving costly presents that they cannot afford, and giving multitudes of them, at that!

But I need not tell you about these things; you know just how people go on.

What can be done? Ought the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts to be abolished? Won’t you tell us what you think?

—A Grown-up Sister

Here is Isabella’s reply:

I am going to draw from my own observations for my talk about Christmas.

I know a home where are father and mother, four daughters in various stages of growing up, a married son with his wife and baby, and two boys of high-school and grammar-school ages—a large family circle.

Illustration of heads and shoulders of family with older father and mother, two sons and four daughters of different ages.

There is not a wealthy nor hardly well-to-do member of this household. A good deal of management is required to meet the necessary monthly bills with anything like comfort. Yet they are, as a rule, a cheerful, happy family; busy from morning until night with school duties, household duties, and, on the part of the father and his eldest son, work that requires strength and brain-power.

This family has planned, whenever it is possible for them to do so, to spend three evenings of each week in the home circle, with music and pleasant talk, or with one reading aloud while the others sew, and mend disabled books and toys, and all sorts of things.

Old photo of family in parlor. Young girl plays piano. Beside her man stands playing guitar. a teen boy and young girl sit at a nearby table.

Popped corn and taffy, or apples and nuts, are occasional accompaniments of these pleasant evenings, and the cicle is often enlarged by the dropping in of a neighbor; those who have dropped in once, seeming eager to repeat the experience.

Old photo of mother father, adult daughter and teen son gathered around a piano.

Many enjoyable books—not only of the kind that leave a pleasant flavor, but help to strengthen an underlying purpose—have been read aloud in this circle, to the enjoyment of all and the lasting helpfulness of some. These evenings always close with a favorite hymn, the repeating of a choice Bible verse by each one present, and a good-night prayer, led by the father. All things considered, this is as wholesome and delightful a family circle as one could find among our American homes.

That is, until three or four weeks before Christmas. By that time the spirit of unrest steals into this home and gets possession, more or less, of almost every member of the family.

The social evenings are entirely broken up; no one has time for family life. As soon as possible after dinner, the girls retire to their own rooms to struggle with secret preparations.

1890s illustration of young woman sewing fabric on a sewing machine. Beside her one young woman holds up a length of fabric while a third cuts it.

The mother works rapidly and with nervous glances toward the door, and the quick hiding of something every few minutes, for she has countless interruptions. She frankly declines to be read to, owning herself too busy thinking and planning to listen.

The father, who himself looks over-tired, tries with poor success, after he has skimmed the daily news, to be interested in his paper; and yawns and wishes they could get to bed early, and knows they won’t.

The school boys, their study-hour over, look in, ask for the others, lounge about uneasily for a few minutes, whistle a little, their mother wishing, meantime, that they would go, for one of the “things” she is trying to make is for them; and they do, finally, take themselves elsewhere in search of “something to do.”

The young mother upstairs wrestles with an unusually wakeful and nervous baby, and explains wearily to the tired father that the child has acted all day as though his Christmas plans were going crooked, just as most of hers are. Somehow, even the baby has caught the spirit of Christmas unrest.

Illustration of head of a crying baby

Oh, the pity of it, that all this should be because the birthday of the Christ-child draws near!

Still, if the interrupted family gatherings and the pressure of a little extra work were all, these might cheerfully be borne for the sake of the greater good to come. But it is very far from being all. With unrest comes dissatisfaction in various lines.

One of the girls, who is a teacher, and whose duties in the school room press more heavily as the Christmas vacation nears, snatches minutes between times to join the throngs of Christmas shoppers and is jostled and bumped and pushed from counter to counter, and does not find the things she wants, and cannot afford to buy the things she sees, and is, by no means, sure any of the time just what she does want, only that she “must have something!”

Illustration of crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1895.

The second daughter, who is learning dressmaking and sews in a shop where they have the “Christmas rush” upon them in full force, has no time for shopping, and comes home after hours, ready only for rest, and shuts herself up and tries to sew on her attempts at pretty secrets; and hasn’t the material she needs, and cannot afford to buy it, and stains the ribbon she is struggling over with a few rebellious tears, and wishes that she could ever have anything that she wanted! And “what on earth is she going to give Aunt Melissa, anyway?” That girl has been heard to say that she wishes Christmas did not come but once in twenty years.

