Image from http://clipart-library.com/clipart/1772559.htm
The image above is a little bit 19th century, but Greybeal House's kitchen/sitting area would not have had that picture window. Still, has a a nice cozy vibe for the story you're about to read.
This story originally was the ending of “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” but I realized the real ending occurred earlier, so I cut the part out. However, I really liked the piece and knew I would do something with it. Looks like now is the time.
Setting: The Smiths and the remainder of the old boarding house family are returning to Blaineton, after a long, difficult sojourn in Pennsylvania. The events of 1863, related to the Civil War, had disrupted their lives completely. But good news arrived when Miss Tryphena Moore sent a letter saying that she wanted Eli to become the editor-in-chief of her newspaper, The Blaineton Register. They could go home at last!
But their joy was interrupted on Christmas Eve when the three youngest children contracted a fever and cough. They also were surprised when a strange little guest, a peddler by the name of Ira Strauss showed up at their door. The next morning, the Smiths and the Johnsons were overjoyed and a bit bewildered to find that all the children had recovered from their illness. Moreover, Ira Strauss seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
A few days later on December 28th, everyone returned to New Jersey and to a new home, a large, rather run-down mansion by the name of Greybeal House.
The new short-short story begins later the evening of the 28th, when Maggie realizes that something important is missing.
You’re welcome to download the story free as a PDF. It's my small gift of thanks. You'll find the PDF download at the very bottom of this blog.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
Janet R. Stafford
My book series currently has two Christmas short stories. One of the things I wanted to do was give them a nineteenth century feel, since… well, since they’re set in the nineteenth century.
What I am trying to say is I wanted a kind of old-fashioned, traditional feel to the stories. You know what that’s like if you’ve read O. Henry’s early twentieth century story “The Gift of the Magi,” read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or seen the numerous movies that pay homage to it, or enjoyed the Christmas scenes in Alcott’s Little Women or liked its many iterations on screen.
So, what exactly is that feeling? Well, part if it is a sense of giving, especially to someone in need. But there is also a sense that Christmas is a time of sacrificial giving in that one goes the extra mile or gives up something for someone else. Dickens’ story also involves a supernatural element. Miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who teach him that there is more to life than money and that his wealth can and should be shared.
Not surprisingly, some of these elements come into play in my short stories.
“The Dundee Cake,” set in 1852, brings us into Maggie’s life at a time when she is still grieving the loss of her husband and young son from rheumatic fever, as well as grieving the more recent death of Aunt Letty, who had graciously opened her home to newlyweds Maggie and John Blaine after they had been disowned by both sets of parents. It was Aunty Letty who decided to turn her home into a boarding house in order to give Maggie a skill and an income. Now, Letty is dead, and Maggie is on her own. She tries her best to run a rooming house with four down-on-their-luck men, to pay newly hired cook Emily Johnson, and to raise two little girls. And there is an added complication: money is tight.
Maggie wonders if she will ever be able to make ends meet, let alone provide small gifts for her daughters and a Christmas dinner for her borders and family. A smaller, yet still depressing worry is that Maggie doubts she will be able to afford the ingredients for a Dundee cake, a Christmas treat made by her Scottish ancestors.
But when her cook Emily and husband Nate suffer a disaster, it changes Maggie’s priorities.
In my opinion, “The Dundee Cake” borrows from the tradition of sacrificial giving found in nineteenth century and early twentieth century Christmas stories.
NOTE: There is a recipe for a Dundee cake in the back of the book. I had placed a warning there to "make at your own risk," because when the story had been published, I hadn’t tried to make the cake yet. Good news! Last year Dan and I made it for the first time, and it was delicious! No wonder Maggie loves it so. Dan wants it again this year. (His love of the cake comes from his memories of a “blond fruitcake” his mother used to make. A Dundee cake is about as close as we can get to that right now.) So, to anyone interested in trying the recipe, I say “go ahead.” You might even want to adapt it to your own tastes.
The other story, “The Christmas Eve Visitor” is set in 1863 and borrows from the Dickensian twist of other-worldly visitors. However, the visitor in my story is neither terrifying nor out to change the bad behavior of Maggie and her family. Such a thing would be a case of bad timing, as the Smith and Johnson families are having a difficult time of it. They have moved from Gettysburg to escape the aftermath of the July battle and now are sojourning in Pennsylvania just outside Middletown (known today as Biglerville).
Christmas 1863 is far from cheerful for them. First, the two families are struggling to make ends meet, something not unusual for them. But their anxiety and fear are focused on the youngest children, all of whom have come down with a fever and a cough. Back in the 1860s, a fever and a cough were serious things. They could kill you. And that can still happen, but in those days people had little in the way of analgesics and there was no such thing as antibiotics. So, Maggie, Eli, Emily, Nate, and Maggie’s daughters Lydia and Frankie work to keep their spirits up as they care for three ill little ones and pray that the symptoms will abate. Losing any of or all the children is a real fear.
There is a roaring snowstorm outside, which adds to the feeling of being closed in and trapped.
