When my daughter was in third grade, I got a call from her teacher early in December. No, not that kind of call. This call was a request that I come in just before the holiday break later in the month to share some Danish Christmas traditions with my daughter’s class. Just a reminder for those of you following along at home, my husband is the Dane, not I. But I was also the room/mother school volunteer of our little family unit, and there’s always guilt by (Danish) association, so there you go.
So I made some Christmas brown cookies (it sounds better in Danish), packed up some of our homemade heart ornaments (which I wish were as intricate as the ones in the picture, but they’re not), and carried one slim little volume, a story the teacher had requested I read: The Little Match Girl by Danish poet, playwright, and story writer HC Andersen. If you’ve ever read the story, you can possibly see where this is going. I made it through the reading until the last few pages, at which time my daughter, only 7 at the time, had to come to the front of the reading circle and finish the book for me. Yes, the 30-ish mom was in tears, while the child was a rock.
Something you should remember about HC Andersen is despite the fact that he wrote ‘fairy-tales’, children were not
necessarily his intended audience. The Disney version of The Little Mermaid is not true to Andersen’s original story. Just as Grimm’s fairy-tales are often sanitized for modern-day consumers, so, too are Andersen’s cautionary tales. Also, Andersen lived at the same time as Charles Dickens. You remember his bright and cheery stories about Victorian-era London, right? Riiiiight. When you’re reading The Little Match Girl, you just might see some Dickensian parallels. However, even Dickens redeemed Scrooge and saved Tiny Tim in the end. Andersen’s Christmas tale goes darker.
The Little Match Girl is about a poverty-stricken selling matchsticks to try to eke out a living. The streets have emptied out as everyone has gone home to celebrate the holidays with family, and the freezing little girl lights her matches one by one to try to warm herself. In the glow of each candle, she sees visions of her dreams – a happy family, a Christmas tree, a family feast. Finally, with her last match stick, she sees her grandmother who died years earlier. And the little match girl goes to join her.
While not the typical cheerful holiday fare, The Little Match Girl is a must-read Christmas story in our house. For those of us fortunate to have so much in our lives, Andersen’s tale reminds us of that far too many people in our world don’t have enough to get through the day. It helps remind us that the true reason for the season isn’t parties and excess and receiving, it’s being thankful for what we have and finding ways to give of ourselves and good fortune to those in need.
This holiday season, I hope you’ll read (or re-read) The Little Match Girl. Maybe even share it with an older child in your life. Fairy-tale or not, it’s a lovely, touching story that will stay in your heart well past December.