This Way to Christmas with Ruth Sawyer

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? Well, let us introduce you to them and tell you how she came to write them.

Becoming a storyteller

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.” Later when she was in her early twenties, she took up the study of folklore and storytelling at Columbia. Then she followed up her undergraduate studies with a couple of years of practical experience telling stories all over the city of New York to audiences of various ages and nationalities. 

Throughout her life, Ruth 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.” Next Ruth 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.

The beginnings of This Way to Christmas

Each phase of the story development process is illustrated in her shaping of The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap. To craft this story, Ruth first 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. Secondly, 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. Then, lastly, only after making revisions based on her experience in telling the tale, did she prepare the story for publication.

The first collection of Christmas stories

She later included this tale in her 1916 book, This Way to Christmas, as one of the six Christmas stories set within the narrative. This Way to Christmas features an especially lonesome boy named David who is stranded in upstate New York with just seven days to go until Christmas. But with no prospect of a Christmas celebration in sight, he still 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 also spending the winter far from home.

While 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 then 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.

Stories in This Way to Christmas

The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap

The Christmas Apple

The Three Kings Ride

St. Bridget

Gifts for the First Birthday

The Christmas That Was Nearly Lost

Another book of Christmas stories

Ruth Sawyer continued to collect stories in like manner 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. In all, there are thirteen stories, most with origins in the Old World.

Stories in The Long Christmas

The Shepherds

Fiddler, Play Faster, Play Faster

The Good Night

The Gold of Bernardino

The Wishing Well

The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap

The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween

The Holy Lake

The Crib of Bo’Bossu

The Three Kings Ride

A Candle for St. Bridget

The Feast of Fools

Schnitzle, Schnotzle, and Schnootzle

Christmas as a state of mind

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?”

She then continued by writing, “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?”

Christmas stories from around the world

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. For this book, Sawyer gathered 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. In this collection, our favorite story is What the Three Kings Brought, a personal story from her year in Spain in which Sawyer herself plays an especially important role.

Stories in Joy to the World

The Two Lambs

This Is the Christmas

The Precious Herbs of Christmas

What the Three Kings Brought

San Froilan of the Wilderness

The Miracle of Saint Cumgall

The year 2016 holds special significance because it 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 us in keeping these stories alive in our hearts for generations to come?


Purchase a print edition of This Way to Christmas at Amazon

Purchase a print edition of The Long Christmas at AddALL.

Purchase a print edition of Joy to the World at AddALL.

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Stories That Open Doors

by Lisa Ripperton
January 1, 2019

To bring out the positive qualities which we should like to find in every story for little children I can think of no better plan than, first, to quote bodily a chapter from a book which possesses practically everything desirable, and next, to call attention to the book’s good features point by point. The story I have in mind is called “The Dutch Twins.” After a little introduction of Kit and Kat, the Twins, the author begins:

The Day They Went Fishing

One summer morning, very early, Vrouw Vedder opened the door of her little Dutch kitchen and stepped out.

She looked across the road which ran by the house, across the canal on the other side, across the level green fields that lay beyond, clear to the blue rim of the world, where the sky touches the earth. The sky was very blue; and the great, round, shining face of the sun was just peering over the tops of the trees, as she looked out.

Vrouw Vedder listened. The roosters in the barnyard were crowing, the ducks in the canal were quacking, and all the little birds in the fields were singing for joy. Vrouw Vedder hummed a slow little tune of her own, as she went back into her kitchen.

Kit and Kat were still asleep in their little cupboard bed. She gave them each a kiss. The Twins opened their eyes and sat up.

“O Kit and Kat,” said Vrouw Vedder, “the sun is up, the birds are all awake and singing, and Grandfather is going fishing to-day. If you will hurry, you may go with him! He is coming at six o’clock; so pop out of bed and get dressed. I will put some lunch for you in the yellow basket, and you may dig worms for bait in the garden. Only be sure not to step on the young cabbages that Father planted.”

Kit and Kat bounced out of bed in a minute. Their mother helped them put on their clothes and new wooden shoes. Then she gave them each a bowl of bread and milk for their breakfast. They ate it sitting on the kitchen doorstep.

This is a picture of Kit and Kat digging worms. You see they did just as their mother said, and did not step on the young cabbages. They sat on them, instead. But that was an accident.

Kit dug the worms, and Kat put them into a basket, with some earth in it to make them feel at home.

When Grandfather came, he brought a large fishing-rod for himself and two little ones for the Twins. There was a little hook on the end of each line.

Vrouw Vedder kissed Kit and Kat goodbye.

“Mind Grandfather, and don’t fall into the water,” she said.

Grandfather and the Twins started off together down the long road beside the canal.

The house where the Twins lived was right beside the canal. Their father was a gardener, and his beautiful rows of cabbages and beets and onions stretched in long lines across the level fields by the roadside.

