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Christmas Lessons from Little Women

It seems like the perfect time for this post, for a number of reasons:

1. The very first word in the book is “Christmas”.
2. It shows a completely different kind of celebration to the excessively commercialised one we’re used to.
3. “My sisters and I remember that winter”… when we first saw Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, as the winter in which watching this film became a new festive tradition. Which is why…
4.   …we are VERY excited about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation, out in cinemas on Christmas Day in the US, and Boxing Day in the UK!

I loved reading about the March sisters while I was growing up, although many readers find Louisa May Alcott’s writing too preachy or just not to their taste. While I get that, I also think there are a lot of things in Little Women that are still relevant, both to us as individuals and as a society today.

With the year drawing to an end, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of those things, as we take stock of the past year and re-centre ourselves for the year ahead.

1.       RESOLUTIONS: make them next-level
I know, we normally make resolutions in the New Year. In Little Women, however, we see the sisters evaluating their shortcomings and resolving to improve them at Christmastime. Most of us nowadays might make goal-oriented resolutions focused on physical habits or attainments – “I’m going to quit smoking / get fit / read 2 books a month / run a marathon / lose X amount of weight” – which is fine…But I believe we have lost the real art of resolution-making, which is to address the flaws in our own characters. How many of us resolve to be kinder, be better listeners, gossip less, control our tempers, and so on? There’s nothing wrong with having those habit- and goal-oriented resolutions, but in a world where communication is global and instant, we shouldn’t forget that there’s always room for improving our character-traits, especially how we behave in relation to other people. 

Image courtesy of Project Gutenberg
2. RESILIENCE or RESCUE? We need both.
Once we’ve made our resolutions, how are we going to make sure we stick to them? What’s going to keep us going when we lose motivation? We can only get so far on our own. The March girls have their faith, and Marmee gives each of them a copy of the New Testament as a Christmas gift. Meg says she intends to read a little every day because “it will do me good, and help me through the day”. Modern readers might have a mixture of similar or other strategies, and these are just as crucial, whether it’s a pep talk from a mentor, an inspirational quote, a support group, or tools we might have received in training or counselling. It doesn’t matter what it is; the main thing is to recognise that sometimes we need help to achieve our goals, and to know where we can get that help.
3. (SOCIAL) RESPONSIBILITY: no (wo)man is an island.
When the book opens, it’s clear that the Marches live a relatively simple and modest lifestyle: Marmee’s slippers are well- worn, the furniture is shabby, and money is so tight that they’ve agreed not to buy one another presents this year. The older girls can remember easier times and are sometimes dissatisfied with their lives, but there are always those worse off. In that spirit, they give up their eagerly-anticipated Christmas morning breakfast, taking it instead to a starving family with six children and a newborn baby, who are freezing in a hovel. Not unusual in 19th century Massachusetts, when there was no social welfare and the worst-off were forced to rely on charity. Surely things aren’t so bad in 2020 Britain? Well, at the current moment, 4 million children in the UK are living in poverty. A primary school in Leeds opened on “Christmas Eve Eve” to serve 800 Christmas dinners to pupils and families who will not otherwise be able to have one. And many supermarkets take donations from shoppers to stock local foodbanks for those in need. The US and the UK are two of the richest economies in the world, but people are still having to rely on charity just to get a decent meal. There’s no doubt that governments play the most important role in ensuring a minimum acceptable standard of living for their citizens, but perhaps we could all do with being a little more selfless, in whatever small way we can. Donate, volunteer, visit your elderly neighbour. You’ll see….

4. …RETURNS: doing good is good for you!
This Christmas season I’ve enjoyed listening to the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2, where members of the public nominate their Christmas hero – someone who is giving up December 25 to serve their community. The winners (who had no idea that they had been nominated) were treated to a trip to London where they joined Zoe Ball in the Radio 2 studio for the Breakfast Show, as well as dinner and tickets to see Lion King: The Musical.

It made me think of the March girls who give up their breakfast for the poor Hummels, and spend their hard-earned money to buy Christmas gifts for Marmee, instead of treats for themselves. They do this without any thought for what they’ll get in return. But that night their rich neighbour, old Mr Laurence, surprises them with a dinner of fancy treats far more lavish than anything they could have provided for themselves. (Ice cream and French bonbons anyone?)

Research has shown that our sense of wellbeing actually increases if we feel that what we do makes a positive difference. When the Marches feed the hungry children, they feel rewarded by the gratitude shown them, and the fact that they brought a little joy into the lives of others. Some cynics would argue that this means we’re driven by self-interest every time we do something selfless. I prefer to take a more positive view and say that we’re wired for altruism. We might not always be rewarded materially, or quite as immediately as the March girls are, but someone somewhere is grateful, and you never know when you’ll get that recognition.

 And don't forget to say hi on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, so we can wish a very merry Christmas to you individually!


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