The 1970s were another country. Passport required. We who lived there can never express the full experience we had as children during those years. I still have my pocket translator.
Parents ruled us.
Tang slaked our thirst.
Televisions babysat us.
Ashtrays perched by chairs.
Cigarette haze hovered above us.
It was about this time of year those many decades ago, that my poor parents were in the midst of full Christmas time fury. Four weeks ’til Christmas, three boys running wild, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Yule never be so busy.
One Friday night during the Christmas season with full hullabaloo of cooking, baking, shopping, decorating, and just trying to get through The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I pestered my parents. My brothers envisioned sugar plums already snug in their bunk beds.
During those heady years, nothing sparked as much delight in us children as knowing a SPECIAL would be on television. We had four channels. CBS broadcast that trippy SPECIAL sign in white whirling across the screen with that kaleidoscopic background complete with syncopated drum beats. NBC’s Peacock would appear. Can’t remember what ABC did to let us know it was time to pay attention for something out of the ordinary, but I’m sure it triggered the same Pavlovian response.
That Friday evening, while I was all underfoot, my parents took me to the den, plopped me on the sofa, and turned on the television.
“Oh, look,” said my mother, “It’s a Special. Watch this. Just stretch out. I’ll be right back.”
She ran to our dryer and took out a blanket that had just finished drying. It was still warm. We boys called that specific blanket the Green Thing.
“Here, go, dahlin,” she said as she draped Downy fresh Green Thing over me. “Your father and I will be in the kitchen.” Her voice trailed off as she cracked the French doors between our den and our dining room.
I am sure they were making instant Russian tea or mocha mix or some other concoction to deliver in Mason jars sealed with grosgrain ribbons. Homemade Christmas gifts in the 70’s rocked.
What my parents did not know, and what I did not know, as the opening credits began that evening was that children all over America were about to be traumatized watching an adapted version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.
Like so many other tykes in the U.S. that Friday evening, I watched the little girl who was supposed to be selling matches in the snow. Her bare feet froze as her wicked father sent her back out into the cold. Her hallucinations from hunger and hypothermia filled her eyes. She loved her grandmother who is seen in the lit matches. She froze to death in the snow. Hard freeze. Her beatific grandmother carried her to Heaven. The next morning passers-by discovered her dead body as they headed to their New Year’s Day revelries.
As the closing credits rolled, children all over the country ran from their dens, living rooms, and upholstered nooks bedecked in early American plaids, avocado greens, harvest golds. They padded over shag carpeting to find succor from any adult.
I bolted for the kitchen.
I could not breathe.
My parents stared at me.
“Son, what is it?” asked my father.
I couldn’t speak.
Finally, my words came:
More racking sobs.
“Oh hells bells, he just watched The Little Match Girl,” said my father.
“Oh, Judas, yes, he did,” said my mother.
They knew the tale.
“Come here, Son,” said my mother enveloping me in her arms.
It didn’t help.
Children all over the U.S. that night had part of their innocence die in the snow along with the Little Match Girl. I know mine did. Forget the Santa revelation. If this was Christmas, then let’s just move on to Valentine’s Day.
Mercifully, that Special did not air much more after those years, if at all.
I have told this story to more than one contemporary.
Turns out a lot of us had parents that plopped us in front of the t.v. on the same night only to be met with crying children some not too distant while later.
For us 70’s kids, we were left with the unfathomable cruelty of the death of an innocent on full display as brought to us by Peter Paul’s candy bars.
Poverty. Hunger. Indifference. Abuse.
I still see her bare feet in the snow.
At least at the end of the show, the Little Match Girl smiled.