Grandfather lived in a large town, a little way beyond the farm where the Twins lived. He did not often have a holiday, because he carried milk to the doors of the people in the town, every morning early. Sometime I will tell you how he did it; but I must not tell you now, because if I do, I can’t tell you about their going fishing.

This morning, Grandfather carried his rod and the lunch-basket. Kit and Kat carried the basket of worms between them, and their rods over their shoulders, and they were all three very happy.

They walked along ever so far, beside the canal. Then they turned to the left and walked along a path that ran from the canal across the green fields to what looked like a hill.

But it wasn’t a hill at all, really, because there aren’t any hills in Holland. It was a long, long wall of earth, very high—oh, as high as a house, or even higher! And it had sloping sides.

There is such a wall of earth all around the country of Holland, where the Twins live. There has to be a wall, because the sea is higher than the land. If there were no walls to shut out the sea, the whole country would be covered with water; and if that were so, then there wouldn’t be any Holland, or any Holland Twins, or any story. So you see it was very lucky for the Twins that the wall was there. They called it a dyke.

Grandfather and Kit and Kat climbed the dyke. When they reached the top, they sat down a few minutes to rest and look at the great blue sea. Grandfather sat in the middle, with Kit on one side, and Kat on the other; and the basket of worms and the basket of lunch were there, too.

They saw a great ship sail slowly by, making a cloud of smoke.

“Where do the ships go, Grandfather?” asked Kit.

“To America, and England, and China, and all over the world,” said Grandfather.

“Why?” asked Kat. Kat almost always said “Why?” and when she didn’t, Kit did.

“To take flax and linen from the mills of Holland to make dresses for little girls in other countries,” said Grandfather.

“Is that all?” asked Kit.

“They take cheese and herring, bulbs and butter, and lots of other things besides, and bring back to us wheat and meat and all sorts of good things from the lands across the sea.”

“I think I’ll be a sea captain when I’m big,” said Kit.

“So will I,” said Kat.

“Girls can’t,” said Kit.

But Grandfather shook his head and said:

“You can’t tell what a girl may be by the time she’s four feet and a half high and is called Katrina. There’s no telling what girls will do anyway. But, children, if we stay here we shall not catch any fish.”

So they went down the other side of the dyke and out onto a little pier that ran from the sandy beach into the water.

Grandfather showed them how to bait their hooks. Kit baited Kat’s for her, because Kat said it made her all wriggly inside to do it. She did not like it. Neither did the worm!

They all sat down on the end of the pier, Grandfather sat on the very end and let his wooden shoes hang down over the water; but he made Kit and Kat sit with their feet stuck straight out in front of them, so they just reached to the edge,—”So you can’t fall in,” said Grandfather.

They dropped their hooks into the water and sat very still, waiting for a bite. The sun climbed higher and higher in the sky, and it grew hotter and hotter on the pier. The flies tickled Kat’s nose and made her sneeze.

“Keep still, can’t you?” said Kit crossly. “You’ll scare the fish. Girls don’t know how to fish, anyway.”

Pretty soon Kat felt a queer little jerk on her line. She was perfectly sure she did.

Kat squealed and jerked her rod. She jerked it so hard that one foot flew right up in the air, and one of her new wooden shoes went—splash—right into the water!

But that wasn’t the worst of it! Before you could say Jack Robinson, Kat’s hook flew around and caught in Kit’s clothes and pricked him.

Kit jumped and said “Ow!” And then—no one could ever tell how it happened—there was Kit in the water, too, splashing like a young whale, with Kat’s hook still holding fast to his clothes in the back!

Grandfather jumped then, too, you may be sure. He caught hold of Kat’s rod and pulled hard and called out, “Steady there, steady!”

And in one minute there was Kit in the shallow water beside the pier, puffing and blowing like a grampus!

Grandfather reached down and pulled him up.

When Kit was safely on the pier, Kat threw her arms around his neck, though the water was running down in streams from his hair and eyes and ears.

“O Kit,” she said, “I truly thought it was a fish on my line when I jumped!”

“Just like a g-g-girl,” said Kit. “They don’t know how to f-f-fish.” You see his teeth were chattering, because the water was cold.

“Well, anyway,” said Kat, “I caught more than you did. I caught you!”

Then Kat thought of something else. She shook her finger at Kit.

“O Kit,” she said, “Mother told you not to fall into the water!”

” ‘T-t-twas all your fault,” roared Kit. “Y-y-you began it! Anyway, where is your new wooden shoe?”

“Where are both of yours?” screamed Kat.

Sure enough, where were they? No one had thought about shoes, because they were thinking so hard about Kit.

They ran to the end of the pier and looked. There was Kat’s shoe sailing away toward America like a little boat! Kit’s were still bobbing about in the water near the pier.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” shrieked Kat; but the tide was going out and carrying her shoe farther away every minute. They could not get it; but Grandfather reached down with his rod and fished out both of Kit’s shoes Then Kat took off her other one and her stockings, and they all three went back to the beach.

