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Introduction to Snapdragons. Borgo, Mary Elizabeth.
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Introduction to Snapdragons

By Mary Borgo

This book edition of “Snapdragons” and “Old Father Christmas” (printed in 1888) presents these Christmas stories with fanciful illustrations by Gordon Browne. The tone of the tales is remarkably lighthearted compared to often heavy-handed children's literature popular at the time. Readers acquainted with Ewing's work will notice familiar figures, the bachelor and the faithful dog, as well as her creative use of proverbs. Taken as a pair, these stories describe two types of children on Santa's list: the naughty and the nice.

The family in “Snapdragons” are the Skratdjs, who (as their name suggests) squabble and bicker with each other constantly. This verbal biting and scratching turns physical when Harry meets the Snapdragons, fantastical emanations from a Christmas dish of raisins soaked in brandy set alight to crisp them. Transformed by this fantastical encounter, Harry resolves to stop his contentious ways. The moral message, however, is not just aimed at children. Ewing uses the framework of the children's story to approach very adult topics as well, such as marriage and temperance. Both the children and the parents begin the tale by discussing marital roles. The dialogue between Harry and his sister Polly, for example, proposes two views of marriage: one in which the man dominates, and the other in which the woman controls. Ewing does not settle this debate, but rather portrays the very battle for power within marriage as negative. The Skradtj parents, meanwhile, are no models themselves. Their house guests and their hosts are shocked by their bickering. And the adverse effects of the uncontrollable tongue are redoubled by the negative consequences of intemperance. Harry's delight in watching the brandy burn on the dish of raisins (to make the “snapdragons” that inspire the story's fantasy) turns into a nightmare when he tries to add more alcohol to the plate. This portrayal of the untamable tongue and the unquenchable thirst very effectively encourage children to behave with moderation.

In contrast to the Skratdjs are Godfather Garbel and his sister Patti in “Old Father Christmas.” Models of Christmas spirit and cheer, they exhibit goodness, kindness, and hospitality. the narrative encourages children to emulate their manners through positive reinforcement of this behavior. The children have a strong respect for their parents, a resilient work ethic, and an exceptional knowledge of the Bible. The adults in this story play a very different role from those in “Snapdragons.” The parents uphold the magic of Christmas by using a case of mistaken identity to disguise their role as gift-givers. While the children have tea with a poor old man whom they have mistakenly taken for Father Christmas, the parents disappear to the parlor, and reappear only to announce that Father Christmas has decorated the tree. Their dedication keeps the spirit of Christmas unspoiled.

In both of these tales, Ewing uses bachelor male figures to guide the children and to give them moral instruction. The “Hot-Tempered Gentleman” of “Snapdragons” warns the children of what will come if they do not cease their bickering. His personality does not line up to his nickname: unrelated by blood to the Skratdjs, he bears it perhaps to ease his insertion into this family sphere of endless squabblers. Godfather Garbel, on the other hand, relates tales of his own childhood that model good behavior, and his memories of his own godmother reveal the power of the outside adult figure to tell stories for the family and, through these stories, to reshape it--much as Ewing herself, as a writer, and as “Aunt Judy,” may have hoped to influence her wide circle of readers through her tales. These figures occupy a space that is neither completely inside or outside the family circle, allowing them to connect with children at their own level whilst retaining some kind of of detached moral authority.

The smorgasbord of proverbs Ewing incorporates into her stories, many of which are featured in this edition as running titles, also underlines their moral value. These sayings are not exclusively English, but also French, German, and Danish. Almost all of them bear spelling and syntactical similarities to entries in Henry Bohn's 1857 compilation of European proverbs, A polyglot of foreign proverbs: comprising French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Danish, with English translations and a general index. With the wealth of continental European maxims his work opened up to her, Ewing draws upon their strong storytelling traditions to form her own distinctive style.

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