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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.  



Celia the naturalist  

We know Celia Thaxter as an author and a painter, as the hostess of her family’s Appledore House at the Isles of Shoals, and as the keeper of her famous island garden there. From her earliest days growing up beside the White Island lighthouse, she  was a born naturalist too. She picked wildflowers, gathered sea moss and shells, studied the weather, and came to know the birds that found their way to her small rocky planet 10 miles offshore.  

In her later years Thaxter campaigned against the use of bird feathers in women’s hats. She wrote to a friend: “I cannot express to you my distress at the destruction of the birds. You know how I love them; every other poem I have written has some bird for its subject, and I look at the ghastly horror of women’s headgear with absolute suffering.”  

Thaxter became secretary of the Audubon Society in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1886. She wrote an article for the first edition of Audubon Magazine entitled “Women’s Heartlessness.”  In the article she mourned the fact that the beauty of birds made them a target for human vanity. “Ah me,” she wrote as if speaking to an oriole, “your dead body may disfigure some woman’s head.” 


McGuffey’s millions  

Increasingly known as a writer for children, Thaxter evangelized her affection for birds in scores of poems published in magazines and books for young readers. Her poem about Piccola and the sparrow was selected to appear in McGuffey’s Fourth Reader, the most influential school textbook in America in the 19th century.  

William Holmes McGuffey (born 1800) became an itinerant teacher in his early teens. He popularized the concept of “graded primers,” early textbooks designed to become more complex as students advanced through school. The first series of four volumes was published in 1836. McGuffey’s books are still popular today among families with homeschooled children. McGuffey was also interested in moral education and for his advanced primers he often included reading selections from the Bible, or from notables like Milton and Shakespeare. Celia Thaxter, born on Daniel Street in Portsmouth in 1835, was homeschooled by her parents at the Isles of Shoals, and likely knew McGuffey’s readers well.  

It is equally likely that William McGuffey never saw Thaxter’s poem. He died in 1873 and “Piccola” appeared, appropriately, in the popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas in November 1875. Later editors (Harriet Beecher Stowe who knew Thaxter was among them) added the poem to the 1879 edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Reader and it was included in Thaxter’s own poetry collection Drift-Weed the following year in 1880. “Piccola” continued to appear in edition after edition of McGuffey’s, often with new illustrations, and was popular well into the 20th century.  

Untold thousands of school children read the poem aloud or heard it recited by their teacher. They discussed the vocabulary words in the text and answered questions following the poem, like “Who was St. Nicholas?” and “What did Piccola find in her shoe?”  

In 1914 writer Frances Jenkins Olcott adapted Celia Thaxter’s poem into prose for an anthology including 120 stories about American holidays. In Olcott’s version, Piccola’s mother is a widow forced to work in the fields and unable even to buy bread. Piccola nurses the sparrow through the winter and teaches it to peck crumbs of food from her lips. She releases the bird in the spring, but it continues to live outside her window and sing to her. The added details do nothing for the story and the drama of Thaxter’s well-crafted poem is lost in translation.  

McGuffey’s Reader sold an estimated 120 million copies in its peak years, even more than the Da Vinci Code today. But the story of poor Piccola, Celia Thaxter’s Christmas masterpiece, has simply flown away.  

 READ THE POEM "Piccola"

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online

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