by Annie Barnes
Throughout my childhood, my sister and I, like most children, looked forward to Christmas with a special fervor. We had many traditions, but there was one in particular that continued through our adolescence and into adulthood. Each year, our mother and maternal grandmother would buy a new Christmas book. Some were classic Santa tales, some told the story of Jesus’ birth, some were beautifully illustrated, and some were simple.
One year, when visiting my grandmother up in Ohio, during the grandchildren’s annual energetic demolition of wrapping paper and presents, my sister and I received a unique book. It was an illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen's “The Little Match Girl.” Although not technically a Christmas story, my family came to associate this story with the holiday season, and it quickly became one of my favorite Christmas books.
“The Little Match Girl” is the tale of a child, barefoot and alone on the street in winter, selling matches to make a small profit to bring back to her abusive father. Ultimately, she finds a corner between houses and huddles up against the cold. She begins to light the matches to warm herself, and each time she does, she imagines progressively grander scenes of holiday food, festivities, and family. Her final vision is of her grandmother, “the only one who ever loved her,” who took the small child in her arms and “flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God.”
After reading this description, you might be wondering how a young girl of 7 or 8 could come to love this story. It is unusual, I admit. I remember first loving the book purely for the gorgeous illustrations by Rachel Isadora, but as I got older, the book held different meaning for me. Of course I did not have the knowledge, emotional maturity, or desire to fully analyze why I loved this story in my youth, but revisiting this text through The Valley 7’s study of this work has encouraged me to do so. Was it for a religious reason? The idea of life beyond death? The counterintuitive idea of happiness in death?
Perhaps this is a simple answer, but I believe that I came to love this story because it describes how hope and memories have the power to influence the beauty we see in the world. I am not an expert in analyzing Andersen’s intent; it is more probable that this was a religious tale describing the promise of heaven. However, I see God’s gift of hope as the greatest promise, how a small girl in the cold of night does not suffer, because she is warmed by her hopes and dreams, until finally, she is at peace.