The four March sisters, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, are sitting around the fire at home on Christmas eve. They're complaining about the fact that this year, the family is too poor for them to get presents.
Beth reminds the girls that they may not have presents, but they have each other and their parents. The other girls object that they don't have their father right now – he's away fighting. Since this novel is from 1868, we realize that Mr. March must be a soldier in the Civil War (on the Union side).
Meg reminds the girls why their mother asked them to give up presents this year – it's going to be a tough winter for everybody, and in wartime people need to make sacrifices at home to support the troops.
Jo suggests that each of the girls should spend her dollar (apparently this is their allowance) on something for herself. She wants a copy of a new romance novel called Undine and Sintram. Amy wants a box of drawing pencils.
Meg and Jo talk about how hard they work to earn money for the family. Meg is the governess and tutor for some obnoxious rich children, and Jo is the companion of a fussy old lady.
Beth reminds her sisters that she also works hard doing housework. Amy complains about going to school and being teased by the other girls.
Amy confuses the words "label" and "libel" and Jo teases her about her vocabulary.
Meg wishes that the family was still rich and reminisces about he fortune that her father lost when they were children. Beth reminds her that, even without money, they are happier than the rich people they know.
Amy and Jo bicker; Amy complains about Jo's crass mannerisms and Jo complains that Amy is stuck-up. Meg intervenes and says they're both at fault, but especially reprimands Jo for being too boyish.
Jo wishes that she were a boy so that she could go and fight in the war with her father; she hates the idea of growing up and being ladylike, and it frustrates her that she has to stay home knitting during the war. Beth soothes Jo.
Meg lectures Amy about being too conceited.
Beth asks Meg for some constructive criticism, but Meg has nothing critical to say about Beth.
The narrator breaks in and describes the scene and the appearance of the girls. All four of them are knitting together in the twilight in a room that is comfortable, but plain and shabby. It's decorated with books and flowers.
Meg, the oldest, is sixteen and very pretty, with soft white hands. Jo is fifteen, long-limbed and clumsy, but with beautiful long, thick, brown hair. Beth is thirteen, very shy, and calm. Amy, the youngest, is a pretty blonde girl with good manners.
The clock strikes six. The girls start preparing for their mother to arrive home; Beth gets her slippers, Meg lights the lamp, and so on.
As the girls think about their mother, whom they call Marmee, they decide to spend their money on gifts for her instead of for themselves. Meg decides to get her a pair of gloves, Jo a good pair of shoes, Beth some handkerchiefs, and Amy a bottle of cologne. They plan to go shopping early the next day.
Jo reminds the girls that they are putting on an amateur play tomorrow night as part of their Christmas celebration. She makes Amy practice a scene in which she has to faint, criticizing Amy for being too stiff and unnatural.
Amy doesn't make much progress learning to faint more naturally. Meg and Jo run through their lines. We learn that Jo herself wrote the play, which is called The Witch's Curse and seems to be extremely melodramatic.
The girls' mother arrives home, greeting them all and asking each of them about their days. She settles herself in the easy chair and the girls arrange things around her for supper.
As they begin their meal, Mrs. March tells the girls that she received a letter from their father recently and that she'll read it to them after dinner.
Meg praises her father for joining the army as a chaplain, even though he wouldn't have been drafted and isn't very strong physically.
After dinner, the girls gather around their mother in the easy chair and she reads the letter to them. At the end of the letter, he wishes the girls his love, asking his "little women" to work hard to do their duty and conquer their faults.
The girls cry a little and resolve to be better people and uphold their father's high principles. Amy says she'll try to be less selfish; Meg says she will try to be less vain and work harder; Jo resolves to do her duty at home instead of wishing she was a man and a soldier. Beth just cries.
Mrs. March reminds the girls that when they were little they made a game out of The Pilgrim's Progress, an allegory written by seventeenth-century preacher John Bunyan. In the story, a man named Christian goes on a pilgrimage through many hardships until he reaches the Celestial City.
The girls reminisce about their Pilgrim's Progress game. They used to tie bundles on their backs to symbolize their burdens and sins, and they turned the house into an adventure landscape. The Celestial City was on the roof, where they had brought flowers and pretty things.
In the course of the conversation, we learn that Amy is twelve.
Mrs. March suggests that the girls play Pilgrim's Progress again, only in a more grown-up way. Their burdens are their character flaws, their road is the life ahead of them that they need to live, and the Celestial City is, well, Heaven. Basically, they're reversing the allegory – going back to the part about living a good Christian life in order to gain salvation, instead of focusing on the fantasy story about fighting monsters and going on an adventure.
Everyone has already described their "burdens" except Beth; she says that hers is "dishes and dusters, and envying girls with nice pianos, and being afraid of people" (1.88).
Jo suggests that the girls have already gone through one adventure this evening: their mother pulled them out of their melancholy, just the way that the Help pulls Christian out of the Slough of Despond (just like a Swamp of Despair) in Pilgrim's Progress.
Jo recalls that, in Pilgrim's Progress, the main character has a scroll of directions. Mrs. March says that, if the girls look under their pillows on Christmas morning, they will find "guidebooks" for their "adventure." (You can probably guess what book a Christian might consider a "guidebook for life." If you can't guess, you'll find out in Chapter 2.)
The girls discuss their plan while their servant, Hannah, clears the table. After dinner, the girls work on sewing some sheets for their Aunt March.
The sisters sew until 9:00. Before they go to bed, they gather around the piano, and Beth accompanies them while they sing. This is an old family custom, since they have lovely voices and their mother is a "born singer" (1.94).