And then someone knocks on their door.
Outside Maggie finds a little peddler. Baffled at his appearance in the storm, but always hospitable, she invites him in, gives him a bowl of hot soup and some bread, and sits him down at the kitchen table, where she and Emily proceed to chat with him.
The man says his name is Ira Strauss. He is grateful for the meal and the warm place to rest. These things, he says, have been a mitzvah. But Ira is decidedly odd, if not mysterious. He seems to know things about the family that he has no way of knowing. What’s more, he gives each person in the household a gift strangely suited to them. Who is he? Where is he from? What does he want? You’ll need to read the story to learn find out. Maybe.
And so, to honor the holidays and the tradition of giving, both books will be free on Kindle starting December 22 and ending on December 26. Get one or both for yourself and maybe give them to a friend. (Can be done on Kindle? Hope so!)
Click on the links below from 12/22 thru 12/26 to get either or both.
The Dundee Cake
The Christmas Eve Visitor
This is my little way of thanking you all for hanging with me this year. Let’s hope that things get better in 2021.
Stay strong and hopeful, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
A still from the movie "Little Women." From the "Little Women" blog post on Rhyme and Reason - Poetry Meets Film Reviews, © 2020 S.G. Liput.
It so happens that I agree with several bloggers who believe “Little Women” (based on Louisa May Alcott’s book by the same name) is a great Christmas movie. I probably should say “movies” because there are at least four versions of it out there.
And I need to confess that Alcott’s book, and the movies that followed it, lodged firmly in my subconscious - so much so that they echo within the Saint Maggie series. The weird part is I never really thought about the connection until a few years ago. I mean, come on, how dense can I get? Frankie is a Jo March-type with red hair! And Maggie has a loving, spiritual core, much like Marmee March.
I didn’t do any of this on purpose. Honest. What happened is some of the values and character traits found in Alcott’s work banged around my heart and head until bits broke out and found a home in the Saint Maggie stories. (I only wish I could write as well as Alcott.)
Not surprisingly, as it does in Little Women, Christmas turns up in the Saint Maggie series, too. One example appears in my first full-length novel.
Christmas of 1860 was difficult for Maggie. A scandal in the town, followed by Maggie’s jail cell visitations with the criminal, put her at odds with the other citizens of Blaineton and with the members of her church. To make matters worse, she was grieving the death of her niece and the death of her own baby due to a miscarriage. And then, of course, there was the possibility of war, as tensions between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America were coming to a head. This caused Maggie’s daughter Lydia and beau Edgar to get married earlier than they had expected, especially since Edgar was likely to join the army once hostilities began.
So, 1860 promised not to be a happy Christmas for Maggie, family, and friends. And yet, some joy and hope manage make themselves manifest.
I’m sure most of us this year can identify with my protagonist as she surfs the ups and downs of a mix of emotions and difficulty as she carries on with the usual Christmas customs. The excerpt below tells the story first through the narrator’s voice and then through Maggie’s voice in her journal.
I want to point out one more thing: the conversation below happens between Eli and Maggie as they walk home after visiting the local orphanage with food and a party. Their chat was kind of a throw-off when I wrote it, but as it turned out, the scene had an impact on the stories that followed.
“That was fun,” Eli commented as he walked arm in arm with Maggie. “That little Bob fellow sure can eat, can’t he? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was my son.”
She chuckled. “He does take after you in that respect. Anyway, if you ask me, you should be someone’s father.”
“Hey, I already am a father – to Lydia and Frankie.”
“Oh, you know what I mean: one of our own. I wonder why I haven’t conceived again.”
“I don’t know. But we could just go ahead and adopt one of those little ones we saw tonight.”
Why is that scene important? Well, Maggie’s act of Christmas kindness had an impact on her life that I hadn’t planned.
It happened like this: During one of my visits to a book club, someone asked, “Are Maggie and Eli going to adopt Bob?” At the time, the idea had not occurred to me, mainly because I hadn’t entertained the idea of writing a follow-up book. But as it turned out, when I began to write the sequel, giving Maggie and Eli a child was a logical step. So, I had them adopt little Bob, and he now is an integral part of Maggie’s family and the series itself.
For my next blog, I’ll talk about the Christmas tale, “The Dundee Cake,” and how it echoes another Christmas story.
Stay safe and well, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
Let's throw our bonnets in the ring today!
Over the past two blogs, we’ve determined that while the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, women in some states and territories had been voting in various capacities long before that. The interesting thing about women during the nineteenth century is that some of them also ran for office.
According to the “Her Hat Was in the Ring!” website:
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries each state or territory determined who could vote and who could be elected on the local, state, and federal levels. In most states women had to be electors before they could be elected to a public office. By the 1860s women fought in campaigns in state after state to gain some suffrage rights. The right to vote on school issues, and to be elected to educational positions, were among the most successful campaigns across the nation throughout the 1860s and 1870s. In some states, especially in the west and Midwest, women also gained "municipal suffrage", the right to vote and be elected to offices on the town, county, and/or state levels.