Old photo from about 1915 of a young woman hand-sewing. She is seated on a chair beside a window. Beside her is a table with a small sewing basket and a spool of thread.

I might continue the description, but I am only too sure that there is no need. You are all acquainted with homes where the true spirit of Christmas is all but lost in the pressure of added cares, and responsibilities, and expenses, and disappointments, and longings, and vain struggling, and over-wrought nerves, until there are hours when it becomes a dreaded thing, a nightmare, and ever increasing hopeless burden from which at any cost, some would escape.

Yet it is the anniversary of the coming of the King! The harbinger of peace and good will. Oh, the pity of it!

Now, what was the question? “Ought the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts be abolished?”

Oh, no, no! Abolish a good and beautiful and helpful custom because it has been warped and twisted into ugliness? A thousand times, no!

But it needs reformation. I am deeply interested in this problem, and I could fill this reply with quotes from those who are groaning under the burden. I think I know the remedies, if we could get them applied. If we could persuade all the dear people who have large hearts and many friends, with little time and less money, to begin their Christmas plans on the first, or, at the latest, the second day of the new year the problem would be largely solved.

Illustration about 1914 of boy and girl on city street carrying several packages as they pass stores and other shoppers.

I read last week in a daily city paper an account of a girl who was highly commended for putting aside a dollar of her earnings each week for a Christmas frolic. She said that when Christmas week came, she took her fifty dollars and went out and had a good time shopping. The writer of the article explained that she was a girl who earned eighteen dollars a week. She was living at home, but was “paying a dear price for her board, as every self-respecting girl whose father was poor would want to do.”

Illustration of woman and boy walking outside. Each carries a number of wrapped packages. Behind them an older man carries more.

Some definite sum set apart each week for Christmas plans by those who have an allowance or are wage earners, is, undoubtedly, an excellent solvent of part of the Christmas problem.

The next thing is to have plans. A little blank book for Christmas notes as they grow in one’s mind should be kept in a secret drawer, to be taken out on occasion. One can imagine its record growing after this manner:

“Jimmie’s heart is set on a mechanical register bank that will register as high as ten dollars.”

“An electric toaster would be nice for mother, if I don’t think of something better.”

“Father ought to have a larger-type Bible.”

“Aunt Carrie very much wants Holman Hunt’s picture of Christ to hang in the room where the girls meet.”

Painting of Jesus, holding a lantern in one hand. With the other he knocks on a long-unopened door around which weeds and brush are overgrown.
“The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt.

“Christmas Hints,” the book could be called, and it would make very interesting and helpful reading as the days passed. There could be pages set apart for the names of little trifles as they occur to mind or might be pretty for someone. It is a great relief when one starts out on Christmas shopping to have two or three entirely satisfactory alternatives, provided the first choice is not available.

Illustration from about 1910 of a woman seated in a chair. She is dressed in bonnet, cloak, and gloves. In one hand she holds a small book. In her other hand she holds a pencil up to her chin as she thinks about what to write.

Next: Wide open eyes, as one passes shop windows or takes a trolley ride to another town, or has a week’s vacation at the shore.

“There’s that very abalone pin that Emma admired so much, or one just like it!” exclaimed a friend of mine as we were viewing a shop window. “And it’s marked only one dollar. Isn’t it handsome? I mean to get it; I’ve been looking for one a long time.”

While she made her purchase the group of girls that I was chaperoning waited for her outside and discussed her. They wanted to know as soon as she appeared if her sister Emma was to have a gift of it then, for it certainly wasn’t her birthday.

“Oh, it isn’t for now,” said the shopper, showing her pin with great satisfaction. “This is to go into my locked box, against next Christmas.”

Illustration of pretty box with gold edging. Two small bird sit atop the lid, which is open and holly is arranged inside and outside the box.

There were shouts of laughter and exclamations. “Christmas! But this is only July.”

“Yes, my dear, but December will come here as sure as fate, and I shall be serenely ready for it, while you are hopping about upsetting yourselves and all your acquaintances. I’ve done quite a bit of my Christmas shopping already.”

