Many readers cannot bear the unrelenting sadness of this short fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It has a spare and harrowing plot. A young girl is sent out by her impoverished parents to sell matches on the last evening of the year. She is barefoot, for she has lost her slippers; one has simply gone missing, and the other is stolen by a boy who says he will use it as a cradle for his own future children.
The cold little girl cannot sell any matches. She begins to despair, knowing her father will beat her when she gets home. Of course, in Andersen’s time, begging was illegal; the matches are a prop for the girl and for the story. And so she sits, leans against a stone wall and lights a match against it. What warmth this brings to the girl! Beside her, she sees, there is now a hot stove. Yet when the match flickers out, the stove disappears. Coldness again. The next lit match reveals a table lavishly set — a fat goose waddles toward her with a fork and knife in its breast. The match dies and the goose runs away.
A Christmas tree appears as the third match is struck, and the girl reaches to touch a branch with a cold hand, but it vanishes when the match expires. Shivering, she lights yet another match and the tree rises before her once more, now lit with thousands of candles! The tree is so tall it merges with sky, and then a star falls from the sky and the girl’s dead grandmother appears: the only person who ever loved the little match girl. They embrace in a light broader than any we can imagine and rise to a place where there never was hunger or pain.
In the morning, the match girl is frozen to death by the wall. In her stiff hands she holds matches — half of them burned. “She tried to warm herself,” observe some passersby. None of them, we are told, imagine the glory she witnessed with her grandmother on that cold New Year’s Day.
I don’t know why I assigned this tale to my brother’s firm. Andersen is an exquisite stylist, and this is an iconic winter tale, but I don’t believe it’s currently widely read to young people in the United States. I discovered it in a library book when I was a child, shortly after learning about starvation from the graphic documentaries about concentration camps that we watched in Sunday School. The Old Testament, Holocaust films and Hans Christian Andersen merged in my young mind. I was not scared of stories, but the documentaries had taught me that life was not a storybook.
Of course, there are times when life feels story-like. When Andy and I were little, we would sometimes accompany our sisters into the snowy woods by our house. We’d bring a box of matchbooks lifted from my mother’s laundry room (she kept them on a shelf above the washing machine in an empty Folgers coffee can). The matchbooks were from places like Howard Johnson’s, Ground Round, Locke-Ober. In the woods we pretended to sell matches to each other, and sometimes — afraid of getting hurt, or in trouble — we would light them.
The domestic hallucinations of “The Little Match Girl” are familiar to those of us leading lucky, safe lives: a kitchen stove, a table set with a nice supper, a holiday tree, a loving grandmother. In Andersen’s story, strangers walk unseeingly past the little girl on the very night of her death. They’re doing holiday errands. They do not offer her help.
How many times have I turned myself cold, and not helped someone in need? Bernheimer Architecture illuminates this story with images that are heartbreaking and strange. Their Little Match Girl suffers, dejected, inside an ice cube; no holiday beverage ever will be quite the same.