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Friday, November 3, 2023

Sangster - A Birthday Party - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

It wasn't a surprise party, more like when we could get the three with birthdays that fell within a month together.  There was a gathering at a nearby Chinese buffet, so the three of us and other family members could have exactly what we wanted to eat.  The Birthday song wasn't sung, but a lot of conversation and the restaurant's festive lighting made it special.  (The lights were probably originally for a Christmas tree, constantly changing colors.)  

Over the centuries people have celebrated birthdays in far humbler ways.  I found a story dating back over a century ago.  The language at times is most charitably called "quaint."  To re-tell the story to today's audiences, I would certainly change some of it.  What I wouldn't change is the idea behind it.  Because the author, Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, was often involved with religious publications or volunteer work, it's not surprising that she weaves in a bit of Luke, chapter 14, that comes right before the parable about "The Great Banquet."  She also was a poet, so when a poem is inserted in the story, the storyteller could reach in a basket or purse to bring it out and read it.  (The poem's formatting didn't transfer well from the Gutenberg reprint, so I put it all in bold.)  Sangster's party is much more personal than the Biblical banquet, with a story of how family and friends manage to turn a birthday into a celebration even though very little money is available.  It's a perfect example of "It's the thought that counts."

Unnamed illustrator's frontispiece from Holiday Stories for Young People compiled & edited by M.E. Sangster

A Birthday Story.


Jack Hillyard turned over in his hand the few bits of silver which he had taken from his little tin savings-bank. There were not very many of them, a ten cent piece, a quarter, half a dollar and an old silver six-pence. And he had been saving them up a long, long time.

"Well," said Jack to himself, soberly, "there aren't enough to buy mother a silk dress, but I think I'll ask Cousin Susy, if she won't spend my money and get up a birthday party for the darling little mother. A birthday cake, with, let me see, thirty-six candles, that'll be a lot, three rows deep, and a big bunch of flowers, and a book. Mother's never had a birthday party that I remember. She's always been so awfully busy working hard for us, and so awfully tired when night came, but I mean her to have one now, or my name's not Jack."

Away went Jack to consult Cousin Susy.

He found her very much occupied with her dressmaking, for she made new gowns and capes for all the ladies in town, and she was finishing up Miss Kitty Hardy's wedding outfit. With her mouth full of pins, Cousin Susy could not talk, but her brown eyes beamed on Jack as she listened to his plan. At last she took all the pins out of her mouth, and said:

"Leave it all to me, Jack. We'll give her a surprise party; I'll see about everything, dear. Whom shall we ask?"

"When thou makest a dinner or a supper," said Jack, repeating his golden text of the last Sunday's lesson, "call not thy friends, nor thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors, lest they also bid thee again and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed, for they cannot recompense thee."

"Jack! Jack! Jack!" exclaimed Cousin Susy.

"I was only repeating my last golden text," answered Jack. "We don't often have to give a feast, and as it was so extraordinary," said Jack, saying the big word impressively, "I thought of my verse. I suppose we'd better ask the people mother likes, and they are the poor, the halt, the blind, and the deaf; for we haven't any rich neighbors, nor any kinsmen, except you, dear Cousin Susy."

"Well, I'm a kinswoman and a neighbor, dear, but I'm not rich. Now, let me see," said Miss Susy, smoothing out the shining white folds of Kitty Hardy's train. "We will send notes, and you must write them. There is old Ralph, the peddler, who is too deaf to hear if you shout at him ever and ever so much, but he'll enjoy seeing a good time; and we'll have Florrie Maynard, with her crutches and her banjo, and she'll have a happy time and sing for us; and Mrs. Maloney, the laundress, with her blind Patsy. I don't see Jackie, but you'll have a Scripture party after all. Run along and write your letters, and to-night we'll trot around and deliver them."

This was the letter Jack wrote:

"Dear Friend:—My mother's going to have a birthday next Saturday night, and she'll be thirty-six years old. That's pretty old. So I'm going to give her a surprise birthday party, and Cousin Susy's helping me with the surprise. Please come and help too, at eight o'clock sharp.

