The Joy That You Give to Others Is the Joy That Comes Back to You

John Greenleaf Whittier? Margaret E. Sangster? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a heartfelt short poem titled “Happy New Year” containing the following line:

The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.

The verse was attributed to the prominent nineteenth-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier who died in 1892, but the earliest citation I could find was dated 1901. Was this attribution accurate? Was the work posthumous?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the common modern attribution to Whittier was inaccurate. The lines in the short poem were part of longer poem by Margaret E. Sangster titled “The Christmas Tree”, and Sangster should receive credit for her work.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “The Elocutionist’s Journal: A Repository of the Choicest Standard and Current Pieces for Readings and Declamations”. Sangster’s didactic poem contained 54 lines and was printed on the front page of the January 1878 issue. The first four lines described a child’s desire for a Christmas tree: 1

Our darling little Florence, our blessing and our pride,
With dimpled cheeks, and golden hair, and brown eyes open wide,
To look at every pretty thing, came flying in to me:
“O please,” she pleaded earnestly, “I want a Christmas tree.”

When the request for a tree was granted the child invited lonely and impoverished children to a Christmas party held around the tree. The final four lines of the poem were the following: 2

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.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Sangster’s poem was noticed, and it was reprinted with a proper ascription in an 1884 collection titled “The Speaker’s Garland and Literary Bouquet: Combining 100 Choice Selections”. 3

In December 1900 a journal for educators called the “Michigan School Moderator” published a confusing amalgamation; excerpts from two different poems were placed adjacent to one another. The combined segments probably looked like a single poem to some readers. The first excerpt consisted of the final four lines of “The Christmas Tree” by Margaret E. Sangster. The second excerpt consisted of four lines from “A Christmas Carmen” by John Greenleaf Whittier.

The only attribution listed for the two excerpts was “Whittier” affixed to the end of the second excerpt. QI hypothesizes that this publication led to the misattribution of Sangster’s verse: 4

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.

The fourth line above from Sangster was slightly altered. The original line contained “to”:

The more to your heart’s possessing
The more of your heart’s possessing

In January 1901 “The Canada Educational Monthly” printed the four lines from Sangster under the title “Happy New Year” with an ascription to Whittier. The fourth line switched the words “to” and ‘of”: 5

Happy New Year

For somehow, not only for Christmas, but all the long year thru,
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.—Whittier.

In 1980 an advertisement in “Skiing” magazine offered Christmas cards depicting mountains and ski runs. One card displayed the following message ascribed to Whittier: 6

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.” from Whittier “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”

In conclusion, QI believes that Margaret E. Sangster should receive credit for the poem “The Christmas Tree”. The final four lines of the work have incorrected been attributed to John Greenleaf Whittier because of an error made at the turn of the twentieth century. In addition, one line was slightly modified.

Images Notes: Portrait of Margaret Elizabeth Sangster from “The Magazine of Poetry” circa 1889 via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of helping hands from Alexas_Fotos at Pixabay. The color has been switched from red to blue. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who requested the exploration of a misattribution related to Christmas.)

Notes:

  1. 1878 January, The Elocutionist’s Journal: A Repository of the Choicest Standard and Current Pieces for Readings and Declamations, The Christmas Tree by Margaret E. Sangster, Quote Page 1, Column 1 and 2, Jesse Haney & Company. New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1878 January, The Elocutionist’s Journal: A Repository of the Choicest Standard and Current Pieces for Readings and Declamations, The Christmas Tree by Margaret E. Sangster, Quote Page 1, Column 1 and 2, Jesse Haney & Company. New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1884, The Speaker’s Garland and Literary Bouquet: Combining 100 Choice Selections, Volume 4, Section: Number 16, The Christmas Tree by Margaret E. Sangster, Start Page 158, Quote Page 160, P. Garrett & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1900 December 6, Michigan School Moderator, Volume 22, Number 7, The Schoolroom, Quote Page 215, Lansing, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1901 January, The Canada Educational Monthly, Volume 24, Number 1, Happy New Year, Quote Page 29, The Canada Educational Monthly Publishing Company, Published by Wm. Tyrrell & Company, Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1980 November, Skiing, Volume 45, Number 3, (Advertisement: Christmas Cards for Skiers from Ski Cards, Boulder, Colorado), Quote Page 96, Times Mirror Magazines, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)