How the Captain Made Christmas {Book Club}

Here we are with our third Christmas short story:  How the Captain Made Christmas by Thomas Nelson Page.

You know the drill, I’m going to share a bit about the author and then we’ll dive into discussing the story. So, if you don’t want to read any spoiler alerts, you’ve got another paragraph or two and then it’s on you for what you see :).

Thomas Nelson Page (April 23, 1853 – November 1, 1922) “was a lawyer and American writer. He also served as the U.S. ambassador to Italy under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a meal with him?! Oh the history he saw. In particular, I’d love to chat with him about being an ambassador during WWI. Here’s what I know:

“Under President Woodrow Wilson, Page was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Italy for six years between 1913 and 1919. Despite being untrained in Italian and having little experience in governmental affairs, Page was determined to do a good job. He eventually learned Italian, formed beneficial relationships with Italian government officials, and accurately reported on the Italian state during World War One. During his time as ambassador Page managed to maintain and improve American-Italian relations during The First World War, and provided a sympathetic ear to the Italian and Triple Entente cause in the U.S government. After a disagreement with President Wilson over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, in which he argued for increased Italian benefits, Page resigned his post in 1919. His book entitled Italy and the World War (1920) is a memoir of his service there.”

Doesn’t that leave you wanting to know more about that season in his life? I have a feeling we could learn a bit from him and apply it to our line of work.

Okay, I’m going to dive into the story!


First I want to start by saying that when I got to the part where the porter, Nick, was introduced, I cringed. And I thought of you reading the story and wondering why Amy would pick something that had a reference to darker skinned people with such pejorative terms. Then we got to some of the marriage stuff and I thought, “game over.” There will be gnashing of teeth the world over.

But then I remembered that I’m not responsible for (a) common, though disgusting, ideas from over a century ago and (b) if we only read “safe” pieces, we’ll be passing milk toast around and congratulating ourselves on how interesting we are. Ugh. That doesn’t appeal to me either. I’ll be the one slipping out the back door with a fake emergency.

So many themes relate to us!

  • Travel on trains
  • Cranky passengers
  • Accidents that slow down traveling
  • Being with strangers, yet forming strong temporary bonds
  • Opening up to strangers and telling them far more than we intended to
  • Wondering what decision we should make about our futures, knowing that it will impact the trajectory of our lives.
  • Finding magic in the common

What I love, love, love about this story is the title: How the Captain Made Christmas. Not how he found it. Not how he hoped it would be, but how he actively participated in bringing about good cheer.

He took what could have been a horrible annoyance to be born—traveling at a crowded time of year—and used his power for good. I wonder what little corner of my world I could have the same impact. Where can I enter into frustration, people being a bit snarly, and leave it altered for the good.

The men and women on that train will never forget that night. And it’s all because of the Captain. I think, one of my takeaways from this story is not that I have to “make something” of an encounter or an experience, but I do need to “be present and on the alert.” What opportunities do I have to not merely be on the train, but like the captain, be hosting the train car of life I’m on.

“The old Captain by this time owned the car. He was not only an official, he was a host, and he did the honors as if he were in his own house and we were his guests; all was done so quietly and unobtrusively, too.”

I wonder how the world would be different if more people held this view towards their work — and here I’m referring to all of us and the majority of whatever it is we give our time and talents to. Treating those who cross our paths as if they were honored guests and we are hosting them, quietly, unobtrusively.

As usual, I have more to say, but have gone on for a while so will meet you in the comments. What did you like about this story? What didn’t ring true or annoyed you? What do you hope to remember?

:), Amy


Reading plan for the month:

December 1A Burglar’s Christmas by Willa Cather (our discussion is here)
December 8: A College Santa Cluase by Ralph Henry Barbour (our discussion is here)
December 15: How the Captain Made Christmas by Thomas Nelson Page
December 22: The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke


  1. T December 15, 2015

    Amy!  I haven’t read this yet, but I wanted to tell you that I used The Burglar’s Christmas w/my most advanced high school class last Saturday!  Most of them stayed engaged, which is a big thumbs up from them!  🙂  Thanks for sharing it w/us!

  2. Ellie December 15, 2015

    I also found the language and treatment of people labelled as “mulatto” and “black” very hard to stomach (and a shame when the Captain was happy to treat his wife like a queen –  like you say there are other issues with that bit – and loved her enough to know that she needed to stay with her friends and near the grave of their child, which seems to be a core part of how he is presented as “different” for his time, but sadly that difference doesn’t extend any further.) – I guess  as you say, we are not responsible for that time, but it is a scary reminder of how so many people who were “good” in lots of ways thought that that was fine…

    I think the thing that struck me about your comments Amy, was the “how do we “make” Christmas” for those around us, and it challenged me on a couple of things I’ve been thinking – right at the moment I’m kind of thinking “I  want to get off the train and go home” (as you know(!)) But you know what struck me? My pondering buying a slightly bigger christmas tree to replace our slightly manky small one, and some new decorations and making the house “pretty” for Christmas might not only benefit me and help my mood – it’s making it special for my children. And while I shouldn’t be putting pressure on myself to “do it all” – it’s okay to “do something” that makes it’s magical for them. So thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Amy Young December 16, 2015

      Agreed . . . you don’t need to do it all! That being said, I am curious if you decided to do something magical for your kids :)?

