In the pile was a book I fondly remembered from my own childhood, Bread and Jam for Francis, some other silliness involving a toboggan, one about a little band, and the requisite Elmo book. By far my daughter’s favorite book, however, was a handsomely illustrated book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. Nell was instantly in love with the beautiful pictures.
Of course she wanted me to read her some fairy tales right away. She has some concept of the little mermaid, so she wanted to start there, and I did. I warned her that it wasn’t a very pretty or happy story – certainly not like the Disney version – but she insisted. Nell is only four and a half, and I believe that the Anderson version of the story just confused her more than anything, as it was so far removed from what she knew the tale to be. So we continued next with Thumbelina. No problem. The moral of that tale seems to be don’t marry outside of your species, which is a perfectly fine message for children as far as I am concerned. Last, she asked for The Little Match Girl.
I guess my mother spared me this story when I was young, because the truth was that when I first started reading it to Nell, I had NO IDEA what I was in for. In case you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourselves with this tale, the broad strokes are as follows – Poverty stricken little girl tries to sell matches on New Year’s Eve and can’t sell any, rather than go home to her abusive father, she curls up in a nook, where she has several beautiful holiday-themed hallucinations before finally dying in the cold while having a vision of going to heaven with her late grandmother.
Nevermind that my daughter’s birthday is New Year’s Eve, even if it weren’t I don’t believe that there is any way I could have gotten through that story without crying. It’s just horrible. Poking around a bit on the ‘tubes, I find that many folks consider it to be a classic Christmas tale. I can’t figure this one out. Apparently there’s some subset of the population that just doesn’t feel like it’s really Christmas time unless they have some great tragic literary catharsis to remind the kids that someday too, they will die.
Some other subset of the population sees it as essentially a Christian passion tale, though still claiming it as a Christmas story. This move is sort of theologically confusing to me, but I’ve long ago given up trying to understand how people develop their own theologies.
The majority of the folks out there who love this story though are people who simply believe that it is a childhood classic, and as such should continue to be read to children and passed down from one generation to the next. New literary editions of the Andersen tales come out every several years or so. Movie interpretations are made, compositions are written, coloring books are published. On-line laments are made about current parents’ unwillingness to expose their children to the dark and the sad, and the tales are heralded as essential reading.
My question is why bother? One hundred and fifty years ago, it may have seemed fine to tell stories in which beauty bought you everything you ever wanted whereas ugliness was a sign of evil. In the days before c-sections and antibiotics, it may have seemed normal to never have a mother in a story, but today, thankfully, we can pretty well expect the moms to be around. And when life spans were quite a bit shorter, I suppose that love at first sight, and dying for love seemed less thoroughly outlandish than they do today. But this is not Nell’s world. Why should the harsh realities endured by children in the 1850’s be part of the cannon today?