A particular Christmas, or to be more exact, two Christmases, entered the modern imagination in 1868 through a much-beloved storybook, coloring our vision of Christmas ever since.

The first of these Christmases takes place under the shadow of war—the Civil War. A few days before the holiday, the four young daughters of an absent army chaplain mope together in the home that now seems so empty. They ruefully consider their holiday prospects: their "straightened circumstances" have reduced the customary Christmas bounty to a mere dollar apiece, doled out by their mother.

At first, each broods over her meager treasures, planning self-indulgent purchases. But in the end, they spend the money on gifts for their mother.

Each girl has evident talents but also evident weaknesses. The oldest is a motherly sort, perhaps grown up too soon, who works as a governess. Next is the tomboy, an aspiring author (transparently, the book's author) and the family instigator, always writing and staging melodramas ...

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