Books Magazine

Eleanor Roosevelt: Christmas

By Winterthorn
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASTHE FIRST WORDS that come to mind when you hear the name Eleanor Roosevelt are First Lady. After that perhaps you think, founding member of the United Nations and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you lived through her public life, you then might think: writer. After all, she wrote a daily newspaper column for twenty-six years, a monthly magazine column for Woman's Home Companion, autobiographies, and many other articles and books, making writing one of her primary professions. But children's writer?
Starting in 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote or co-wrote many books for children, most of which were civic-minded nonfiction like When You Grow Up to Vote (1932), This Is America (1942), Partners: The United Nations and Youth (1950), United Nations: What You Should Know About It (1955), and Your Teens and Mine (1961). She also served on the editorial board of the Junior Literature Guild's book club, selecting monthly titles and reviewing manuscripts. And in two instances, she wrote chidren's fiction, albeit didactic fiction: A Trip to Washington With Bobby and Betty (1935) and Christmas (1940).
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASThe former is exactly what it sounds like including a lunch with the President. The latter is an earnest and heartfelt story that first appeared in the December 28, 1940 issue of Liberty magazine. (Liberty was a weekly general interest magazine to which almost anyone of any significance contributed at one time or another. Think Albert Einstein, Joe Dimaggio, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.) Christmas 1940, to put it mildly, was not a happy time. Nazi Germany had either conquered or was about to conquer most of Europe. Japan had done the same in eastern Asia. Roosevelt, as First Lady and a humanitarian, was painfully aware of these events, and felt it was important for all Americans to be informed as well. As she put it in the 1940 Knopf first edition of Christmas:
"The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people's beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.
     This little story, I hope, will appeal enough to children so they will read it and as they grow older, they may understand that the love, and peace and gentleness typified by the Christ Child, leads us to a way of life for which we must all strive." 
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASIN THE OCCUPIED NETHERLANDS seven-year-old Marta and her mother are preparing for a lonesome Christmas. Marta has her mother recount the previous year's Christmas, when her father came home from his post at the border to celebrate with them. Even then, in 1939, Marta's grandparents could not join them as money needed to be conserved for the expected lean year ahead. But her father came on Christmas Eve, St. Nicholas left her "sweets, a doll, and bright red mittens just like the stockings mother made," the whole family went ice skating, and they had a Christmas feast. Marta innocently tells of how, when she and her mother are together:
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMAS"'we always say: "I wonder if Father remembers what we are doing now," and we try to do just the things we do when you are home so you can really know just where we are and can almost see us all the time.'"
At the end of the bittersweet visit, Marta's father puts on his uniform, tells Marta "'Take good care of Moeder until I come back," and leaves, never to return.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASIn the interim, along with her father's death comes the occupation of her country. "There was no school any more...and on the road she met children who talked a strange language and they made fun of her and said now this country was theirs."
In order to persevere, Marta often speaks to the Christ Child. For "God...was far away in His heaven...[but] Marta could believe...that the Christ Child...was a real child." So on St. Nicholas's Eve, 1940, knowing that "St. Nicholas will not come tonight," Marta says to her mother:
"'There is one candle in the cupboard left from last year's feast. May I light it in the house so the light will shine out for the Christ Child to see His way? Perhaps He will come to us since St. Nicholas forgot us.'"
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASHer  mother consents, Marta sets the candle in the window, and then goes outside to see just how far away the candle can be seen. Outside, she meets a man.
"She was not exactly afraid of this stranger, for she was a brave little girl, but she felt a sense of chill creeping through her, for there was something awe-inspiring and rather repellent about this personage who simply stood in the gloom watching her."
When she tells him why she has come out, he remonstrates, "You must not believe in any such legend...There is no Christ Child."
Marta listens patiently to his diatribe even though "down inside her something was hurt...[The man] was taking away a hope, a hope that someone could do more than even her mother."
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASWhen she at last asks permission to return home, the man comes with her, entering the house without knocking. Marta sees at once that her mother is holding the glowing Christ Child in her arms. The man, just sees an ordinary baby. He chastises the mother for teaching her daughter "a foolish legend."
"The woman answered in a very low voice: 'To those of us who suffer, that is a hope we may cherish. Under your power, there is fear, and you have created a strength before which people tremble. But on Christmas Eve strange things happen and new powers are sometimes born.'"
She goes on in this vein and at last the man turns and leaves. But:
"The light in the window must be the dream which holds us all until we ultimately win back to the things for which [her father] Jon died and for which Marta and her mother were living."
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: CHRISTMASIN THE 1986 EDITION, CHRISTMAS, 1940, Roosevelt's son Elliott Roosevelt writes in the introduction, "'Christmas, 1940' is the kind of story that is rarely written today. I suppose our tastes have changed, as has our style." Despite his hope that the message is still valid, he is right that our tastes have changed, and Christmas now reads as heavy handed and didactic. And while that usually does not bother a young child, the subject matter is now too distant to make this a Christmas tradition.
THE ILLUSTRATIONS used throughout this post come from the first edition and are by the graphic designer and illustrator Fritz Kredel. In addition to the 1986 edition, there was a 1963 edition entitled Eleanor Roosevelt's Christmas Book that also included Roosevelt's reminiscences of Christmas at Hyde Park and the White House. For background information, I consulted the Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. The photo of the book jacket comes from the Bauman Rare Books website.
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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