It is a haunting tale.
The little match girl was sent out every day by her abusive father to sell matches on the street which the family made in the hovel of a home. If she did not return with all the matches sold and money in her pocket she was beaten. It was a cold, cold day before Christmas and the little match girl bundled up as best she could against the wind and the snow. “Matches for sale, matches for sale” came her weak and tired voice over the wind.
It was so cold. No one seemed to be buying matches that day, as if they would all blow out if they bought them. Try as she might she had not sold a single box. Hungry and exhausted she found shelter from the snow and wind in a doorway. She couldn’t go back home without selling at least some of her matches. She tried again “matches for sale, matches for sale” but no one stopped. The rich hurried home to their warm homes in this dark time of the year.
The little match girl so cold, so hungry, looked into the widow of one the houses on the fine street she was on. There were lights in the windows and inside people were warm and a great feast was spread on the table. And around the table were people, well dressed and warm and laughing. A girl her age was there. Oh, she longed to be there. She ached to be in that room. The wind blew again, but the light in the window didn’t even flicker.
She stepped from the window, finding the shelter of the doorway again. She was cold, so cold. She knew she couldn’t go home so she lit one of the packs of matches to stay warm. They glowed against the fading sun, warm in her hands. Ah, it felt so good. The little match girl lit another pack and this time she closed her eyes as she felt the matches warm her face. She imagined herself inside the lovely house, feeling the warmth of the fire. It felt so wonderful. When that pack burned out she opened her eyes and suddenly she remembered where she was and the cold returned. So she closed her eyes again and lit another pack, and now she imagined she was once again in the house with the light in the window eating all the good food, turkey with stuffing, potatoes dripping with butter, peeling back an orange she felt its sweet spray in her face, it all felt so good. The pack of matches died again but this time she didn’t feel the cold, in fact she couldn’t feel anything but her fingers holding that burned out back and the glow on her face.
She had only one pack now, and she closed her eyes and lit it again, transported into the room with a light in the window, warm and well fed and the little match girl remembered who she really was, not poor and cold and alone, but here in this family. She was home. And they remembered her! They called out her name. She felt home and she stared out the window beyond the candle into the snow beyond. It was so good to be home.
They found the little match girl’s body the next morning. All the matches had been burned and lay in a pile by her feet in the doorway. She had a smile on her face; she had found her way home.
Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the little match girl is perhaps the most troubling story of the Christmas season. Some have seen it as a justification for a better life in the hereafter for those who suffer in this. While in some sense that may be true, I find it instead to be bitter testimony to the tragedy of poverty. I think there is a deeper message which incorporates both the spiritual release and indignant justice this story suggests.
And it has something to do with a light in the window. John Turrant in his book The Light Inside the Dark writes “Everything new needs to be held, needs a place into which it can be born. The container which hold is character…character is the vessel which holds our swirling selves. We do not always have a say in all that befalls us but we do have a say in the shape of our character…” As the little match girl dreamed her character as a brave little girl transformed her in spite of all reality.
And of course, we need an even brighter light with the horrific murders of 27 people, 20 of them little children who will never see the light of their earthly homes again. Our hearts ache for the families, for the loss of innocence, for a country that still allows this madness of gun ownership to trump the rights of the innocent to come home ever again.
The light has gone out. It is up to us to light it again.
With Grace and Grit, John