The Little Match Girl
It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course, when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle someday when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron, she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.
Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!
In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.
Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.
She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.
"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.
She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.
"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"
And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.
But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.
"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish writer who lived from 1805-1875. Some scholars regard him as the father of the modern fairy tale. His parents were working-class people whose real-life struggles became the theme found in many of his stories. In fact, an anecdote from his mother’s childhood became the essence of this story. While Andersen was influenced by Danish folklore motifs, his themes were strongly Christian.
I first learned this story as a child: not the literary, but the film version. Either way, it packs a punch. The story is both poignant and haunting. It’s the tale of a young girl living in poverty and abuse. She is forced to spend her days on the street selling matches. The story mirrors an experience Andersen’s mother lived. Andersen writes, “As a young girl, her parents chased her out to beg, and when she had no luck, she spent a whole day crying under a bridge by the river in Odense. As a child, I could imagine all of this so clearly and I wept about it.”
In this story, the protagonist is abandoned and fearful of returning home with no money. The young girl dies of hypothermia on the street alone. Anderson often crafts pictures of suffering. In fact, the word “little” in the title spells the character’s doom. This is true for many stories, “Little Red Riding Hood” for example.
Many children lived in the streets in mid-nineteenth century Europe. Child labor was common. Children were expected to work for long hours in dangerous conditions. Selling matches, flowers, or newspapers was an easier option than begging outright which was illegal.
The story contrasts the "haves" and "have nots." Andersen’s sympathies were always with the downtrodden and the little match girl gives us a figure who is innocent and worthy of help. He also portrays a metaphoric contrast with his emphasis on light and darkness throughout the story. The young child peers from the darkness into windows seeing the light of family life she will never have.
Sadly, her pleas to the passersby go unheard. The poor were condemned in Victorian time. Rather than return home and receive a beating, the young girl found a secluded place to sit between two buildings. As she lit each match, her greatest desires were projected on the wall – food, a Christmas tree, and her grandmother.
We can assume that her grandmother was the only one to be loving and kind to her. As Kirsten Mlmkjaer points out, Andersen’s grandmothers and other elderly women often “shift and shimmer between the human, the spectral and the divine.” In doing so, Andersen provides an archetypal image that moves between conscious and unconscious awareness. The child continues to light the matches to keep her grandmother’s memory alive for as long as she can. She dies with the vision that she and her grandmother are celebrating the holidays in heaven. Deathbed visions are common and not only the stuff of fairy tales.
In fact, many years ago, when my loved one was struggling with drug addiction, I had a similar dream. It was night. A young girl was sitting on a bench with her deceased grandmother. The streetlight shone on the empty bus before them. The door opened. I knew when I woke that my loved one’s journey could be a fatal one.
Andersen’s story is a moralistic tale about the cruelty of the world, it arouses compassion for the poor. Nevertheless, it asks little of us. In Victorian times it was believed that God marked an individual’s fate. In essence, being poor was God’s will. Rosellen Brown writes “That Andersen would let his heroine die was shocking and - to some of us stories are exciting because they roil up our emotions, disturb our equilibrium even if they make us miserable – I would say satisfying.” Certainly Andersen portrays the reality of many of these children, but he did nothing to rile his readers’ emotions enough for them to take action.
It’s easy to believe we don’t live in a society with the sheer injustice found in these stories, but sadly this is not true. The pandemic has left many people unemployed and without housing. Black, Native and Latino children have fared the worse. Do we turn away from those in need determining them “unworthy” or do we hold Christmas in our hearts instead? Andersen’s story portrays the result of apathy. Dickens calls us to action.
Andersen’s happy ending was for the child to be taken to heaven where she would no longer suffer. Even being rescued from her plight and escaping death would not be as wonderful to him. But I disagree. I’d much prefer another ending to this story. Perhaps an old housemaid, a wise crone that is, sees the child as she presses her nose against the window. The maid brings her in, warms her toes, and feeds her empty belly. She tells her mistress that she needs some help in the kitchen. The little girl lives in the house and never returns to her abusive father. I wish I could say that she lives happily ever after but that would be a true fairy tale. In this version, she simply lives “better.”
Real-life children are suffering and struggling this holiday. Sadly, the poor are still with us 175 years after the writing of these stories. But hopefully, we’ve lost our attraction to children dying a romantic death. Perhaps we can bring them in from the cold, offer them a turkey dinner, and let them live instead. May no child die alone and abandoned any holiday season. Along with Scrooge, may we always hold Christmas in our hearts.
For more on this story and its comparison to Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, listen to this month's podcast (S2, #5). "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Jean Hersholt.