I knew a dear girl whose leisure and play were scarce and who, on one January day, planned the very kind of dress that she would make for her mother ready for the next Christmas. In the early fall she chose her material, and two weeks before Christmas Day had the dress finished and folded ready for mother.

“Made it!” I hear you exclaim. “Then she was a dressmaker; I should as soon think of making a house as a dress!”

Illustration about 1915 of young woman with sewing machine. She is holding up two pieces of lacy fabric.

No, she was not. She was simply a clever daughter. She selected her fabric from samples and sent her measurements to a dress-making company; they sent the dress to her, cut and fitted, ready for plain sewing. The result was a satisfactory and useful dress that cost no more than the materials would have cost in any store. How did she know about such a system? She had been keeping her eyes open, watching out for ideas and opportunities.

1912 illustration of young woman sitting in chair. Her hands are clasped together in front of her and she is looking up, as if thinking about or remembering something.

When I began this article my chief desire was to say an earnest word against the growing habit of indiscriminate Christmas giving. The “commercial habit,” we might call it, is the spirit that says, “I must give Mrs. Blank something, I suppose, because she sent me a book last year; but I’m sure I don’t know what it will be; I don’t care enough for her to waste my money on her.” That is a quote I heard from the lips of a thoughtless girl.

A great deal of our Christmas trouble derives from the fact that we do not carry the real Christmas spirit into our giving. If all planning and all buying and all presenting were done as in his sight, and in his name, we should be held from extravagance of expenditure, from selfishness as regards time and strength, from anything that would mar the joy of the Christmas morning in the eyes of him whose love and sacrifice we celebrate.

What do you think of Isabella’s advice?

Do you think her advice would work today to help people feel less stressed about christmas?

Christmas Shopping with Isabella

Julia Ried (in Isabella’s novel of the same name) had ten dollars with which to purchase Christmas gifts for her family and friends.

She knew exactly what she wanted to give her mother, sister Sadie and brother Alfred for Christmas; and since this would be her first Christmas away from home, she even thought out how she would ship the gifts to her family:

I had packed them in imagination in a neat little box, and written the accompanying letter scores of times.

In our modern world, ten dollars doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but in 1873, when Julia Ried was published, those ten dollars went much further than they do today.

For example, Julia could purchase a set of six handkerchiefs to give to Sadie at a cost of only thirty cents:

And since a lady could never have enough handkerchiefs, Julia might instead have opted to give Sadie a dozen of them (with fancy colored borders) at a cost of just 48 cents:

Or, Julia might have purchased for Sadie a knitted cap and scarf set, since such sets were just as popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s as they are now.

For Alfred, Julia might have purchased a new shirt to wear to his job as a store clerk (or even two shirts at these prices):

This full-page newspaper ad from 1912 illustrates other affordable gifts Julia might have chosen for Alfred, from a sturdy pair of gloves to a warm sweater to a new cap (click on the image to see a larger version):

When it came to selecting a gift for her mother, Julia knew no ordinary gift would do. She wrote:

Dear mother, she seemed to think that her first and greatest duty in life was to toil for and spare her children. Patient, faithful, tender mother! Tonight, as I recall her sweet, pale, tired face, I can think of no frown of impatience or anger that ever marred its sweetness. I can think of nothing left undone, that she could do, to smooth the path in which her children trod.

Clearly a special gift was in order for Mrs. Ried. A very pretty sewing box, covered in a sturdy but lovely patterned fabric (called “cretonne”) might have been the perfect gift:

Or she might have chosen for her mother a lovely ladies’ hat pin to add some sparkle to her life:

All of these would have been thoughtful gifts for Julia to send home to her family; but …

If you have read the book, you know that that Julia succumbed to an entirely different temptation when it came to spending her ten dollars—a temptation that left her with no money to buy gifts she wanted to give her family!

As the characters in Isabella’s novels so often did, Julia Ried had to learn many lessons about the dangers of peer pressure and placing trust in the wrong person—lessons that are just as relevant today as they were in 1873.

What do you think of the Christmas gifts in these ads from the late 1800s/early 1900s?

Which gifts would you purchase to give loved ones?