Published in 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was one of the early Christmas stories of the Victorian era, and one so popular that its themes of charitable giving and holiday-inspired redemption repeated in the many Christmas stories that followed it. Emerging in an England of immense economic inequity, breathtaking poverty, and labor abuses directed against adult and child workers alike, A Christmas Carol imprinted on generations of stories—right up to those contemporary Hallmark Channel movies—the idea that generosity toward those less fortunate is a source of holiday joy to those who extend it.
Last December, the Stowe Center highlighted Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1850 short story, “Christmas, or, The Good Fairy,” a rare pre-Uncle Tom’s Cabin success for the then-largely-unknown writer. Now available to read for free online, the story begins with young, bored Ellen Stuart wondering what gifts to give her loved ones who already have so much. Counseled by her aunt, who hints at the presence of those in need around them, Ellen determines to be a “good fairy” providing unexpected and sorely wanted gifts to a handful of less fortunate neighbors. And, like Ebenezer Scrooge, Ellen’s generosity proves the source of her merriment, as she reprimands her brothers: “Laugh away,” said she, gayly; “and a good many others will laugh, too, over these things. I got them to make people laugh—people that are not in the habit of laughing!”
Of course, history is only honestly told with modifiers: A Christmas Carol and “The Good Fairy” are not at the beginning of a generic Christmas narrative tradition, but of a white, middle to upper class Christmas narrative tradition; and, as we frequently do on our tours and in our programming at the Stowe Center, we open conversations about new narrative possibilities by asking who these narratives exclude. If A Christmas Carol and its literary descendants promises that Christmas joy comes from giving to those less fortunate, then these stories also assume, are also written for, audiences that are fortunate enough—or privileged enough—already to give.
But whether or not such stories speak to the realities of Black life is perhaps best answered with a glimpse at the story “Checkup” by Ann Petry, the first U.S. Black writer to sell a million copies of a novel (The Street, 1946). A member of the prominent James family of Old Saybrook, CT—Petry’s aunt, Anna Louise James, was the first Black woman pharmacist in the state—Ann lived much of her adult life in that shoreline town, after several years living in Harlem. Previously unpublished, but available as an audio file on Audible, “Checkup” follows the archangel Michael as he descends to earth and assumes the form of a Black child. What is remarkable in Petry’s telling is how often Michael’s earthly experiences venture into the familiar scenes of A Christmas Carol-style works: detailed descriptions of cozy rooms decorated for the holidays, contrasting descriptions of a cold and snowy outdoors, and, above all, moments where kindness and generosity are extended toward Michael in his human form.
Unlike Dickens’ work, though, and unlike Stowe’s “The Good Fairy,” “Checkup” continually refuses the redemptive moment where such kindness and generosity is rewarded with Christmas joy and celebration, even as Petry invites the expectation of them. When a child offers him a piece of warm gingerbread, for example, readers remain with Michael, hungry and cold, as he rapturously consumes it, while the giving child returns to her Christmas-decorated home, to a celebration readers don’t see. Perhaps in so doing, Petry centers attention on the stark reality of the story: a Black child inadequately dressed and alone in the snow at Christmastime. Perhaps in refusing to focus the story away from Michael, Petry also refuses to foreclose the reality of the poverty and racism he faces with a happy holiday ending, and to emphasize that the kindness and generosity extended toward him doesn’t end in reward, but simply is the right and only thing to do.
Anita Durkin is a Visitor Center Coordinator at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. She has a Ph.D. in 19th-century American literature, loves poetry, running, and native wildlife, and can be found with a guitar in her hands when not talking about social justice.