Why is the December/Christmas setting significant in "A Worn Path"?

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There are two main things it seems the author was trying to accomplish by setting the story "A Worn Path" near Christmas time: one is positive while the other is negative.

On the positive side, it reinforces the theme of charity and love. Christmas is a time of family and giving, typified by selflessness and sacrifice. In the story, Old Phoenix is acting extremely selflessly in an attempt to help her grandson's sore throat. She is braving the elements and going into town to help him, which is sacrificial and kind, and the salve she seeks is representative of a Christmas gift.

On the other hand, it makes the story all the more painful. The old woman is enduring the harsh cold and terrible elements. The bitter cold and unkind weather make her journey more treacherous and difficult, which adds to both the suspense and sacrifice of the story. In the end, though, it also serves to reinforce the idea of selflessness because she is willing to endure even these harsh conditions for her grandson.

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Choosing to set the story in December serves a few purposes for Welty in developing the story's themes. The month of December is the close of the year, and it is a time when death pervades the air and adds emphasis to the impending close of Phoenix Jackson's life. It is also a time of year when Christmas is celebrated and when people are more inclined to be kind and charitable than perhaps at other times of the year.

Phoenix is generally not treated well by the people she encounters because of her advanced age and race. However, she is likely treated a little less brutally because of the goodwill people are a bit more inclined to offer because it is a time of generosity and giving. This is true in the semi-unpleasant encounter that Phoenix has with the hunter and the lady on the street, the nurse, and the shopgirl once she gets to town.

The fact that Phoenix is on a mission to get medicine for her grandson at this time of year compels the people in the store to offer a bit more charity than she would normally receive. In receiving it, Phoenix is able to also purchase a modest gift that, to her grandson, will be captivating.

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There are several reasons the author might have set the story during December and the Christmas season.  First and foremost is that Christmas brings to mind love and sacrificial gift-giving, and both of these are strong factors in what motivates Old Phoenix to make the long journey into town to get the medicine for her grandson's throat. 

Phoenix wants to do what she can to ease her grandson's pain and suffering, so she is willing to endure the physical travails of trudging along the worn path on this "bright frozen (December) day in the early morning" despite her advanced age and her own physical ailments and limitations.  This journey, perhaps, also brings to mind the long journey the wise men made to bring gifts to Jesus.  They, too, gave gifts from their hearts to help meet the baby's needs.

Along the way, the white hunter condescendingly suggests to Phoenix that perhaps she is "going to town to see Santa Claus."    This adds to the Christmas setting, as does the nurse giving Old Phoenix a nickel from her own purse because it is the Christmas season. 

This nickel, in addition to the nickel Phoenix picked up earlier when the hunter dropped it, enables her to buy her grandson a special gift for Christmas.  She announces to the nurse and the attendant at the desk: 

"I going to the store and buy my child a little windmill they sells, made out of paper.  He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world."

Finally, with Phoenix being so old, she can be said to be in the winter, or "December," of her life.  Perhaps this was also part of the author's thinking in setting the story in December.

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What is significant about setting the story in December and during Christmas?

The story "A Worn Path" shows readers a glimpse into a regular ritual for the main character, Phoenix, so it's interesting that this glimpse happens to be at Christmastime. Phoenix herself never bring up Christmas, but the other characters—white people who are more connected to commercial society than she is—hold it as a focus, and the hunter even suggests that it's the only explanation for her arduous journey. Phoenix makes this journey as an act of care for her grandson, and she's been doing it every time he runs out of medicine for years now. This stands in stark contrast to the two nickels she's given out of a Christmas-motivated sense of charity, which pale in comparison to the acts of kindness she undertakes as part of her everyday life. Her decision to spend the money on a paper windmill as a gift for her grandson, something short-lived and insubstantial, further emphasizes Phoenix's feelings about the holiday charity.

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