By Sarah Gill
In 1845, Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen published the incredibly moving and vital tale of The Little Match Girl. The story takes place on New Year’s Eve as the heaviest of snows falls. A young, poor girl is roaming the empty streets in the hopes of selling some measly match sticks. Her head is bare, her feet are naked and not one person has given her a penny. She truly is misery personified. The young girl begins to realise the bleakness of her situation.
Having sold not a single match, the girl knew that going home was not an option. In the knowledge that her father would punish her with a beating and, given that they live and increasingly dilapidating shack, the girl decides to squat in the shelter between two houses. Intoxicated by the smell of food and Christmas cheer, which oozes from the houses around her, she lights a match in the hopes of warming her hands.
With each match the little girl strikes, a new vision appears before her. First it is an image of a huge stove, which she attempts to warm her blue toes on. Then comes the illusion of a decadent Christmas feast, followed by the appearance of the grandest, most extravagant Christmas tree the girl had ever seen. As each match is quenched, the girl is once again enveloped in a sea of darkness.
In the midst of the obscurity of the night, a shooting star illuminated the darkness. Her grandmother’s words echoed inside her head, “Someone is just dead”; when a star falls, a soul ascends to heaven. With that, the girl lights another match and, in the lustre, her grandmother appears before her. The apparition exudes love and light, warmth and compassion – everything that this poor little girl’s life lacks. She cries out for her grandmother to take her with her, lighting all the matches in the hopes of keeping her one source of comfort near.
Together they fly, arm in arm, above the earth towards and ineffable brightness. Far from hunger, and far from the cold to a place where there is no pain and no suffering.
On New Year’s Day, the child’s frozen corpse leaned against the wall with a smile still etched on her face. As people gazed down at this child, who had been stiffened by death, they felt sympathy. They pitied her situation and felt the unrelenting sadness of her fate. These are the same people who had not bought her matches. The same people who had not shown her kindness, looked the other way and turned a blind eye on the poverty – stricken child that was so clearly crying out for help.
In 173 years, what has changed? The moral of the story, when stripped of decoration, is that people only care once you’re dead. Right now, in Ireland there are 9,698 homeless people. 3,829 homeless kids. Every single one of those people, in some way, has experienced the unrelenting sadness of The Little Match Girl.
We feel pity, we feel compassion and we feel sympathy for these nameless people we pass in the street but what seems to outrank these emotions is extreme selfishness and superiority. We are so thankful that it’s not us. We don’t know these people and we don’t know what got them there. I wonder how many people reading this have lied by saying “I’m so sorry I actually don’t have any change on me!” or disregarded their plea for some cash with the belief that it will go straight on booze or drugs?
What we should be feeling is guilt, empathy and responsibility. At Christmas time, there is such a sense of giving and generosity in the air. There are so many ways to rid yourself of the consumerist culpability that we feel after we have bought a carload of gifts. Donate directly to the Simon Community. Buy your online gifts through giveback.ie. Buy a homeless person a hot meal.
It’s so easy to ignore these people and their struggles. To leave them with nothing until one day, we see someone frozen to death on Shop Street. It’s such a gruesome thought, but it could become a reality if we don’t face up to our responsibility to help.
Illustration by Anne Anderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons