A Visit to Winterland

A Visit to Winterland

Editor’s Note: From time to time I am asked about the place of creative writing in a Charlotte Mason education. It turns out that in the days of “Aunt Mai’s Budget,” creative writing took a most vibrant and visible place. “Aunt Mai’s Budget” was the special children’s section of The Parents’ Review which ran from 1893 to 1900 and was edited by Emeline Steinthal. Steinthal played the role of Aunt Mai, and in January 1896 she announced the first creative writing competition:

Mrs. Sayer very kindly offers a Prize for the best Tale on Discontent. To be sent to Aunt Mai before the 30th.[1]

Several tales were composed by Steinthal’s young readers and submitted for evaluation. The “Tale Competition”[2] generated enough interest that in the following January, Steinthal noted a query from a “niece,” that is, a reader of “Aunt Mai’s Budget”:

One niece has already written to ask if subjects will be given for tales. Certainly, if you wish it. Will you write the Autobiography of an Umbrella, and send it to me before the 29th. The tales shall be passed round, and three votes can be given by each writer.[3]

This led to a new column in “Aunt Mai’s Budget” called “Little Authors.” Although the competitive aspect was dropped after this second tale, Steinthal went on to provide a new creative writing prompt every month or two, for example:

This month write a tale on “A Child, a Kitten and a Moonbeam.”[4]

Write a tale on “A Water-baby and a Swallow.”[5]

Write a tale on “Mab’s Temper, and how it was cured.”[6]

In October write a tale on “Selfish Benny.”[7]

One of the “little authors” was named Katharine Louise Osler. Born in 1879, she had been educated along the lines of Charlotte Mason at least since age 13. As we would expect, her facility with writing began with narration. In 1892, the young teenager was recognized in The Parents’ Review for one such written narration:

Mrs. Schultz awards her prize (Sesame and Lilies), for the best account of a favourite book, to K. L. Osler.[8]

Katharine was 17 when she read about Aunt Mai’s first tale competition. She submitted her original story entitled “Discontent,” but it did not win the most votes. Undeterred, she entered the next competition in 1897 and wrote on the assigned prompt, “Autobiography of an Umbrella.” This time she won.[9]

Katharine went on to write a tale on the prompt “A Water-baby and a Swallow” which was soon afterward published in two parts in “Aunt Mai’s Budget.”[10] There was no competition or prize this time; she apparently wrote simply for the joy of writing and sharing with others.

Then something interesting happened. Although Steinthal continued to supply new prompts every month or two, Katharine began to listen to a prompt that came from her own heart. She composed a delightfully imaginative and touching story about a young boy named Jack whose extended illness prevented him from participating in school lessons. Jack became so bored that his mother implored a poet friend to tell him stories to keep his mind and spirit active:

“You are the very person I want,” she said. “It is so difficult to keep Jack happy all day when he has nothing to occupy his mornings; and the doctor says, ‘No lessons at present,’ for the child is a good deal pulled down by his illness. But perhaps you are busy. I ought not to take it for granted that you will amuse this little mannie.”[11],

The poet obliged, and in the days which followed, he delighted Jack with several original tales. Katharine was now 19. Her story about Jack was published in five separate installments of “Aunt Mai’s Budget.” There was no prompt and no competition. But Steinthal clearly realized she had something special on her hands. The fruit of a heart and mind raised on living books and narration. A heart and mind given the freedom to follow her imagination and share what she found. This Christmas, let Katharine take you on a visit to Winterland. In the final two installments of her story about Jack, you’ll see that Winterland is a wonderful place. But you’ll never guess where she takes you next.

By Katharine Louise Osler
The Parents’ Review, 1898, pp. AMB 126-131, AMB 138-143

