One hundred years ago this month, the Australasian published a heart-warming Christmas story by Katharine Susannah Prichard called “Danny Niel”. Danny is the town drunk, recently caught stealing turkeys to resell at Christmas. His oldest son has been killed in the war. Everything changes for him when a young girl mistakes him for Father Christmas and begs him not to forget her and her brother; their father has also been killed in the war and a mean uncle has adopted them. Dan gives up his drinking to buy a present for her and carves a toy for her brother. However, while trying to drop the presents off he’s accused of robbery by the mean uncle. When the truth comes out, the uncle is sorry enough to buy everyone Christmas lunch at the pub. The story has been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be read online: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140198751.
The tone of the story is at odds with Katharine’s life at the time. Two months before it appeared, her good friend, Sumner Locke, died in childbirth. Katharine helped set up a memorial fund to provide for Sumner’s son, Sumner Locke Elliott, later a famous writer himself.
But that wasn’t the end of tragedy. Katharine didn’t yet know it, but three days before the story appeared, her brother, Alan, died of war wounds in France. The dreaded telegram came on 21 December, just as all of Katharine’s friends were celebrating the defeat of the second conscription referendum. That Christmas would have been the worst of Katharine’s life, as she and her mother grieved together.
Alan’s death galvanised Katharine, making her certain that the world needed to change drastically. She spent much of 1918 in her cottage at Emerald on the outskirts of Melbourne, finishing her third novel, Black Opal, and reading Karl Marx. “Danny Niel” was the last sentimental Christmas story she wrote and when she came to choose stories for her first collection in 1932, it wasn’t among them.