HOLIDAY THEMES AND THE STORY ‘OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT’
The holidays are replete with various themes. Christmas, for instance carries the themes of joy, sharing, generosity, family, humility, and forgiveness. Christmas originated with the commemoration of the birth of Christ. While there is no concrete evidence as to the actual date of the birth of Christ, this celebration is held every 25th day of December. There are speculations, however, that various symbols associated with Christmas are pagan in origin, such as the Christmas log/tree, the star, and even Christmas balls. There is some evidence to suggest that Christmas was actually preceded by the winter solstice celebration which occurred during the time when the light of the sun shone for the shortest duration. (Robinson, 2000) Despite this supposed Christianization of pagan beliefs, Christian’s still celebrate Christmas in adoration and commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ – as the celebration is usually set in the winter season, such easily relates to the season mentioned in the story of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”. Like Christmas, Thanksgiving is also celebrated at about the same time. Dominant themes in the celebration of Thanksgiving are liberation, freedom, abundance, fellowship, unity, brotherhood and, of course, thanksgiving. The first pilgrims who came to the Americas to celebrate the first Thanksgiving were from England and they left their native land because they were fleeing from religious persecution. During their trip on the Mayflower, the travelers frequently disagreed among themselves and were divided into two factions; eventually, everybody came to terms with their differences and agreed to unite under the Mayflower Compact. On their arrival in the New World, another reason for celebration came into focus, the welcome given by the Native American Indians and their fellowship with this ethnic culture. The modern day Thanksgiving celebration was officially celebrated for the first time on November 29th.
The themes of the two holidays mentioned can be associated with the story of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”. Aside from just the themes, the histories of these holidays are also strikingly reflected in the story.
Reading between the lines, it is initially obvious that the story has salient biblical references, for instance, there is mention of the sycamore tree as being the tree where the executed was hang in the first part of the story (Harte, 1836). In the bible, the sycamore tree plays a very important role when the tax collector, Zacchaeus, wanted to see Jesus Christ who was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. It has to be noted that during the time of Christ, tax collectors were hated by society, but Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus signified his change of heart. Symbolically, the sycamore tree in the story also serves the same purpose, although in a more morbid way. The sycamore tree was also essentially a means for those hated by society to meet their Creator and experience metanoia, or change of heart. This initial symbolism sets the tone of the story, and encourages the reader to seek more of this kind of symbolism in the entire story, of which there is many.
Other than just the season in which the story is set, which is winter; there are other themes that could be drawn that are quite affined with the two holidays mentioned. One of the themes in the story that might be of relation to Christmas is the theme of hidden or unexpected goodness and kindness (Cummings, 2006) from a group of unlikely people, the gambler, John Oakhurst, and the prostitutes, the Duchess and Mother Shipton. It will be remembered from the story that these three characters experienced a change of heart on their exile from Poker Flat; such subtlety in metanoia is shown in Mother Shipton’s reaction to the kissing lovers, “The frail Duchess and the malevolent mother were probably too stunned to remark upon this last evidence of simplicity, and so turned without a word to the hut.” (Harte, 1836) The same change of heart occurred to the hard hearted gambler, John Oakhurst, when he decided he wanted to keep the robbery of Uncle Billy from the group to keep their hopes alive, “Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality and so offered the hypothesis that he had wandered from the camp and had accidentally stampeded the animals.” (Harte, 1836) This change of heart of this unlikely group of people led them to show random acts of kindness to the lovers, Piney and the Innocent who had wandered into their company on their way to Poker Flat.
In the Christmas story, the same thing occurs to an unlikely inn keeper, who instead of turning away Mary and Joseph offered them the only room in his inn, the stable. Shared joy in the midst of insufficiency is also evident in the story when the group tried to keep themselves entertained despite of the misfortune that the snow brought upon them, “But the crowning festivity of the evening was reached in a rude camp-meeting hymn,” (Harte, 1836) “the reedy notes of the accordion rose and fell in fitful spasms and long-drawn gasps by the flickering campfire.” (Harte, 1836). The holiday theme of sharing and self-sacrifice, coupled with unconditional generosity also occurs several times throughout the story, in particular, when Mother Shipton was on her death bed, “I’m going, but don’t waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head and open it. Give’em to the child (Piney)”, (Harte, 1836) she said, endorsing her daily rations, which she had not eaten to Mr. Oakhurst, so that the sick Piney may have it. Mother Shipton starved herself to death so that she could save the rations for the younger members of the group.
