Author: Celia Thaxter, 1835-1894
Genre: Classic, 19th Century Poem (Adapted into a story in 1914 by Frances Jenkins Olcott)
Reading Time (for story text): approx. 3 minutes
Celia Thaxter was the daughter of a lighthouse keeper on the Isles of the Shoals, a small group of islands situated near the New England coast. Growing up in an isolated environment gave Celia time to freely enjoy the beauty of the landscape that surrounded her, and she cherished her island world.
After living on both White Island and Smuttynose Island, Celia’s family settled on Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of the Shoals.1 Her father built a large resort hotel, and hired a man named Levi Thaxter to manage it. Levi also worked as a tutor to Celia, and though he was fifteen years old than her, they married in 1851. Celia was only sixteen.
After settling in Massachusetts in 1856, the Thaxter marriage began to suffer. Celia was nostalgic for the islands and worried about her husband’s financial extravagance.2 She found expression in verse, and one of her poems (titled “Land-Locked” by an editor) was printed without her knowledge in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1861. It expressed her longing for the “caressing murmur of the wave that breaks in tender music on the shore.”3
Realizing that her poetry could contribute to the family finances, Celia began to devote more time to writing, and her work was accepted by a variety of publications. Unfortunately, her success seemed only to further tension with her husband who resented her growing popularity. Though the couple had three sons together,4 they began to live separate lives. They never divorced; however, Celia would often travel back to Appledore Island and spend long periods of time there.
Celia proved to be a popular hostess at her father’s hotel. She welcomed and entertained some of the most notable literary people of her day including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though Celia was always self-conscious about her lack of formal education, these reputable visitors undoubtedly considered Celia to be their literary equal.
Celia felt at home on Appledore Island. A significant part of her time there was spent with her mother, so she was completely devastated when her mother passed away in 1877. However, this loss turned her to God for the first time, and her later works reflected this change. Her poem titled “Submission,” in the book Drift-Weed (1878), speaks of “groping to find hope” in “death’s awful mystery” and “reaching empty arms above” to “clasp God’s hand.”5
In 1884, Celia published Poems for Children in which she included a poem called “Piccola.” The poem beautifully illustrates God’s provision for a poor girl on Christmas Day. The Bible speaks frequently about God’s concern for those in need, and Celia’s use of a bird in her poem calls to mind two different passages that quote the words of Jesus. The first is about worry:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).
The second is about fear:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Celia’s poem presents a lovely example of God’s tender concern for the poor, and another great author, Frances Jenkins Olcott (1873-1963), recognized its worth. Olcott adapted Thaxter’s poem into story form for her collection of Good Stories for Great Holidays (1914). In addition to writing many children’s books herself, Olcott was head of the Children’s department at Carnegie Library. She is widely known for her effort to distribute children’s literature throughout the United States.
1 McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. Courier Dover Publications, 1983, p. 410.
2 Walker, Cheryl, editor. American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century, An Anthology. Rutgers University Press, 1992, p. 294. Much of the biography for Thaxter is drawn from this source.
3 Thaxter, Celia. Poems. Hurd and Houghton, 1874, p. 10.
4 Johnson, Rossiter, editor. The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. The Biographical Society, 1904, entry on “Celia Thaxter.”
5 Thaxter, Celia. Drift-Weed. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894, p. 90.
The Text of the Story:
In the sunny land of France there lived many years ago a sweet little maid named Piccola. Her father had died when she was a baby, and her mother was very poor and had to work hard all day in the fields for a few sous [coins].
Little Piccola had no dolls and toys, and she was often hungry and cold, but she was never sad nor lonely.
What if there were no children for her to play with! What if she did not have fine clothes and beautiful toys! In summer there were always the birds in the forest, and the flowers in the fields and meadows — the birds sang so sweetly, and the flowers were so bright and pretty!
In the winter when the ground was covered with snow, Piccola helped her mother, and knit long stockings of blue wool.
The snow-birds had to be fed with crumbs, if she could find any, and then, there was Christmas Day.
But one year her mother was ill and could not earn any money. Piccola worked hard all the day long, and sold the stockings which she knit, even when her own little bare feet were blue with the cold.
As Christmas Day drew near she said to her mother, “I wonder what the good Saint Nicholas will bring me this year. I cannot hang my stocking in the fireplace, but I shall put my wooden shoe on the hearth for him. He will not forget me, I am sure.”
“Do not think of it this year, my dear child,” replied her mother. “We must be glad if we have bread enough to eat.”
But Piccola could not believe that the good saint would forget her. On Christmas Eve she put her little wooden patten on the hearth before the fire, and went to sleep to dream of Saint Nicholas.
As the poor mother looked at the little shoe, she thought how unhappy her dear child would be to find it empty in the morning, and wished that she had something, even if it were only a tiny cake, for a Christmas gift. There was nothing in the house but a few sous, and these must be saved to buy bread.
When the morning dawned Piccola awoke and ran to her shoe.
Saint Nicholas had come in the night. He had not forgotten the little child who had thought of him with such faith.
See what he had brought her. It lay in the wooden patten, looking up at her with its two bright eyes, and chirping contentedly as she stroked its soft feathers.
A little swallow, cold and hungry, had flown into the chimney and down to the room, and had crept into the shoe for warmth.
Piccola danced for joy, and clasped the shivering swallow to her breast.
She ran to her mother’s bedside. “Look, look!” she cried. “A Christmas gift, a gift from the good Saint Nicholas!” And she danced again in her little bare feet.
Then she fed and warmed the bird, and cared for it tenderly all winter long; teaching it to take crumbs from her hand and her lips, and to sit on her shoulder while she was working.
In the spring she opened the window for it to fly away, but it lived in the woods near by all summer, and came often in the early morning to sing its sweetest songs at her door.
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