One day, just such a bright frosty day as this, which makes one feel as if one couldn’t sit still, I took it into my head to slide, which of course was very absurd, at my time of life. If I had realized where my slide would take me, perhaps I should never have made it, but I enjoyed myself so much that I have never regretted it. When I began to slide I found that I could not stop myself, but went sliding on and on, without any fear of falling, which is a delightful sensation. At last I saw some iron gates straight ahead of me, and began to wonder whether I should be able to stop myself, or whether I should slide bang into them, when to my surprise just as I came close to them they opened, and I slid right through them into a large white garden. All the ground was covered with snow, and all the paths were smooth ice, on which one had to slide or skate, for it was impossible to walk on them. This was awkward for me, because I had no skates with me, and I felt my power of sliding suddenly desert me, so the only way to keep on my legs was to remain quite still where I was. Presently I saw that the garden was peopled by many small figures, clad in white fur, whom I had not noticed before against the whiteness of everything else. Two of them soon came up to me, and said in commanding tones, which I felt there was no disobeying, “Advance, and give the pass-word!” I endeavoured to advance, but as soon as I took a step, down I went, and in a sitting position went sliding, sliding, sliding, right to the door of a great white palace, which stood almost hidden among leafless trees and huge evergreen bushes. Here I got up, not having enjoyed my second slide so much as my first. I was again requested to give the pass-word, but could only answer feebly, “I don’t know what it is.”

“Not know the pass-word? Then however did you get in?” they asked.

“I—I—I slid,” I murmured, tremulously, “and then the gates opened, and I came right in; I couldn’t help it I’m sure, and I’ll never do it again, if you’ll only let me go home.”

The fur-clad creatures now began bowing in a most reverential manner, and at first I thought I was the object of their respect, when I saw it was not to me but to a lady who was skating gracefully towards us that they made their obeisances. She was very tall, and clad form head to feet in a magnificent ermine robe, form under the hood of which a few stray locks of golden hair curled bewitchingly round her sweet merry face. She was followed by two ladies-in-waiting, clad in white bear-skin, and two stalwart beef-eaters.

“Who is this?” she asked, looking at me calmly with her blue eyes.

“If you please, your Majesty, he says he slid here by accident, and doesn’t know the pass-word,” said the furry members of the palace guard.

“Who are you?” asked the queen.

“I am a poor poet, your Majesty,” I replied, “who had no intention of intruding upon your domains, and begs your clemency.”

“And you shall have it,” she said, graciously. “I speak for myself and for the King, who is truly hearty and kind, though some people speak of him as ‘inclement Winter.’ Come, follow me”; and so saying she led the way into a magnificent hall, its glass-like floor covered with skins, its walls hung with ice mirrors, and sparkling as with a thousand gems; while the hall was beautifully decorated with wreaths of evergreens, which several servants were still at work in arranging.

“We are going to have a party to-night,” said the queen, “and these preparations are for it. Sit down on that heap of skins, and make yourself comfortable, and I will send someone to look after you.”

I sat still wondering what would happen next, until the door opened, and two hot mince-pies walked in, followed by a cup of coffee, the steam of which curled itself into letters, which I read, until at last I spelt out the words, “Please help yourself,” which I took to be an invitation to consume the mince-pies and coffee. Lifting one of the former, I found that it rested on two little tin legs, which ran away as soon as I had taken the pie, as did also the supporters of the other pie, and the cup of coffee. Scarcely had I finished this little meal, when the door again opened to admit the Lord Chamberlain, whom I recognised by his ivory wand. He said the King and Queen wished to see me in the morning-room.

I followed his lordship into a small but cheerful apartment, where I found the King and Queen, and two or three pretty children.

“Oh!” said King Winter, “how d’ye do, Mr.—er—”

“Skittles,” said I, some unaccountable impulse prompting me to give a name which was not my own.

“Mr. Skittles, we’re very pleased to make your acquaintance. You’ll excuse us receiving you en famille like this, I hope. My wife said I ought to have received you in state in the throne room, but it’s such a bother getting on the crown and all the other paraphernalia, and then there’s mounting the steps to the throne, and what not, so I thought perhaps you’d not mind coming in here and taking us as we are.”

I acknowledged his Majesty’s kindness and condescension, and he continued, “Now, Mr. Skittles, we are having a family gathering this evening; we are expecting my father-in-law, Mr. Santa Claus and his wife, and son Nicholas; and my wife and I shall esteem it an honour if you will spend the day with us, and make one of our guests to-night.”

Of course I thanked the King, and said I should be “most happy,” and then he suggested that I might like to take a walk, and sent Jack Frost with me. So putting on a pair of skates each, we started off down a side path. The first thing we met was a ready trussed turkey trotting towards the palace.

“That’s for to-night,” said Prince Frost.

