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The Lost Christmas Classic of Celia Thaxter

piccola_swallowWhen it comes to holiday stories, Charles Dickens gets the plum pudding for his masterful tale of Scrooge and Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, now playing in cinemas and performance theatres across the nation. When we think of birds, the name John James Audubon springs to mind. A single copy of his huge illustrated book Birds of America sold recently at Sotheby’s for $11.5 million, making it the most costly book in history. But what if we combine the two – Christmas and birds? (See full story below)



The best Christmas bird story is a little-known poem by Portsmouth-born writer Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835 – 1894). The “Poet of the Isles of Shoals” is best known for “The Sandpiper.” another ornithological verse. Thaxter frequently wrote poems about birds – the kingfisher, the butcher bird, and the burgomaster gull among them. But her brief piece about a tiny swallow and a poor girl named Piccola was once an American classic, and deserves a fresh new look.  


Poor little Piccola  

piccola_tall“Piccola” is Thaxter’s story of a French girl (although the name is usually Italian). Piccola’s family is so poor that her parents cannot afford a single Christmas gift for her. But Piccola has absolute faith that St. Nicholas will bring her a gift. She leaves out her tiny shoe to receive the gift and then goes happily to bed on Christmas Eve.  

It isn’t the best poetry. Thaxter’s rhyme and syntax are shaky, her words twisted to fit the meter. But she captures the drama and holiday spirit perfectly. We can all identify with the child’s unbridled excitement and with her parent’s guilt and concern. Celia Thaxter describes the gray skies that break on Christmas morning. We find little Piccola “just wild” with anticipation. She runs to see what the good saint has left in her shoe, but we know there is nothing there.  

Yet she dances into the room “happy as a queen,” Thaxter writes, and “never was seen such a joyful child.”  The reader wonders – how is this possible? (And how come our children get every costly toy today and still come up bored and wanting more?) Then the poet makes us wait an additional stanza, pulling us into the next room with Piccola’s confused parents. There we discover that “a little shivering bird” has flown in through the window and is resting in Piccola’s tiny shoe.  

The child is enraptured with the gift. What the reader sees as a coincidence or a miracle, Piccola sees as a validation of her good behavior in the eyes of St. Nicholas. The sparrow is a living reward, better than any manufactured toy, and she accepts it fully with a thankful heart. This is the “spirit of Christmas” in action, the miracle of hope, giving, and thankfulness. Thaxter, who once met writer Charles Dickens, accomplishes her own emotional ‘Christmas Carol” in just 36 lines of poetry.  


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Thursday, January 18, 2018 
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