This is admittedly something of a cheat, since it was not an actual Christmas special and was, I think, a segment from a defunct Fantasia sequel, but it is nevertheless a beautiful, powerful reminder of the darker side of Christmas.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote this story, thinking about what could have happened to his mother, who was for a time, a beggar as a child. She may or may not have sold matches.
Anyway, taking place in St. Petersburg and set to Tchaikovsky, the beautiful animation makes this short, sad story sting all the more. The little match-girl tries in vain to sell her wares on Christmas Eve, but everyone ignores her. A police officer shoos her from her spot by a lamp, and brushes her off when she offers him a match. Trying to find shelter from the cold, she huddles in an alley, and finally decides to light one of her matches. When it is lit, she sees a warm stove, but then the match goes out, ending the vision.
This goes on until she lights every match in her box in order to see her dear, departed grandmother. The grandmother embraces her, dries the girl’s eyes, and takes her up to Heaven, leaving her body with the matches in the alley.
It is incredibly sad, but not unbearably so. Kudos to the animators who made that possible. The little girl’s joy is palpable when she sees her grandmother, and her determination to stay with her when she lights all her remaining matches is inspiring. Yet at the same time, her sadness is heartbreaking, and the apathy of the people around her is paralyzing. The short skips the scene in the original fairy tale where an upper class boy steals one of the girl’s shoes– which was probably a smart decision. It would be too bleak otherwise.
As this is only available as a Special Feature on the 25th anniversary DVD of The Little Mermaid– check out this YouTube link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTE7CVCuMz0). Provided it’s still there.
This 6 minute cartoon manages to criticize, sadden, and uplift– all without saying a word. Even the silent movies had dialogue cards– this Disney relic is truly extraordinary.