By-and-by we met a batch of mince-pies, then a huge iced cake, and then I saw, to my horror, an object staggering down the path, wobbling from side to side, and evidently having much difficulty in keeping on its legs at all.

“It’s drunk,” I said, in disgust.

“Why, that’s the tipsy cake,” cried Jack Frost. “All right, old fellow, you’re expected,” and the cake staggered on, and eventually arrived safely at the palace, as I can testify, for I tasted it that evening.

The walk through the snowy garden soon became rather monotonous, and I was not sorry to return to the palace. We entered through a side door, and were just in time to see lunch walk on to the table. Soon afterwards, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and Nicholas arrived in their reindeer sleigh, with a great jingling of bells.

The old gentleman was just like his pictures, rosy and good-tempered looking, with snowy hair and beard, and clad in a red, fur-lined robe and hood. Mrs. Santa Claus was cosily attired in velvet and fur, and had a sweet face, with the expression that mammas and aunties have when the children come to tell them what Santa Claus has put in their stockings. As for Nicholas, he was a merry little fellow, who teased his fair sister by giving his nieces and nephews unlimited sugar-plums. You may be sure I was all eagerness to hear how these great people talked, and I listened with much diligence, but their conversation was not unlike that of other people.

Santa Claus said, “Well, Blanche, my dear, how are you and your husband and the children? But I am sure I need not ask, for you all look so well.” And then he had a long talk with King Winter, while Mrs. Santa Claus was saying to her daughter, “My dear child, such a drive as we’ve had, I thought we should never get here. And just as we were starting Mr. Nansen called and hindered us ever so long, and you know your father doesso dislike to have the reindeer kept waiting.” Whereupon the Queen was very sympathetic, seeing which, and under the cheering influence of a cup of tea, Mrs. Santa Claus brightened up, and said, “Oh! well it’s all over now, and here we are, safe and sound, so it doesn’t matter after all.” And then the conversation became general, and we talked of many things, including Nansen, which brought to Mrs. Santa Claus’s mind a message from that gentleman to say he would join Queen Winter’s party that evening if he possibly could, though he should probably be late. By-and-by we went to dress for the evening, and just as I was wondering what I should do a well-fitting suit of evening clothes entered my room.

When we went downstairs we had tea and coffee, and I admired the ladies’ dresses. Queen Winter looked lovely in a gown of snow-flakes trimmed with bands of glittering frost, and the little princesses also wore snow dresses, while Jack Frost was clad in a close-fitting suit of black and white. The court jester was there in full clown’s costume, also Harlequin and Columbine, who were to assist in a Christmas pantomime.

At seven o’clock precisely a royal salute of thirty crackers was fired to announce the approach of T.S., the Cracker King. And now the guests began to arrive, thick and fast. I can’t tell you all the people I met there whom I had longed to meet. There were Scrooge, and Tiny Tim, and Mr. Pickwick, and his friends, and old Wardle, and the Queen of the Fairies, and Sir Roger de Coverley, and many others. When the King and Queen had received their guests, the trumpets played a fanfare, and we adjourned to the hall, which presented a most gorgeous spectacle. It was hung with greenery and sparkled with frost. A beautiful ice floor had been laid for dancing, mistletoe was conveniently hung in several places, one end of the hall was curtained off for the pantomime, and in the centre, reaching from floor to ceiling, was a Christmas-tree loaded with gifts and ornaments, and sparkling with real frost and snow. Santa Claus took up his stand by the tree, and Nicholas, climbing into its branches, threw down the presents from the higher boughs to his papa, who proceeded to distribute them. When everyone had received a gift and the tree was stripped, Santa Claus exclaimed, “Why, I had forgotten my presents,” and hurrying off, soon returned with a pack, which contained a present for everyone, including myself, who received a penholder with the end carved in the likeness of Santa Claus. After this we had snap-dragon and other Christmas games, and then returned to the dining room for supper, and after supper came dancing. Then most of the guests said “Good-night.” I stayed at the palace until the next day, when I was driven home in the reindeer sleigh by Santa Claus, who told me I must come and visit him at his place at the North Pole before long.

“Did you ever go?” asked Jacky.

“Oh! that’s quite another story…” replied the poet.

