By Thomas Ruys Smith
In this post, Thomas Ruys Smith describes how he came across a long-lost holiday story by a celebrated New England writer of the late nineteenth century.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was one of the most popular and prolific American writers in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. A novelist, poet, and playwright, she is perhaps best remembered for the short stories she published in newspapers and magazines around the world. Until now, however, one of the most important themes of her work has been lost to time. Every year, for decades, Freeman produced Christmas stories that were a vital part of her readers’ seasonal celebrations. I first came to appreciate the importance of Freeman’s festive work when I was putting together Christmas Past, an anthology of Christmas stories from nineteenth-century America. Even in the midst of the extraordinary voices in that collection, the sheer range and creativity of Freeman’s engagement with the holiday season was immediately evident. Yet these wonderful stories had been largely neglected and had never been collected together in a volume of their own.
And so, I went searching in old magazines and newspapers to rediscover Freeman’s Christmas stories that had defined the seasonal celebrations of readers in times past. Just as our own sense of festivities might be defined by the emergence of a new batch of Hallmark movies or Starbucks red cups, so Freeman’s tales helped to set the tone and tempo of Christmas from the 1880s to the 1920s. Though her stories are often characterized by humor, she never failed to take Christmas seriously, and understood that its emotional effects on everyday life could be profound. Taking the familiar building blocks of Christmas that were emerging at the end of the nineteenth century—Santa, Christmas trees, gift giving, celebrations both communal and domestic—Freeman apparently found constant inspiration in the ways that Christmas worked in the lives of her characters. She was also always ready to innovate within the apparent confines of Christmas as a theme, and aspects of crime and the Gothic often sneak in unexpectedly. Very soon, I had gathered a stuffed stocking of Yuletide delights.
Searching for Freeman’s Christmas stories in the publications where they first appeared led me to one particularly exciting and unexpected gift. Looking for newspaper mentions of Freeman around the festive period, I came across an announcement in the Buffalo Morning Express, published on December 17, 1898, about their forthcoming holiday issue: “Mary E. Wilkins, Most popular of American story writers, will contribute a new story, entitled ‘Harriet Ann’s Christmas.’” Like readers in 1898, I was immediately tantalized: in all of the current bibliographies of Freeman’s work, there was no mention of this seasonal tale. This story had apparently fallen through the cracks and been lost since its first fleeting appearance. Quickly, I hunted it up—and, as perhaps the first reader of this missing gem since 1898, I was greeted with a new Christmas tale by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. An account of one young girl’s battle of wits with a suspicious Christmas visitor, “Harriet Ann’s Christmas” delighted readers across America when it was first published in 1898, appearing in newspapers from Vermont to California and many points in between. And now, in the pages of The Last Gift: The Christmas Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, we can join those readers in making this and many other Freeman stories a part of our Christmas celebrations.
Thomas Ruys Smith is professor of American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Deep Water: The Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain and Christmas Past: An Anthology of Seasonal Stories from Nineteenth-Century America.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930) was one of the most popular American writers at the turn of the twentieth century, and her annual Christmas stories appeared in magazines and periodicals across the globe. Since then, the extraordinary stories that once delighted her legions of fans every festive season have gone largely out of print and unread. Now, for the first time, The Last Gift presents a collection of Freeman’s best Christmas writing, introducing these funny, poignant, provocative, and surprisingly timely holiday tales to a new generation of readers.