The Mystery of a Whittier Christmas Quote

Haverhill-born poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

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Editor’s Note: Thursday, Dec 17, was Haverhill-born poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s 213th birthday.

Many Americans remember, especially at Christmas, on greeting cards or in other publications, the following lines attributed to John Greenleaf Whittier:

For somehow, not only for Christmas, but all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you;
And the more you spend in blessing the poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart’s possessing, returns to make you glad.

But do they belong to Whittier?

On Dec. 24, 2015, in “Quote Investigator,” an online source[1], an anonymous contributor traces the genesis of these lines. According to this person, they originated in a poem, “The Christmas Tree,” written by Margaret E. Sangster and published in 1878 in “The Elocutionist's Journal.”[2] “The Christmas Tree” is a touching poem about two angels who encourage little Florence to have her own Christmas tree and surround it with gifts for some poor children she knows. The lines below, thoroughly in keeping with the theme, conclude the poem:

For somehow, not only for Christmas, but all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you;
And the more you spend in blessing the poor, the lonely and sad,
The more to your heart’s possessing, returns to make you glad.

On Dec. 6, 1900, in the “Michigan School Moderator,”[3] the following two selections appeared:

For somehow, not only for Christmas, but all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others, is the joy that comes back to you;
And the more you spend in blessing the poor and the lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing, returns to make you glad.

Blow, bugles of battle the marches of peace;
East, west, north, and south, let the long quarrel cease;
Sing the song of great joy that the angels began,
Sing of glory to God and of good will to man.   —Whittier

Although both selections are attributed to Whittier, only the second is definitely his, from his poem, “A Christmas Carmen” (1872).  The first is Margaret Sangster’s, from “The Christmas Tree.”  (Note the subtle license editors have taken in the poems above with the last words in the third line and, in the last line, the replacement of the preposition to by of (“of your heart's” instead of “to your heart’s), which is the way the poem has been passed down since.) The anonymous writer in “Quote Investigator” concludes that the two poems appear together with Whittier’s name due to “an error made at the turn of the twentieth century” (4).

Is it possible that these famous lines are not Whittier’s, after all?  It is easy to imagine a busy editor forgetting to add Margaret Sangster’s name after the first selection and leaving only Whittier’s (rightly so) after the second, thereby creating the impression that both selections were his. It is also not hard to imagine that this error could have been picked up by other publications and perpetuated until the present time. Incidentally, John Greenleaf Whittier himself had no idea about the 1900 attribution, having died in 1892.

Is this the end of the discussion? Could it be that Sangster took the last lines in “The Christmas Tree” from a Whittier poem? It is possible, of course, but someone would have to find the source in Whittier’s work. Only a line-by-line examination of all of Whittier’s poems would give a possible definitive answer.

Anyone interested in reading a fuller explanation can find the entire discussion, including a photo of Margaret Sangster, at this link.

[1]Anonymous. “The Joy That You Give to Others is the Joy That Comes Back to You.” Quote Investigator, Dec. 24 2015, link: https://quoteinvestigator.com/tag/margaret-e-sangster/.

[2]Margaret E. Sangster. “The Christmas Tree.” The Elocutionist's Journal, no. 11, Jan. 1878, p.1.

[3]John Greenleaf Whittier. In “The Schoolroom” (selections). Michigan School Moderator, vol. 22, no. 7, Dec. 6 1900, p. 215.

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