      1. Ellie December 18, 2015

        I bought the Christmas tree and I’m assembling it this morning! 🙂

        1. Amy Young December 18, 2015

          I cheered when I read this! I’m picturing you as the “Captain” of your home and the ripple effects it will have!

  3. Michele Womble December 15, 2015

    Yes, I also cringed at the way the Captain talked when he introduced Nick.  I agree that it’s a good reminder that people can be truly making a difference for some – and at the same time be wrong in the way they treat others – or have major blind spots…and it’s also a reminder that it could be me – and AS I seek to make a difference, I want to examine myself – am  I seeking to make a difference for some, while at the same time tolerating my own major blind spot toward someone else – toward some one person or people? Striving to make a difference in certain ways doesn’t exempt me from dealing with  my own blindness in other areas…

    Thanks for the Christmas stories, Amy!

    1. Amy Young December 16, 2015

      I think you have described us all 🙂

    2. Anna December 17, 2015

      I like the way you put that.  It’s a reminder to us to not always see others actions in black and white, and to examine ourselves.  We have to think about our behaviors and what underlying cultural assumptions we might be making and acting on.  Moving to another culture helps you think those things through!  There are several things I thought were “the right way to do things” and then later realized that they were the American way of doing things, but not necessarily gospel truth.

      I’ve also had the discussion with other expats about our host culture- which is the guideline- culture or Bible.  One was about marriage.  The culture says to have some kids first, experience relationships, commit when you are older.  I disagreed; a more experienced overseas worker upheld the cultural viewpoint.  She’s the kind of person who is willing to talk those things through with you even when you don’t agree.  I tend to verbally process from time to time. 🙂

      Anyway, back to the story… while it did bother me the way the races were discussed, that is something that we as Americans need to remember about our history.  You can’t really understand the current events in America outside the greater context.  And I would say the same is true for other world events.  We need to know our history, and stories are a great way to do that.

      1. Michele Womble December 18, 2015

        I totally agree with you, Anna, that we need to remember these things about our history and that stories are a great way to do that.

        Yes! Moving to another culture does help you think through what things are just our cultural assumptions and what are gospel truth.

        Just clarifying, what did you mean in your second paragraph when you said “commit when you are older”?  Commit to what – to God, to service, ministry, to marriage….?

        1. Anna December 18, 2015

          Commit to marriage or monogamy.  The culture is that you move from relationship to relationship, little commitment, unfortunately this is true quite often even in the church.  Sexual immorality is a minor sin, like speeding in the US.  The conversation was after a pastor married a woman who he had a longstanding relationship & four or five children.  A comment was made by a Congolese lady that it was the way to do it.  Her take on it was that they were mature enough to know the other person and understand the commitment they were making.  Of course, I disagreed.  Marriage & commitment first, then kids 🙂

    3. Ellie December 18, 2015

      Yes, true, kind of frustrating that we probably have those blind spots: “But I want to be perfect!” 😉

  4. Anna December 17, 2015

    The two I liked best about the story are 1) how the main character was out of his normal comfort zone or “culture” which had him thinking about things in a different way and 2) the impact that one person with a positive outlook had on those around him.  The captain took his job way beyond his duties, and encouraged and blessed the passengers who were around him. He also sacrificed his personal comfort to help others.

    Then we get to see the ripple effect when Lesponts tells the story to others, and it affects their Christmas.  We don’t know all the consequences that our actions will have, but maybe stopping to be polite or take the time for someone will help them “pay it forward” down the road.

    I was doing some shopping with my kids yesterday- at Walmart- and one of them wanted to get me something for Christmas.  We went through separate lines, and the lady in front of them in line paid for their item.  We talked about that, and I could tell that it really made an impression on my 2 older kids.  She set a good example for them of a way to bless someone,and they might turn around and do the same thing down the road.

    1. Michele Womble December 18, 2015

      I didn’t even think about the fact that the main character was out of his comfort zone!(or normal culture, as you put it.)

      I also didn’t think about the ripple effect.  Thanks so much for mentioning that, Anna.  It’s extra encouraging to think that something you did could somehow still affect someone years from now, even indirectly – for example, even something we told our kids or friends that they may tell someone else and never remember or mention US – but it still affects them…and so on…

    2. Ellie December 18, 2015

      What a lovely thing for someone to do. Mmm, I think I forget the “ripple effect” often but was thinking the other day about people who’d made a big impression on my in my life and sometimes I write a blog post to my “quiet heroes” and I remembered two faithful senior ladies in a church we used to help out at and how their quiet faithfulness guided that church through a time without a pastor and one of them died soon after. So grateful for their quiet, firm but gentle perseverance.

    3. Amy Young December 18, 2015

      What I love about this comment and then all of our subsequent comments is that I can picture us sitting around and you, Anna, sharing this and all of us chiming in! Talk about the ripples going out :)! I love being rippled on by you :)!

  5. Johnna December 19, 2015

    I am reading all of these short stories and loving them!! Grateful for this idea at Christmas. It’s giving me a warmth and preparedness for the season I was not expecting. My favorite part about the title is the double meaning. The captain made Christmas on the train, but he also made it for the group listening to the story. This was alluded to in another comment, but I just wanted to chime in.

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