The Little Match Girl By Hans Christian Andersen; retold and illustrated by Rachel Isadora
I suppose it is very natural for the modern parent to try and insulate children from the unpleasant. We want our children to be happy and free from some realities that can touch their lives. And death is one of those harsh realities.
Hans Christian Andersen, lauded and lifted up as an iconic symbol of all that is great in children’s literature, did not shrink from unpleasant events in his children’s stories.
Christmas is a time…” when “abundance rejoices” as Charles Dickens’ gentlemen visitors to Scrooge’s counting house in A Christmas Carol observe, as they attempt to entreaty him to contribute in order to make …some slight provision for the poor and destitute.
They are refused. Dickens’ writings, like Andersen’s, casts a light on the more unpleasant side of life that can be ignored…if we allow it.
In The Little Match Girl, Andersen relates the tale of a young girl selling matches on a bitterly cold and snowy New Year’s Eve. She is clothed poorly against the biting weather and has even lost in the snow, the flimsy slippers that were on her feet at the outset. One that slips off her foot in the snow is even stolen by a rather comfortably dressed boy. Bad boy! Bad, Bad boy!
She has sold little of her matches, and knows she will be punished severely by her father for the lack of sales. Ignored by the happy passers by, she huddles in a corner, and one by one she strikes the matches to warm herself, and with each flare of the light from the match, comes wonderful visions; warm stoves, tables loaded with roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes, Christmas trees flooded with hundreds of candles, and even a falling star that emerges as the candles fade:
Someone is dying, thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had ever been kind to her, used to say, “When a star falls, a soul is going up to God.
Another match flares and her grandmother appears in the “circle of flame” as the little match girl begs:
Grandmother! cried the the little creature. Oh, do take me with you. I know you will vanish when the match goes out like the warm stove, the delicious goose and the beautiful Christmas tree.
Eager to keep her grandmother with her, she lights the whole bunch and the grandmother takes her in her arms and they:
…soared in a halo of light and joy, far above the earth, where there was no more cold, no hunger, and no pain – for they were with God.
The dawn of the New Year finds a group of people merely commenting on the passing of a child huddled against the cold, and unaware of what she has seen or experienced. They are coldly remote to her as they observe the burnt matches, remarking,
“She must have tried to warm herself,” they said. Nobody knew what beautiful visions she had seen, nor in what a halo she had entered with her grandmother upon the glories of the New Year.
I number myself among those who have shrunk from the rereading of The Little Match Girl. It, however, very much moved me on this reading. Somehow, I was still sad, but it spurred me to want to change the outcome. And, maybe that is exactly what Andersen had in mind all along in the telling.
It is grim and uncompromising in its depiction of want in the midst of plenty. Though it ends on a sad, combined with comforting note, as the New Year begins, we are reminded that Andersen never avoided the unpleasant in showing children the less pleasant issues in life.
The little match girl’s sweetness and charm is in stark contrast to the situation in which she finds herself. Yet, she never rails against her plight, but finds comfort in the miraculous, as do we when life becomes too much. Andersen, I think, hopes that we will do the same and not merely observe life’s unpleasant realities, but engage in changing them when it is in our power to do so.
Witness Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling that was an introduction, via ducks, to bullying and its hurtful results. Again and again, he points to the world and its perception of externals as reality, and how much is lost and ignored as a result.
I believe Andersen’s The Little Match Girl was an urgent appeal to children and their parents to avoid turning a blind eye to the poverty amidst the plenty. And more than that, his tale, with its pathos, impels its readers to do more than merely take note of its sad ending.
Perhaps in this retelling, with its poignant art by the noted children’s picture book author Rachel Isadora, this book may be a cogent reminder to our children of not merely their own lives at the holiday season, but of those who sit on the sidelines and observe the revelry and abundance with a wistful look.
Maybe, in the reading of The Little Match Girl, it is an opportunity, to encourage young readers to share what they have, and give to those who have little or nothing.
That is the true “reason for the season.”
I think Andersen was saying, “Be the light of the world for all the little match girls and boys this Christmas”…and every season!
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