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Letters About Literature National Winners 2004

National Winner, Level 2: Mary-Caitlin Harding

Brookfield, Connecticut
December, 2003

Dear Hans Christian Andersen,

One Christmas when I was three years old, my grandfather handed me a present wrapped in shiny red paper. I tore off the paper eagerly to discover what delicious secret awaited inside. My eyes fell on the face of a beautiful little girl not much more than my own age on the cover of a book sized just right for my little hands. The girl's shawl-wrapped shoulders were shrugged against the cold as she cradled the flame of a lighted match in her hands. "It's called The Little Match Girl," Papa revealed with a wink. "It was one of my favorites when I was your age."

I pleaded with Papa to read to me. My eyes opened wide as his rich, baritone voice told of a little girl sent out into the cold streets on New Year's Eve to raise money selling match sticks. Warned not to return home until all of her wares were sold, the girl warmed her frigid hands by lighting matches, one by one. At last she had but three matches left. As the first match burst into flame, the girl imagined an extravagant feast with a large turkey and a warm fireplace. With the blaze of the second match, she envisioned an elegant Christmas tree in a magnificent house. Then, the girl ignited her final match and dreamed of joining the only person who had ever really cared for her her beloved grandmother in heaven. My heart burst with bittersweet joy.

The Little Match Girl became part of our holiday tradition. Each Christmas after dinner, my grandfather and I slipped into the living room while the grown-ups drank coffee around the table. As Papa's toy trains chugged and whistled 'round the tree, we snuggled together on the couch. I rested my head on his left shoulder and felt the familiar warmth of his checkered holiday shirt against my cheek. Like incense in a church, the scent of pine always wafted up from Papa's skin and clothes. Then, with the stage properly set, Papa read me the story we had both long since memorized. His melodious voice carried me along on a cloud of gentleness. No matter how old I got, I always let Papa read to me.

This past June, Papa passed away. So this Christmas, as the adults sip coffee after dinner, I will slip away to the couch all by myself. I will miss Papa's soft shoulder and pine-scenty perfume. I will long to be soothed by the salve of his voice. But, bravely, I will read The Little Match Girl aloud. And when I come to the part where the girl lights her third and final match, I will close my eyes just as she does and imagine that I am with the person who loved me more than anyone, ever.

I know that Papa will be with me this Christmas day. And I will be with him, too, because tucked under his pillow is a copy of The Little Match Girl light and thin, just right for tired old hands. I put it there so that when we meet again he can read it to me, just like always.

Yours with a thankful heart,

Mary-Caitlin Harding