Light in the Darkness

Our hope, our love, and our togetherness are powerfully transformative. We must never forget this.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, an impoverished child wanders the snow-chilled streets of Copenhagen on New Year’s Eve. She is barefoot and hungry; she’s been put to work selling matches by her terrifying father, but nobody has bought any, and she doesn’t dare return home to face her father’s wrath. So she wanders the streets, relishing the savoury smells that escape from every home. Windows glow with Christmas trees and candles and blazing fires. Lights in the darkness. But these promises of warmth and nourishment are not for her. This little child, upon whom Andersen never bestows a name, knows that she must remain outside. Her namelessness holds her at a distance; she is always “the youngster,” “the child,” “the little girl with the matches”. Her ontological condition—her whole being, destiny, her fate—is outsideness.

Or so the text would have us believe.

I’ve always been drawn to that story. I, too, have wandered the streets, bitterly cold, afraid to return home (and then, later, without a home to which I could return). And I loved to gaze at glowing windows—each one whispering of the joyous, simple, complex, beautiful, ordinary lives that might unfold behind its panes; of a warmth that was no less inviting for being inaccessible to me. I remember thinking that I was like the little match girl, forever on the outside, looking in. I thought it was my destiny. I thought it was my fate.

How many of us feel like this? How many of us are there, trying desperately to glean some borrowed warmth while our hearts and bodies perish? 726 homeless people are officially recorded as having died in 2018 alone; some of those will have frozen to death. David Clapson died when his benefits were stopped. Without an income, he was unable to recharge his electricity meter, and thus could not store his life-saving insulin. He died with an empty stomach and a pile of CVs beside him. Elaine Morrall died alone in a freezing house because she couldn’t afford to pay for heating. In 2018, 6,507 deaths by suicide were recorded in the UK; NHS mental health treatment is now almost impossible to access in England, though government attempts to fiddle the numbers make it difficult to know precisely how many people might be waiting. Those who are “lucky” enough to be seen by a mental health professional are likely to find that the only treatment on offer is cognitive behavioural therapy, a modality which the NHS treats as a one-size-fits-all solution, and which, as M Jane has written, shifts the blame and responsibility for mental distress onto the individual who is suffering. I and many others have tended to experience CBT as a punishment for perceived non-compliance, rather than a relief from distress. Similarly, disabled protestors have been reported to the DWP by police for participating in protest actions, and people seeking advice from their constituency MPs have been reported to the Home Office Immigration Enforcement hotline by the very MPs they trusted to help them. My social media timelines frequently resemble a gallery of wry memes about loneliness, depression, misery, and self-loathing. It all adds up to a desperately bleak picture. Is it any wonder we’re struggling? These are such weights to carry. So many of us, in so many ways, must walk alone and barefoot in the cold. And those who are responsible want us to believe that this is the human condition—this is our destiny, this is our fate.

The little match girl—the unnamed child-object instrumentalised by a narrative of Victorian sentimentality that treats suffering as something abstract, distant; something to pull upon the heartstrings—is never seen to question her own outsideness. But halfway through the story, something happens. She begins to strike the matches she has carried with her for so long, and in their brief brilliant flame she finds warmth. Perhaps it’s intended to be read as a pathetic gesture, but I choose to read it as a moment of radical refusal. All day she has carried in her apron the very means of her own relief—but they are not for her; they are for sale. The profit motive keeps her from them until she has reached such a point of abjection and suffering that she has nothing left to lose. She strikes the matches, and the brief flames warm her. In them, she sees visions: of her grandmother, who loved her unconditionally; of cosy houses and hot food and Christmas trees all laden with candles—visions of a better life, somehow within reach, at last, at last. But of course, it is too late. The matches fizzle out, and the little girl is left alone in darkness, huddled in the frozen street. By morning, she has died, and the townspeople, emerging from their homes into the new year, murmur sadly at the wretchedness of it all. What would have happened if any one of those bright-lit homes had opened its door to her, had included her in its warmth? What would have happened if there were many little match girls: enough to mean a steady supply of matches; enough to gather scrap wood for a fire; enough, perhaps, to build a shelter? Might they have saved one another? Might they have co-created a better, warmer, kinder world?