"Yours truly,


When this note was received everybody decided to go, and, which Jack did not expect, everybody decided to take a present along.

"You'll spend all my money, won't you?" said Jack.

"Certainly, my boy, I will, every penny. Except, perhaps, the old silver sixpence. Suppose we give that to the mother as a keepsake?"

"Very well, you know best. All I want is that she shall have a good time, a very good time. She's such a good mother."

"Jack," said Susy, "you make me think of some verses I saw in a book the other day. Let me read them to you." And Cousin Susy, who had a way of copying favorite poems and keeping them, fished out this one from her basket:


    Little Hans was helping mother 


    Carry home the lady's basket;  


    Chubby hands of course were lifting  


    One great handle—can you ask it?  


    As he tugged away beside her,  


    Feeling oh! so brave and strong,  


    Little Hans was softly singing  


    To himself a little song:

    "Some time I'll be tall as father,  

    Though I think it's very funny,  

    And I'll work and build big houses,  

    And give mother all the money,  

    For," and little Hans stopped singing, 

    Feeling oh! so strong and grand, 

    "I have got the sweetest mother  

    You can find in all the land."

Now, some people couldn't do very much with the funds at Cousin Susy's disposal, but she could, and when Jack's money was spent for refreshments what do you think they had? Why, a great big pan of gingerbread, all marked out in squares with the knife, and raisins in it; and a round loaf of cup cake, frosted over with sugar, with thirty-six tiny tapers all ready to light, and a pitcher of lemonade, a plate of apples, and a big platter of popped corn.

Jack danced for joy, but softly, for mother had come home from her day's work and was tired, and the party was to be a surprise, and she was not to be allowed to step into the little square parlor.

That parlor was the pride of Jack and his mother. It had a bright rag carpet, a table with a marble top, six chairs, and a stool called an ottoman. On the wall between the windows hung a framed picture of Jack's dear father, who was in heaven, and over the mantelpiece there was a framed bouquet of flowers, embroidered by Jack's mother on white satin, when she had been a girl at school.

"Seems to me, Jack," said Mrs. Hillyard as she sat down in the kitchen to her cup of tea, "there is a smell of fresh gingerbread; I wonder who's having company."

Jack almost bit his tongue trying not to laugh.

"Oh!" said he grandly, "gingerbread isn't anything, mamma. When I'm a man you shall have pound-cake every day for breakfast."

By and by Mrs. Maloney and Patsy dropped in.

"I thought," said Mrs. Maloney, "it was kind o'lonesome-like at home, and I'd step in and see you and Jack to-night, ma'am."

"That was very kind," replied Mrs. Hillyard.

"Why, here comes Mr. Ralph," she added. "Well the more the merrier!"

Tap, tap, tap.

The neighbors kept coming, and coming, and Jack grew more and more excited, till at last when all were present, Cousin Susy, opening the parlor door, displayed the marble-top of the table covered with a white cloth, and there were the refreshments.

"A happy birthday, mother."

"Many returns."

"May you live a hundred years."

One and another had some kind word to say, and each gave a present, a card, or a flower, or a trifle of some sort, but with so much good will and love that Mrs. Hillyard's face beamed. All day she stood behind a counter in a great big shop, and worked hard for her bread and Jack's, but when evening came she was a queen at home with her boy and her friends to pay her honor.

"And were you surprised, and did you like the cake and the thirty-six candles, dearest, darling mamma?" said Jack, when everybody had gone home.

"Yes, my own manly little laddie, I liked everything, and I was never so surprised in my life." So the birthday party was a great success.

May you, too, enjoy many happy birthdays and other intimate celebrations.  Whether it happens in a restaurant or a private location, "It's the thought that counts."


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.

Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-

  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.

  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.
    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"

The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:        

         - David K. Brown -

         - Richard Martin -

         - Spirit of Trees -

         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for December 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.

       - World of Tales - 

           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.

You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!

    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.

You can see why I recommend these to you. 

Have fun discovering even more stories


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