One morning I received by post the following invitation:—

Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus
“At Home,”
Dec. 22nd, 18—, 7-11.
Display of Christmas Presents.
North Pole, Arctic Regions.

Don’t ask me how the journey to the North Pole was performed, because I don’t know; but at seven o’clock on the evening stated I found myself in a fine, large room, with stalls round it draped with “Arctic” muslin, and loaded with all sorts of pretty things, while at one end was a splendid refreshment table—in fact, it looked just like a large bazaar.

I was welcomed with much cordiality by Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and their son, and I was pleased to see among the guests my recent acquaintances, King and Queen Winter. More guests soon began to arrive, but I noticed there were no children among them—this was evidently quite a grown-up party. Presently Santa Claus said to me, “Now, Mr. Skittles, I will show you the presents, if you care to see them, before the room gets crowded. First let me explain my method. The parents, grand-parents, aunts, and so on, come and tell me what the children would like, and I take care that the things are supplied. Now you, for instance, do you want anything for anybody?”

“Yes, lots of things,” I said, and selected a regular heap of presents, but you need not expect me to tell you what they were, or who they are for. I could not see anything for myself, which rather alarmed me, until Santa Claus told me that people were not allowed to see their own presents beforehand.

“My plan is this,” said Santa Claus. “Every year, just before Christmas, I take a census of every child in Christendom, and prepare a present for each one.”

“But do you find that a successful plan?” I asked, “for I know that some children get a great number of Christmas presents, and many get none at all.”

“Yes,” said Santa Claus, sadly, “but that is because there are so many children who have no one to give them presents, and so many whose parents do not care enough about them to do so, hence there are lots of things left over every year for those whose relations and friends think they cannot do too much for them.”

“Look here,” he continued, pausing before one of the stalls, “look at all these things that will not be wanted, just because nobody cares for the dear little people for whom I have prepared them.”

“I know,” I said, “but can nothing be done? Nay, much is done, I know, to find and provide for these uncared-for children.”

“Yes, much is done,” answered Santa Claus, “but much more might be done. Take one little way in which children might help. If every child, to whom I shall bring many presents this Christmas, were to give one of those to some child who will have none, it might lead to much besides the added happiness to each child, from the actual receiving and giving of the present; but we must talk of this another time. Come, now, and see more of my presents; look at this motor-car, to go by real steam, and this model switchback with cars big enough for these waxen ladies to ride in. Are they not wonderful? Do you think me very babyish for taking such an interest in children’s toys?”

“Not at all. Which are your favourites, Santa Claus?”

“Well, of course, the mechanical toys are very amusing for the first time or two of working, and a rocking-horse is splendid fun, and for exercise for both boys and girls there is nothing to beat a good old-fashioned ball, if properly used; but if you ask for my prime favourites”—

“Yes?” I said, politely.

“Well, don’t betray me to any up-to-date little girls, as I fear they would despise me for it; but I think my favourites of all are the dolls. Now, don’t betray my confidence, for I know dolls are quite out of favour with modern girls, who prefer bicycles, bats, books, animals, or almost anything you like to mention, and are constantly sending word, ‘no more dolls, please,’ or ‘not a doll, please, they’re so stupid, I’m tired of them’; so I send them something else, but keep a soft corner in my own heart for the dolls. Here they are, babies in cradles, brides, court ladies, dancers, Scotch laddies, Welsh women, Italian flower-girls, Girton girls, Punches, wooden Dutch dolls, dolls of all sizes, all sorts, all nations.”

We then passed to the soldiers, and a gay show they made, arranged in regiments, among toy drums, guns, swords, and trumpets.

The next stall was devoted to different representations of dear old Noah’s Ark, varying in value from sixpence to about two guineas. I was inclined to linger here, but fearing to keep Santa Claus too long from his other guests, I passed on humming—

“The animals came in two by two,
Hurrah! Hurrah!” etc.

The book-stall, too, was dreadfully hard to pass, and I will not begin to describe it or I should give too much time to its delights.

As we passed the doll’s-house and doll’s furniture stall, I accidentally knocked down a little piano. I apologised profusely; but Santa Claus, after examining it, said, “Oh, it’s none the worse; how pleased Violet will be when she gets it! She is a little girl with no brothers and sisters, and, like many other children, she has so many toys it is difficult to think of new presents to give her. However, one of her great interests is her beautiful doll’s-house, and she said to her mother one day, she did ‘wish Santa Claus would bring her a piano for the drawing-room.’”