The thanksgiving themes in the story are also very evident, the initial theme of exile for instance, very closely reflects how the first pilgrims left England to escape persecution, and in their travails, actually found something better. On their exile, the outcasts from Poker Flat also found many things to be thankful about. Mother Shipton and the Duchess both found the love (although only as viewers) hat they had been yearning for the rest of their lives in Piney and the Innocent. (Harte, 1836) and Mr. Oakhurst gained the respect and confidence of Innocent, the kind of respect that he never would have experienced in Poker Flat. (Harte, 1836) When the lovers Piney and Innocent, came into the company of the outcasts, they were also welcomed, despite the initial hesitance (Harte, 1836); quite like the experience of the pilgrims with the Native American Indians of Plymouth. (HON, 1995).
In particular, we also find similarities in the story that have to do with the season. The indifference of nature to the outcasts as it showed no mercy by isolating them with heavy snow. (Cummings, 2006) Similarly, the pilgrims of the very first Thanksgiving were also testaments to the indifference of nature as upon their arrival, the first winter they experienced brought great cold, heavy snow and sleet, interfering with their attempts to construct their settlements. (HON, 1995)
The story of the outcasts of Poker Flat also has striking similarities to the classic Christmas tale, “The Little Match Girl” where a little match seller find relief from the cruelty of winter and starvation in visions of her dead grandmother that resulted to her lighting of the matches that she was selling (Andersen, 1846). Although not pronounced, the entire theme of Harte’s (1836) story is very evident in the following passage from “The Little Match Girl”, “She took the little girl in her arms, and they both flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God” (Andersen, 1846)
All in all, the story the “Outcasts of Poker Flat” is a bleak Holiday story that ends with vindication, also a favorite Thanksgiving theme. In the end all of the characters, except for the
unrepentant robber and the Innocent, the fortunate recipient of everybody’s selflessness, die. In the deaths of the final characters, vindication is achieved quite like the way it is achieved in the classic holiday story, “The Little Match Girl”. Referring to the deaths of the Duchess and Piney, the narrator says, “You could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that sinned, even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them locked in each other’s arms” (Harte, 1836), and written on a card from a playing deck is an epitaph that speaks of Mr. Oakhurst’s suicide are the words, “Beneath this tree lies the Body of John Oakhurst, who struck a streak of bad luck on the 23rd of November, 1850 and handed in his checks on the 7th of December, 1850” (Harte, 1836) These two passages from the story speak of the existence of the recognition of a higher accountability for the characters, that in their death, even the law of man was not able to vindicate them.
In totality, the story is about bringing out the best in each one of us amid trying times. We all know that no matter how hard a criminal is or how bad a person could be, man is born with an inherent goodness, the kind of goodness that is accurately depicted in Harte’s (1836) story. While we cannot thoroughly say that the story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is quite original when it comes to thematic, the story exercises some kind of influence over the reader, the kind that touches the very core of humanity, which is the same inherent nature that is the true meaning of the holidays that we celebrate, whether it is Christmas or Thanksgiving. More than just celebration, it is humanity that is celebrated during these two holidays, it is the reason for existence, and the reason for life; two very important elements that, in a way, made “The
Outcasts of Poker Flat” not only a rememberable story, but a memorable reading experience as well.
Andersen, H. (2007). The Little Match Seller. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_match.html
Cummings, M. . (2006). The Outcasts of Poker Flat-A Study Guide. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides4/Outcasts.html
Harte, F. (1917). The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.bartleby.com/310/4/2.html
Holidays on the Net (1995). The Pilgrims and America’s First Thanksgiving. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.holidays.net/thanksgiving/pilgrims.htm
Robinson, B. . (2000). ALL ABOUT THE CHRISTMAS TREE Pagan origins, Christian adaptation, & secular status. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmas_tree.htm
WiseGeek (2003). What is Christmas?. Retrieved March 2, 2009, from http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-christmas.htm