In winter, we celebrate and call forth light in the darkness. During Hanukkah, the menorah is lit at sundown, and placed it in the window so that everybody might be reminded that miracles are possible—that things can be different. At Diwali and Kartika Purnima, buildings, trees, rivers, and homes are illuminated to symbolise the driving-back of darkness. The Christmas tradition speaks of the guiding star, the cosy stable, the wise and the wealthy called to there to exalt a child born into poverty and oppression. And many of the ancient monuments of north-western Europe, from Newgrange to Stonehenge, are constructed to amplify and revere the precise moment at which the sun pauses in its passage, refuses darkness, re-commits to light and warmth and life. These are radical moments. The courage of the candle-flame.

The last few weeks have seen this process of refusal and commitment being lived politically. As more and more of us take to the streets to try and interrupt, even slightly, the nihilistic teleology of the ruling regime, there’s a sense of miracle, of magic, ordinary and beautiful. People coming together, bonded by hope, by determination, by justice and love and compassion. We gather in groups to trudge through the cold; we stand in front of bright-lit doors, and sometimes the people behind those doors are wealthy and uncaring. Many of us spend our evenings canvassing houses much bigger, warmer, more comfortable than our meagre rented homes. Large windows, double-glazed, spill inviting living-room vignettes onto the street. Christmas trees, open fires, comfortable armchairs. Fairy lights and pretty lanterns in such abundance that one wonders if these people have ever known what it is to worry—to really worry—about their electricity bills. It’s a picture of cosiness worthy of a John Lewis ad, or one of the endless articles that misappropriate a certain Danish word in order to sell us stuff. Our efforts to engage people with their own power, their agency, their capacity to change things interrupt the smooth flow of a comfortable winter evening. These are, perhaps, some of the reasons why so many of my friends and comrades have come to associate cosiness and comfort with apathy and reaction. “Christmas,” I’ve heard it said more than once, “is Tory.” This made me sad. It’s true, I think, that all collective liberatory politics involve moments of personal discomfort; that a refusal to rock the boat is often at best selfish and at worst violent. But I also wonder this: how can I really feel comfortable or cosy knowing that so many precious humans are cold, and hungry, and without shelter? How can I feel comfortable knowing that my hygge-branded blankets were produced by exploited workers? How can I feel cosy in the knowledge that around the world, plurispecial ecologies are collapsing, that human and nonhuman people are dying, and that all of this could so easily be prevented, if those with the power to decide had not decreed that it would cost too much to do so? I want to say that cosiness, then, is a political process, a collective process of co-creation: together, we build a world that comfortably accommodates us all. A world that keeps us warm, that nourishes our hearts and bodies; a world of conviviality, of being-together, of reciprocal comfort and mutual care.

I have begun to see sparks of this world-to-come as I have moved through the winter streets. The gathering of comrades: the very young and the very old, the privately educated and the state school dropouts (hello!); people with disabilities; people of all genders or none, people from every imaginable ethnic or cultural background—people who have likely never met one another before, but who now meet with trust and with openness. The sharing of smiles, sweets, scarves. The people in cars or on the street who stop to offer words of encouragement and support to canvassers. The café workers who refuse payment in gratitude for our efforts. All of these moments of ordinary and beautiful magic, co-created through collective endeavour, through coming together, in hope and in love, to fight for the world we all deserve. Our destiny, our fate. Each one of us, a light in the darkness.

We strike the matches, and in the flames we see a vision of the world-to-come. The glow lights our way, and guides us towards one another, until there are so many of us that the light and the warmth cannot be snuffed out. Together, we refuse the darkness, we commit ourselves to life—to the warm glow, the radical cosiness of a world that embraces and affirms every body. Whatever happens on Thursday, we must remember this moment, this flickering-into-being of something truly transformational: our togetherness. This matters, and this cannot be extinguished.

So let’s carry this light with us into the darkness—with love and rage and grace and hope and the vision of a better world, finally within reach, at last, at last.