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Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Throwback Thursday Object: Hellen Keller Describes One Christmas As a Student at a School for the Blind

Our object this week continues our celebration here at APH of the holiday season.  In the December 1906 issue of Ladies' Home Journal,  author and activist Helen Keller describes the Christmas holidays as experienced by herself and other blind students at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in the late 19th century.  Enjoy!

*The Ladies' Home Journal, December, 1906


Christmas in the Dark, by Helen Keller

When I was a little girl I spent the Christmas holidays one year at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Some of the children, whose homes were far away, or who had no homes, had remained at the school. I have never known a merrier Christmas than that.

I hear some one ask: "What pleasure can Christmas hold for children who cannot see their gifts or the sparkling tree or the ruddy smile of Santa Claus? "The question would be answered if you had seen that Christmas of the blind children. The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has not Christmas in his heart. We sightless children had the best of eyes that day in our hearts and in our finger-tips. We were glad from the child's necessity of being happy. The blind who have outgrown the child's perpetual joy can be children again on Christmas Day and celebrate in the midst of them who pipe and dance and sing a new song!

For ten days before the holiday I was never still a single moment. I would be one of the party that went Christmasing. I laid my hands on everything that offered itself in the shops, and insisted on buying whatever I touched, until my teacher's eyes could not follow my fingers. How she ever kept me within the bounds of the fitness of things, maintained the scale of values, and overtook the caprices of my fancy, is matter of amazement. To the prettiest doll I would adhere a moment, then discover a still prettier one, and by decision the more perplex her and myself. At last the presents were selected and brought home.

Next, a great Christmas tree, a cedar which towered above my head, was brought to the house where the children lived and planted in the middle of the parlour. Preparation kept'. us busy for a week. I helped to hang wreaths of holly in the windows and over pictures, and had my share in trimming the tree. I ascended and descended continually on the ladder to tie on little balls, apples, oranges, cornucopias, strings of popcorn and festoons of tinsel. Then we attached the little tapers which should set the tree aglow. Last came the gifts. As we placed one and then another, it became more and more difficult for my fingers to thread their way in and out between the candles, the dangling balls, and the swinging loops of corn and tinsel, to find a secure position for the gifts. It seemed as if the green, sweet-scented branches must break with the burden of love-offerings heaped upon them, and soon the higher branches did begin to bend alarmingly with each heavier bundle, "like the cliff-swallow's nest, most like to fall when fullest."

One of the last gifts I hung in the midst of the thick branches was a most unseasonable and incongruous exotic -- a toy cocoanut palm with a monkey, which had movable limbs, and which at the pressure of a spring would run up and slide down with a tiny cocoanut upon his head. Behold the miracle of toyland, a palm grafted upon a cedar! What matters botany? When a little girl wants anything to happen at Christmas, it happens and she is content.

Finally the tree was trimmed. Stars and crescents sparkled from branch to branch beneath my fingers, and farther up a large silver moon jostled the sun and stars. At the very top an angel with spread wings looked down on this wondrous, twinkling world -- the child's Christmas world complete! But I think the stupendous view must have made him a little dizzy, for he kept turning slantwise and crosswise and anywise but the way a Christmas angel should float over a Christmas tree.

My teacher and the motherly lady who was matron in that house were children themselves; it really seemed as if there could not be a grave, experienced grown-up in the world. We admonished each other not to let fall a whisper of the mysteries that awaited the blind children, and for once I kept the whole matter at a higher value than a state secret.

On Christmas Eve I went to bed early, only to hop up many times to rearrange some package, to which I remembered I had not given the finishing touches, and to use all my powers of persuasion with the unruly angel whom I invariably found in a reprehensible position.

Long before any one else was downstairs on Christmas morning, I took my last touch-look at the tree, and lo! the angel was correctly balanced, looking down in serene poise on the brilliant world below him. I suspected that Santa Claus had passed that way, and that under his discipline the angel, probably only a demi-angel, had been released from his sublunary infirmities. I turned to go, quite satisfied, when I discovered that Sadie's doll had shut her eyes on all the splendour that shone about her! "This will never do," I said -- "sleeping at this time!" I poked her vigorously, until she winked, and finally, to show she was really awake, kicked Jupiter in the side, which disturbed the starry universe. But I had the planets in their orbits again before it was time for them to shine on the children.

