When The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell was published in 1946 it was a holiday phenomenon. This “classic” story has since been published numerous times (with many different illustrated versions); made into movies (cartoon, musical, and live action); and in the list of best-selling children stories of all time (!) it comes up in the top 20.
Heck, even holiday crooner Bing Crosby sang a song based on the plot of it!
I remember the first time I heard this story. It was at catechism. and the teacher read it to us as if she was bestowing a great holiday gift on us children. I can still see her smile. While the other kids casually sat near me with crossed legs, I remember really being bothered by the story. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but that reaction to the tale has never gone away for me. And that day, I raised my hand for I had some questions.
My hand is still up in the air.
The fact is, after thinking about it far too much, and being haunted by it like Marley’s ghost each year, I can’t escape my problems with this narrative. I have come to the opinion that this Christmas traditional yarn is… just awful. Horrendous. Possibly the worst holiday story. Oh, God, it is just bad.
Okay, it takes a lot for a story to be a worst holiday yarn than the appalling song “The Christmas Shoes” (which for those lucky not to know is the materialistic and disturbing ditty about an ignorant child who leaves his dying mother’s bedside to go shopping, assuming that the shoes he puts on her feet will go with her soul to heaven and there impress Jesus), but The Littlest Angel does it. It does it ten times over.
Grab a cup of hot chocolate and a Christmas cookie, snuggle in by the fireplace, and let me tell you why…
People don’t become angels!
Let’s get this out of the way- I’m not religious.
On a good day I am a possibilian or agnostic; on a bad day, a straight-up atheist.
However, no matter what day it is, I have studied enough classic literature and the Bible to know the difference between people and angels. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic college. I even visited the Vatican twice! And Milton and Dante (Who I studied and reimagined in my radio comedy series The Dante Experience) and the Old Testament all make a strong distinction between angels and dead people.
This is how I like to think of it… You know elves in The Lord of the Rings? (Yes, I just brought up Tolkien in a religious conversation, hear me out.) Well, elves are angels. They are older, more cool and collected. We humans are smelly dwarfs and hobbits. (I have no idea what Gandalf is, no one is that sweet.)
That angel with the flaming sword guarding the gates of Eden is not old man Wilson from down the street. No, that is an angel!
So The Littlest Angel, which stars a dead young child who has transformed into an angel upon death starts off on a glaring mistake. A mistake we will continue to experience in our culture in Hallmark cards and badly-rhymed poems. Now I can’t put all the blame of this mistake on this story, but I wish I could.
Again, angels are elves, we are hobbits with hairy feet… moving on.
Heaven is not Chucky Cheese
So when this little deceased child comes to heaven (transformed into an angel), he is too loud, gets in trouble and pretty much annoys everyone.
Right from the start he doesn’t fit in, he sniffles in the beginning of the tale which bothers the gatekeeper! A scene I sadly think Mr. Tazewell believed to be charming. The recently deceased is holding back tears and in this story it is cute because he forgot his handkerchief???
You would like to imagine Heaven as a place of wonder and excitement and happiness. Uninterrupted joy. Instead, this book creates an image of strict order, silence, and a schedule that must not be broken! The story even says at one point that the angel needed to be “disciplined.”
That is Tazewell’s word not mine. I assume that the word is said in a deep and menacing voice… in heaven.
So this sad, lonely, outsider of a child is brought before an “Angel of Peace” to… wait a minute… shouldn’t all angels be of peace? Forget it, let’s move on in the story.
After complaining that there is nothing for a young angel to do in Heaven (I’m not making this up, read the story), our little troublemaker asks for something from his old bedroom to make him happy because in this reality of a heaven, heaven is limited in what it has. And he tells the angel where to find this box. It’s under his old bed back on Earth and is filled with his favorite things.
Just a minute… Let’s all stop and take a moment for the sad image of parents who have lost this little child and never bothered to change an inch of his bedroom since this box is still waiting there as well as the bed it is under.
Okay, that is enough with that very sad little nugget in this tale and let’s move on because the story is about to shift.
Where is the Flux Capacitor?
It is obvious that this tale is contemporary to the time it was written. Our young hero talks about playing pirate and his box from home sounds like a collection that would make any American boy happy, especially back in the 1940’s. Bits and pieces of animals and the collar of his dog (so all dogs do NOT go to heaven it seems).
Anyway, it is here that our author tries to pretend that this book is happening a long time ago by saying the dead butterfly remains are from Jerusalem (Are there even butterflies in the Middle East???), because we are about to journey back to the first Christmas. Get out the time machine!
Yes, the first Christmas is upon us and all of the angels are collecting gifts to give the Christ child. And for those that think Heaven is a socialist utopia where there is no greed and everyone is equal, you can forget that! Because everyone here has rich gifts to give, and our little angel has nothing to compare to the gold objects of the others. So there are still the haves and have-nots. Great…
Wait a minute! A recently deceased child was just welcomed into heaven… Wasn’t that why Jesus died on the cross, so people could go to an afterlife? So how did the Littlest Angel sneak in early!?! You see, what I mean!?! Time is out of whack, people! Get Doc Brown!
Well, our hero adds his special box that was stolen from his old room to the mix of presents, God sees it and as he goes through it, the little angel weeps thinking he had just been blasphemous and is about to get in trouble. (Seriously, what is this place???)
Yet, God doesn’t see the gift that way and decides to take it away from the little one that needed it and uses it to make a star. (Something that typically God doesn’t need help doing.)
Yup, the one thing that made that poor child happy is taken away. Which I guess would make God at that moment the opposite of Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas from Mr. Tazewell!
There is a lot of cynicism around Christmas.
Yet, I have always had a fondness for this holiday. One of the first thing I ever wrote was a screenplay for a Christmas film (something I still hope gets made someday) and I have a collection of Christmas music that is unparalleled. Trust me, the mix on my iPhone has been finally crafted by a master. There is no little kids wishing for a hippo in my music shuffle, thank you very much.
Every year we are given a new collection of bad Christmas songs and stories. It is inevitable. And while I have questions about each of the stories I experience each holiday season (Like in The Santa Clause, did the old Santa die… and did they leave the body on their lawn? Did I miss something?) But none of them have ever disturbed me like The Littlest Angel. It is the gift that truly keeps giving.
Yes, in my imagined version of heaven this book would not be waiting for me there… Of course, in Tazewell’s version it probably would be.
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