Grandfather and Kat covered Kit up with sand to keep him warm while his clothes were drying. Then Grandfather stuck the Twins’ fish-poles up in the sand and tied the lines together for a clothes-line, and hung Kit’s clothes up on it, and Kat put their three wooden shoes in a row beside Kit.

Then they ate their luncheon of bread and butter, cheese, and milk, with some radishes from Father’s garden. It tasted very good, even if it was sandy. After lunch Grandfather said,

“It will never do to go home without any fish at all.”

So by and by he went back to the pier and caught one while the Twins played in the sand. He put it in the lunch-basket to carry home.

Kat brought shells and pebbles to Kit, because he had to stay covered up in the sand, and Kit built a play dyke all around himself with them, and Kat dug a canal outside the dyke. Then she made sand-pies in clam-shells and set them in a row in the sun to bake.

They played until the shadow of the dyke grew very long across the sandy beach, and then Grandfather said it was time to go home.

He helped Kit dress, but Kit’s clothes were still a little wet in the thick parts. And Kat had to go barefooted and carry her one wooden shoe.

They climbed the dyke and crossed the fields, and walked along the road by the canal. The road shone, like a strip of yellow ribbon across the green field. They walked quite slowly, for they were tired and sleepy.

By and by Kit said, “I see our house”; and Kat said, “I see Mother at the gate.”

Grandfather gave the fish he caught to Kit and Kat, and Vrouw Vedder cooked it for their supper; and though it was not a very big fish, they all had some.

Grandfather must have told Vrouw Vedder something about what had happened; for that night, when she put Kit to bed, she felt of his clothes carefully—but she didn’t say a word about their being damp. And she said to Kat: “To-morrow we will see the shoemaker and have him make you another shoe.”

Then Kit and Kat hugged her and said good-night, and popped off to sleep before you could wink your eyes.

*             *             *             *             *             *

I want you to notice first the style in which this chapter is written. So simple, so clear, so direct, so flexible, so perfectly adapted to little children that three-year-olds adore the tale, and yet—are you bored by it? Is there any of the first-reader “This is a cat. The cat has four legs” English, which would wear you out if you had to read much of it? How true the picture painted by the simple words: “She looked across the road which ran by the house, across the canal on the other side, across the level green fields that lay beyond, clear to the blue rim of the world, where the sky touches the earth. The sky was very blue; and the great, round, shining face of the sun was just peering over the tops of the trees as she looked out.”

Would you have thought of attempting to describe the dykes of Holland and its commerce for tiny children? And yet how perfectly is brought to their understanding the wall that has to be there to shut out the sea or “there wouldn’t be any Holland or any Holland Twins or any story”; and the ships that “take flax and linen from the mills of Holland to make dresses for little girls in other countries”—big things, big ideas brought to little children in the concrete way that is the way of giving new information to tiny folk. The author’s describing the wall first— making it interesting, making it important to our little listener who thinks himself the center of the universe—and her keeping the name of the dyke until the last—there again is understanding of child mind as well as skill in handling English.

Next note the story’s particularity of detail—how youngsters delight in this! The lunch was put up in the yellow basket—not in a basket, any basket; “the grandfather carried his rod and the lunch-basket, the Twins the basket of worms between them and their rods over their shoulders”—from beginning to end there is a most satisfying attention to such important items as these.

It is a happy home in which the Twins live. They are wakened in the morning by mother’s kiss. Grandfather thinks it fun to give his holiday for the small people’s pleasure. Mother doesn’t punish children for an accident that means a lost shoe and a soaking. The incidents of the story are absolutely natural and childlike; and what a lot of fun there is! The hook’s catching and pricking Kit, grandfather’s fishing the youngster out of the water, the wet clothes hung out on the improvised clothes-line while the naked little twin plays buried up to his arms in the warm sand. What gay laughs our small listener will have over these catastrophes!

And then, this is one of the stories that “open doors.” Most of its incidents and allusions sound familiar to our little listener. This is important. We proceed “from the known to the unknown” in educating not only children but grown people. By familiar child life set in novel surroundings, with the strange scenes not too swiftly introduced and described, we have opened a door to a new interest. To the end of his days quaint little Holland, the land of dykes and canals and wooden shoes and Dutch twins, will be no dull geography lesson, no mere spot on the map, but a country of vivid personal interest to the big boy and the man who listened to mother’s reading of this story in childhood.

I have not spoken of the delightful illustrations of “The Dutch Twins” because it would be piling on impossible demands to say that every author should illustrate her own books as profusely and effectively as has Mrs. Perkins. Wouldn’t it be ideal if such a demand could be met?

An excerpt from What Shall We Read the Children? by Clara Whitehill Hunt


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