After a hurried breakfast the blind children were permitted to enter the parlour and pass their hands over the tree. They knew instantly, without eyes, what a marvellous tree it was, filled with the good smells of June, filled with the songs of birds that had southward flown, filled with fruit that at the slightest touch tumbled into their laps. I felt them shout, I felt them dance up and down, and we all crowded about and hugged each other in rapture.

I distributed all the gifts myself and felt the gestures of delight as the children opened them. Very pretty gifts they were, well suited to sightless children. No disappointing picture-books, or paint-boxes, or kaleidoscopes, or games that require the use of sight. But there were many toys wonderful to handle, dolls, both boys and girls, including a real baby doll with a bottle in its mouth; chairs, tables, sideboards, and china sets, pincushions and work-baskets, little cases containing self-threading needles that the blind can use, sweet-scented handkerchiefs, pretty things to wear, and dainty ornaments that render children fair to look upon. Blind children, who cannot see, love to make themselves pretty for others to see.

There were animals, too, fierce lions and tigers, which proved that appearances are most deceptive, for when one took their heads off one found them full of sweet things. One girl had a bear that danced and growled whenever she wound a key somewhere in the region of its neck. Another had a cow that mooed when she turned its head.

The older children received books in raised 'print, not mournful, religious books, such as some good people see fit to choose for the sightless, but pleasant ones like "Undine," or Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales," or "The Story of Patsy," or "Alice in Wonderland." Fairy tales, novels, essays, books of travel and history, and magazines well filled with news of the world and gossipy articles are thumbed by the blind until the raised letters are worn down. Books of gloomy, depressing character, and many that are full of dry wisdom and no doubt very good for our morals, are likely to repose on the top shelf until the dust takes possession of them. The blind are rendered by their very affliction keenly alive to what is joyous and diverting. Their books are necessarily few, and most of them ought to be delightful and entertaining.

After we had touched our presents to our hearts' content we romped and frolicked as long as the little ones could go, and longer. If you had looked in on our unlagging merriment and had never seen blind children at play before, you might have been surprised that in our wildest gyrations we did not run into the tree, or knock over a chair, or fall into the fire that burned on the hearth. I think, we must have looked like any other group of merry children. You would have learned that the way to make the blind happy at Christmas, and all the time, is to treat them as far as possible like other persons. They do not like to be continually reminded of their blindness, set aside and neglected, or even waited on too much.

Had you been our guest you would have received a gift from the sightless, for they have one precious gift for the world. In their misfortune they are often happy, and in that they give an inspiring challenge to those who see. Shall any seeing man dare to be sad at Christmas or permit a little child to be other than merry and light-hearted? What can excuse the seeing from the duty and privilege of happiness while the blind child joins so merrily in the jubilee?

"Tiny Tim" was glad to be at church on Christmas because he thought the sight of him might remind folk who it was that gave the lame power to walk. Even so the blind may remind their seeing brethren who it was that opened the blinded eyes, unstopped the deaf cars, gave health to the sick, and knowledge to the ignorant, and declared that mightier things even than these shall be fulfilled. All the afflicted who keep the blessed day compel the affectionate thought that He abides with us yet.

The legend tells that when Jesus was born the sun danced in the sky, the aged trees straightened themselves and put on leaves and sent forth the fragrance of blossoms once more. These are the symbols of what takes place in our hearts when the Christ- Child is born anew each year. Blessed by the Christmas sunshine, our natures, perhaps long leafless, bring forth new love, new kindness, new mercy, new compassion. As the birth of Jesus was the beginning of the Christian life, so the unselfish joy at Christmas shall start the spirit that is to rule the new year.
Micheal A. Hudson
Museum Director
American Printing House for the Blind


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