The Unexpected Horror of The Little Match Girl

It’s the holiday season and while I promised a month of Disney December I wanted to tell a story that’s personal to me and still is a fairy tale of some kind. I want to talk about The Little Match Girl and how it nearly ruined my childhood before the actual specter of Death could finish the job. This Christmas story was given to me in the form of a picture book as a child and its story still haunts me to this day.

Let’s first go over the story. Is it possible to spoil a beloved children’s book? Well, soft spoiler alert, I suppose.

The book goes a little something like this. A little girl in old-timey England is shivering in the cold. She looks like a genderbent Oliver Twist and she is desperately selling matches to pay for food. She is, unfortunately, down to her final three matches and winter’s chill is quickly setting in. She’s cold, hungry and miserable.

She decides to light the remaining matches she has for much needed warmth. She lights the first match and in the flame’s dancing light, she sees a warm house: family, friends, mirth, the whole shebang; but the fire goes out.

She lights the second match and in its flame she sees a Christmas feast: there’s goose and potatoes and an entire Noah’s Ark worth of other meals. She stays in that fantasy for a while before that match does go out.

On her final match, she makes the fateful choice to use it for warmth and in its light, she sees her grandmother (who we assume has passed away). She can feel her grandmother’s arms around her; they’re so warm and she feels so at home and safe.

The next page of the book is blank, absolutely black and the final page is that of a crowd of more Oliver Twist extras surrounding the little match girl. She is still and smiling, three burned out matches scattered round her: she died, frozen in the cold but did so happy having seen a vision of something warm, light and freeing from the cruel, cold world that let a little girl freeze to death in the streets.

Now, keep in mind that I read this as a child. I didn’t have the tools to process Charmander getting his tail wet in Pokemon yet alone a little girl dying alone in the cold.

There are different retellings of the story; apparently, in some versions she survives and in others, she’s sort of just spirited away into heaven all rapture-style by her flame-based hallucination Grandmother so she doesn’t per say die but sort of does.

I never understood why this story was told to children. What was the moral: don’t be poor so you don’t die? I never understood what this story was trying to tell me but as an adult, I have trivia which tells me a simple fact: fairy tales are meant to help explain and prepare little girls and boys for things they my face. Beauty and the Beast helped prepare girls for marriages to people who to them likely seemed beastly. Cinderella taught us patience in the face of cruel family. Snow White taught us to not trust strangers and most importantly, Sleeping Beauty taught us the important lesson of not shunning the village goth because she’ll come to your party uninvited and curse your child.

The lesson of The Little Match Girl can likely be seen two ways: one is the capriciousness and cruelty of the real world; poverty is real and having a story not end neatly with a bow is an important lesson even for children. The second I think is more interesting: I think this story is really about humility and what matters most. Sure, the girl sees food and fire but she also sees a lost loved one and that is the image that allows her to slip into darkness and sleep peacefully for eternity. She found physical comfort in fire light and spiritual comfort in the warm love of her grandmother.

This book stands in such stark contrast to Disney’s brand of sanitized stories. Disney as a brand and person were great at taking the original darker endings of famous stories and making them “more family-friendly” also known as, boring and safe. In the movie, you don’t get to see Cinderella’s step-sisters get their eyes pecked out by birds or Ariel’s legs cut off or any of the horror Sleeping Beauty faces. Instead we get “the lamp shacks up with a prince of some kind” in lieu of actual conflict or drama.

Sure, this does make things easier to digest for children but there’s something unfortunate about that. I faced death young as a child and nothing in media prepared me for that. These stories used to prepare children for things, not necessarily well, but they did try by at least talking about the darker parts of growing up and being a human person on this planet.

We’ve continued to sanitize children’s media and now there are even few things aimed at children that challenge them in any way. Children aren’t dumb, they simply lack experience. It isn’t that a child couldn’t understand death it’s that nothing would prepare them for that without prompting or experience.

I’m not advocating that The Little Match Girl go on every family bookshelf. It’s a tough read and I know I didn’t process that book, I just sort of sealed it away. It wasn’t until I talked about it with others that I realized how messed up it was as a premise. The story has the roots of a gritty live-action historical movie with a muted fiter over the film and probably staring Anne Hathaway in some capacity. However, teaching kids important lessons is part of the reason we have stories to begin with and even if the meaning isn’t figured out fully until that child is damn near thirty and still a goth, it’s a vital lesson to learn.

Stay warm, dear readership.