You may know Ruth Sawyer as author of the Newbery Award winning Roller Skates, but did you know that she also has to her credit three outstanding collections of Christmas stories for children? Let me introduce you to them and tell you how she came to write them.
As a child Ruth was lucky, indeed, to have as nurse Johanna who hailed from County Donegal in Ireland─Johanna, a gifted storyteller who told Ruth one story after another all the year long. “From her,” Sawyer says, “I got my love of listening and telling stories─and finally of writing them down.” In her early twenties she took up the study of folklore and storytelling at Columbia, then followed that with a couple of years of practical experience telling stories all over the city of New York to audiences of various ages and nationalities. She took advantage of every opportunity to collect stories, first in Ireland and much later in Spain. In The Way of the Storyteller, Sawyer asserts, “The art of storytelling lies within the storyteller, to be searched for, drawn out, made to grow.” She goes on to enumerate critical factors in the development of a storyteller─experience, the building of background, the power of creative imagination, and the art of selection─all capacities she developed to an extraordinary degree in becoming a master storyteller.
Each phase of the story development process is illustrated in her shaping of The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap. She collected the story of a miserly chap by the name of Teig and his Christmas Eve adventure from a "drab and dirty tinker" at a crossroads in Donegal. After refashioning it in her own words, she tested it by telling it to a room full of immigrant children at a branch of the New York Public Library. Only after making revisions based on her experience in telling the tale, did she prepare the story for publication.
She included it in her 1916 book, This Way to Christmas, as one of the six Christmas stories set within the narrative. This Way to Christmas features a lonesome boy named David who is stranded in upstate New York with just seven days to go until Christmas. With no prospect of a Christmas celebration in sight, he comes up with an ingenious way to bring Christmas to himself and to the equally lonesome inhabitants of his small mountain community, all of whom were spending the winter far from home. Visiting each in turn, David befriends his neighbors and delights in hearing the Christmas stories they share with him, stories they heard in their homelands long ago. He invites them all to a festive celebration, erecting signposts that read This Way to Christmas. Through his efforts he brings all the neighbors of different nationalities together, forging relationships that will outlast the holiday season and sending a message of hope to a war-torn world.
Ruth Sawyer continued to collect stories and in 1941 published The Long Christmas. She chose the stories for this book "to lengthen the season, as many did in olden times, to last from the first cock-crow on Saint Thomas's Day to the blessing of the candles on Candlemas." And so she provides a story or two for each phase of the Long Christmas, pairing every story with a song, poem, or carol that complements it. There are thirteen stories in all, most with origins in the Old World.
Publishing The Long Christmas in the shadow of World War II, Ruth Sawyer writes of her vision of Christmas in her Introduction, "Never before within our memory has it seemed so important to keep the Long Christmas; to begin early enough and hold to the festival long enough to feel the deep, moving significance of it. For Christmas is a state of mind quite as much as a festival; and who can establish and maintain a state of mind in the rush and turmoil of a single day, or two days? Around no other time of year has been built so much of faith, of beauty. Out of no other festival have grown so many legends. It is a time when man walks abroad in the full stature of his humanity and in the true image of God. He walks with grace, with laughter, and a great awareness of brotherhood. This bringing of the world together to worship at the manger brings kings and cooks to be in good fellowship, makes children and their grandsires to be of one age, makes witty men of fools and fools of scholars. And who is there to foretell to whom the star may appear?"
Sawyer's third anthology of Christmas stories, Joy to the World: Christmas Legends, is the only one of the three not to have been published in war time. It gathers together six stories from Ancient Araby, Serbia, Ireland, and Spain, introducing each with a carol, and all decorated with striking illustrations in black and shades of gold by Trina Schart Hyman. My favorite story in this collection is What the Three Kings Brought, a personal story from her year in Spain in which Sawyer herself plays a central role.
The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of This Way to Christmas, the 75th anniversary of The Long Christmas, and the 50th anniversary of Joy to the World. Will you join me in keeping these stories alive in our hearts for generations to come?