“You must hear and see some very interesting things on your rounds,” I said.

“Yes, I could fill volumes of story-books if I had time, but I have to leave that work to others. However, I could tell you a few of my experiences if you would care to hear them.”

Of course I said I should, and Santa Claus led me to a stall on which was a curious medley of things, some of them quite shabby, and very different from the new bright toys I had just been admiring.

“Every article on this stall has a history,” began Santa Claus, taking in his hand a beautiful and expensive-looking toy. “I keep this in remembrance of a very dear little boy, whose present it was to have been. The year before I took some beautiful things to his home for him and for his brothers and sisters. They had some aunts and uncles, and many little cousins to spend Christmas with them. All was so gay and merry, I thought the children would never be got to bed in time for me to put the things into their stockings. My little favourite kept talking about me, and wondering what I should bring for himself and the others. The next year I heard this toy was what he wanted, so I came as usual on Christmas Eve, but when I drew near how different was the present look of his home. A year ago every window had been lighted up, bright faces could be seen peeping behind the blinds, lively music could be heard. Now all was silent, there were few lights, noiseless figures moved to and fro, and in one room a shaded lamp burnt steadily. With a heavy heart I looked into that room, and saw my little friend lying there with flushed cheeks and bright eyes, while his father and mother watched sorrowfully by the bed. I crept away with my present; it was not needed, and I keep it still in remembrance of my little friend.”

“That was a story with a bright beginning and a sad ending; now I will tell you one that begins badly, but ends well,” said the old gentleman, taking up a number of funny little figures cut out of writing paper; figures of race-horses, with jockeys that could be put on the horses, figures of dogs, dolls, soldiers, ships, and all wonderfully clever. “These were made by a poor lady for her little child, and in doing them she lost some of her own anxious care. The mother was the wife of a sea-captain, and had hitherto always lived in comfort. Every Christmas until now she had had money to buy presents for her little daughter as Christmas-time drew near. But one year she heard nothing of her husband for many months, and was beginning to be very uneasy, when at last the ship was reported to be lost, and all the crew drowned. The wife, though almost heart-broken, roused herself from her grief for the sake of duty and right. She tried earnestly to find some means of earning her living, but this was no easy task, and poverty soon stared her in face. Not a penny must be spent but such as was actually necessary, and as Christmas drew near she feared her child could have nothing from Santa Claus. She was, however, very clever at cutting out paper figures, and, thinking she might by a set of new ones, give the child some little surprise and amusement on Christmas Day, she put her early to bed on Christmas Eve and then set to work with her scissors and paper, but, remembering an errand she ought to have done, she left her poor lodgings for a short time to do it. The town was busy, and she was kept out longer than she liked, but when she returned, what was her surprise to find that Santa Claus had been in her absence and filled both of her little daughter’s stockings, and that a tempting meal was spread on the table, and going to the door to make enquiries of her landlady, she was taken in a pair of strong arms, and looked up with unspeakable thankfulness into the face of her husband, who had not been drowned after all! In the happiness which followed the poor little paper figures were forgotten, so I carried them away with me, to put among my curiosities.”

We now stood before the refreshment table, and Santa Claus insisted on my having some supper, after which I felt obliged to give place to the other people who wanted to talk to him, and after another look round the stalls, I found out Mrs. Santa Claus, wished her good-night and a happy Christmas, and after thanking her for her delightful entertainment, I returned home.

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Endnotes for the Editor’s Note

[1] The Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 62.

[2] The Parents’ Review, vol. 7, p. 465.

[3] The Parent’s Review, vol. 8, p. AMB 13.

[4] Ibid., p. AMB 63.

[5] Ibid., p. AMB 88.

[6] The Parent’s Review, vol. 9, p. AMB 26.

[7] Ibid., p. AMB 111.

[8] The Parents’ Review, vol. 3, p. 79.

[9] The Parent’s Review, vol. 8, p. AMB 49.

[10] Ibid., pp. AMB 124-131, AMB 138-139.

[11] The Parent’s Review, vol. 9, p. AMB 94.

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