The fact that the first offices women attempted to win were school-related should come as no surprise. The concept of “woman’s sphere” held that women were in control of all things domestic, which included childcare and child education. “Man’s sphere,” on the other hand, was stated to be the world of work outside the home as well as the rough-and-tumble world of politics. However, don’t believe for a second that everyone followed this ideal. It was most prominent among white people in the upper and middle classes. The lower classes, Black Americans, and immigrants did not have the luxury (if luxury is the correct word) to split the world into male and female “spheres.”
As pointed out in “Her Hat Was in the Ring”: “women in 40 states and territories across the nation served in public offices on local and state levels before 1920.” That is both crazy and inspiring. And it raises the question of how did that happen?
As I looked at the “Her Hat Was in the Ring” list of offices held by women, I was intrigued by the way so many of them were elected in specific years. For instance, in 1874, eight women in Vermont were voted into the office of school superintendent and in 1873, nine women were elected as School Director in Pennsylvania.
Do you want to hear something really outrageous? In 1876, 39 women were voted into school-related offices in Michigan. Thirty-nine! The state of Illinois was no slouch, either, with 32 women attaining school-related offices in 1873. If we go out west to Wyoming, things get even more interesting. In 1870, women won the following offices: County Commissioner (two women held this position), Sheriff, Probate Judge and County Treasurer, County Clerk, Justice of the Peace, and Constable.
Full disclosure, this wave of women politicians did not happen in all states. But it is impressive that it happened in any states at all.
Now that our collective minds are blown, let’s ask how this wave of women office holders could have happened? My suspicion is that these instances reflect successful efforts to organize women to run for and win political office. I’ve yet to find details about these races, but I do know that the women’s suffrage movement probably had something to do with it. Groups as diverse as the National Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union under Frances Willard (who was involved in the WCTU from 1874-1898) fought for the rights of women to vote and hold office.
Maybe someday when I’m retired and twiddling my thumbs as I wonder what to do next, I’ll dive into this further. I’m fascinated by the notion that women organized to attain political office and thereby guided the directions taken by their town, county, state, and (eventually) nation.
As for New Jersey, Hannah Scholfield of Morris County was the first woman in the state to hold elected office. She was elected as School Trustee in 1874, thanks to a new law (promulgated in either 1873 or 1874) that permitted women to run for school board positions. (“Her Hat Was in the Ring!”)
Thus, the reason my fictional character Maggie does not run for School Board in Blaineton is because it is 1864 and she is not permitted to do so by the state. During the years 1828-1878, the state of New Jersey became increasingly involved in creating a system of public schools as “laws were enacted to provide for state and local funds for the operation of schools; prohibit spending school funds for purposes other than education; permit local districts to appoint school superintendents; establish a state board of education and a state superintendent of public instruction with authority to enforce school law; and require schools to be free to all children aged 5 to 18.” (“Historical Background,” NJ Department of Education.) That meant school board elections were affiliated with the state and subject to state laws regarding suffrage.
However, at this time I do not believe that the state got involved in local elections with regard to who could run for office. The suffrage law based on the 1807 Acts of the General Assembly of New Jersey does state that “no person shall vote in any state or county election, for officers in the government of the States, or of this state, unless such person be a free, white, male citizen of this state, of the age of twenty-one years, worth fifty pounds proclamation money; clear estate, and have resided in the county where he claims a vote, for at least twelve months immediately.” I could be wrong, but to me that says state and county elections were off-limits to anyone not meeting the suffrage requirements, but left the door open regarding local elections.
That said, the 1844 Second NJ Constitution put the restrictions this way: “Every white male citizen of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of this state one year, and of the county in which he claims his vote five months, next before the election, shall be entitled to vote for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be elective by the people…” The voting for “all officers” comment gives me pause. Is this limited to state and county officers, or does it also include municipal officers?
However, the two documents only describe who may vote and do not say who may run for office, although I suppose one could argue that the right to vote also implies the right to run for office.
Anyway, all I know is that in the fall of 1864, Maggie is running for Town Council in Blaineton. I am not sure whether someone will attempt to remove her bonnet from the ring and toss it back to her, or if someone – perhaps a state or county judge – will declare that her election (should she win) is invalid. I’ll need to do a bit more research and poll my characters. Note to aspiring authors: always poll your characters. You can't force them to do things. They'll usually do what they want to do, so it helps to know how they feel. I know that sounds weird, but characters do take on a life of their own. Trust me on this.
Stay safe and well, friends. See you next week sometime!
Janet R. Stafford
1844 State Constitution, Department of State, State of New Jersey.
Acts of the 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey (Chapter II, section 1, 1807)
“Historical Background,” New Jersey Department of Education, Public Education in New Jersey, publication date unknown.
"Notes on Education," NYSEJ, February 1874 (New York State Educational Journal Devoted to Popular Education and Science, established by the New York State Teachers’ Association., Vol. 11, 1874
“Women by State and Territory – More Information,” Her Hat Was in the Ring! Website.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder