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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I haven’t read “The Littlest Angel,” but I completely agree with your sentiments. (And I *am* a pretty religious, faithful Catholic. :)) It bothers me when a child dies and people say something like, “God needed another angel in Heaven.” First of all, as you said, people are not angels. Angels are heavenly beings who have always been angels. They are not dead people.
But more importantly, God doesn’t kill children to fulfill some missing need in Heaven. When children die, it’s a tragedy that no human being can explain. I have no idea how each individual death fits into God’s plan, but I do know that a benevolent God wouldn’t just take a child from his parents to fulfill some need of His in Heaven. Once a person’s soul does enter Heaven (a child’s or an adult’s), God wraps His arms around them and gives them His love forever. There’s no need to “prove” themselves. They’re already in Heaven, for crying out loud.
My husband would laugh if he read this. You sound just like me. I’m always picking apart songs and stories that make no sense or reflect the author’s misunderstanding of simple concepts that, to me, should be clear if they only gave them a little thought.
I have many posts like this on films, books, TV shows, etc. I hope you will check out more of my articles. Hopefully, you (and your husband) will enjoy them. There’s my marketing bit of the comment.
There is a lot of “proving” oneself in the story. They get judged on numerous things (we learn that because the Littlest Angel always fails at them). From singing (which I would be in trouble around) to just neatness. So I guess angels can be dirty. Dirt on clouds… who knew?
I haven’t thought about this story for YEARS. And the only thing I remember is that my father had me memorize it and then tell Sister Jane Marie that i could recite it. She let me do it in front of the whole class. we were 8 years old and in 3A. That was probably December in 1942. So, unless there were two stories with the same name,….
Barbara a Malley
You are all overthinking it. This story is a fantasy. Don’t take it seriously. Pay attention to the message: a truly beautiful message about how everyone matters to God, no matter how un angelic they are. Remember that God judges those who judge (as stated in the Lord’s Prayer).
Besides, even when people think that dead people are angels, they know that there is a difference between angels as in dead people and angels as in immortal heavenly spirits that serve God. They imagine them as looking similar, but they usually understand that Gabriel never was a human.
As for the time problems, remember that heaven time doesn’t necessarily follow earth time, something that the author makes quite clear.
As for the “discipline”, remember that the littlest angel never actually got disciplined. The angel of the peace was super kind, which I’d totally expect from heaven.
As for “The Christmas shoes”, again, don’t overthink the plot. Sure, if such a story happened in reality, it would be tragic, but that’s not the point. The point is that the guy was generous and helped the boy. It’s this kind of overthinking that causes people to think Bell has Stockholm syndrome.
All in all, I think we should appreciate what we get. Be giving and thankful. I also highly recommend “the littlest angel coronet” as the best adaptation of the story. The artwork is truly beautiful! Merry Christmas in advance!
You’d be hard pressed to find a message in that slop, because of all the aforementioned problems with the story. It’s not overthinking at all when the issues with the story are so glaring. To expand the LOTR analogy, it’d be like if Frodo suddenly had a time machine to prevent all the problems the Ring caused. it’s just BAD.
A good story-teller would be able to deliver the message without all the obvious faults of this terrible story.
Hahaha, I haven’t read this book since I was like 5. The whole dead people becoming angels thing always bothered me too though.
Well, I always laugh since it is said to try to cheer someone up, but it just doesn’t mesh with the books out there on the subject. Now, as I said, I really don’t lean this way in my belief, so the fact I am pointing this out is kind of funny to me. Gotta know your Dante.
Thanks for writing!
Agreed. This is a terrible story. I can’t actually think of anything good about it. When I was younger (like…a child), I refused to read it because I couldn’t get past the creepiness of the cover art.
Yeah, the illustrations don’t help selling the product that is for sure. The later editions where the angel looks like a real kid are much more disturbing in my opinion.
Your Tolkien/Religion references are actually perfectly conceived. Tolkien was a devout Catholic his entire life. For a child to be told that being separated from all he knows and loves just so he can wear some wings is just nasty.
Perfectly conceived? LOL. Yes… Yes, they are. LOL.
Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked the post.
I really had to laugh out loud. Mr. Wilson isn’t down the street. I agree with you and I am a good Catholic girl.
Actually, Mr. Wilson lived across the street when I was growing up and he would allow the neighborhood kids to play on his lawn.
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You’re a mean one, Mr.Grinch!
You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch!
Now, I LOVE that story! And that has a clear message and ending. LOL… Okay, I’m a Grinch, I get it though.
Thank you for this interesting read. I managed to make it to adulthood without ever reading or hearing this story (I actually saw a reference to it on LinkedIn, which led me to Google, which brought me here). I would be interested to hear your opinion on “The Giving Tree,” which to me is a truly terrible story. But maybe only extreme “givers” have a problem with that story. Merry Christmas!
I can understand why you feel that way about The Giving Tree, but, man, sometimes I feel it while being a parent. And it’s never big things, it is the little things. Giving the child the last piece of candy, sharing something that is dear to you and hoping it doesn’t get wrecked (but it probably will be). And, honestly, every time I read it, I have to fight back the tears.
So, I would say, symbolically it works, but when you consider it in the real world of a story of a boy and a tree, the tree’s life really sucks.
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Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am a Catholic, perhaps not the best, but I do try to put my heart and mind in right place and lead a good life. I find your musings, albeit they posses truth, tough to swallow simply because I grew up listening to this story every year with my father. As I continue to develop in my faith, I do understand that angels and the deceased are two very separate things, would you allow a suspension of disbelief for the sake of a story? I know that is only one facet of your, *ahem*, adoration for this story.
I’d like to share my take, if I may. My goal is not to change your mind, or the mind of others, but show what I take away from it each time I listen/read the story:
Children are often searching for their way of fitting in with those around them. They can be very impulsive, and in large group settings, lack of conformity is frowned upon en mass, not celebrated. This little child, who was trying to fit in, found that he lacked skill sets, he lacked knowledge, and he lacked experience of doing as “the others do”. That will always be a blow to your ego, whether you can articulate that or not. When he offers his gift, he is giving all his wordly possessions to Christ, which is what He asked of His disciples. The child gives what he can, which I think is a beautiful sentiment. When God’s hand stops on the Littlest Angel’s gift, He unveils the true beauty of the gift, which was given with love and adoration, so that the beauty of the gift is no longer only seen by God and the child, but by all.
As a father and a teacher of young children, (I do not pretend to be the best persuasive essay write, so please forgive any errors), I think this story, again, with its inaccuracies, to be a beautiful tale of effort, love, and sharing. He tries to meet the expectations that are asked of him, he shares his joy and longing for his life on Earth, and he gives himself completely to God, which I would hazard most people would not be able to do today.
I thank you for your time in reading my thoughts, and wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.
Thanks for writing. And Merry Christmas!
Absolutely agree all the negative nines on here claiming to be Christians should be ashamed!! Thank you sir for your truth. God bless you and yours always and Merry CHRIST mas.
“The Velveteen Rabbit” and Beatrix Potter must have had you in hysterics as a kid. Are you one of those wackoos who thinks Harry Potter was a satanist, too?
No, because the Velveteen Rabbit is a good book (and makes me cry each time I read it), and Potter is a great children’s author.
And when it comes to Harry Potter, I was there waiting in line at midnight for each of the books. I wasted hours listening to the amazing Pottercast (Man, I miss that podcast) and debating what house I am. (Probably Ravenclaw.)
Kannst du ein wunderschönes Märchen nicht einfach ein Märchen sein lassen? Weshalb alles kaputt machen?
I watched the 1969 version (a musical? Really?) of this as a child and found it deeply disturbing. I was born in 1964 and do not remember how old I was when I saw it–seven or eight, maybe? But it disturbed me so much that I actually googled it in order to take a look at it again. Before I did so, I found your comments above and read them, and I objected to the same things you did. I tried to watch it on YouTube but could only bear to watch the first 15 minutes and the end, since I could tell that it is a total waste of time. What really bothered me the most about this made-for-TV musical version is that dead people turn into angels and live in the clouds. When I was a child, I thought that this was what we had to look forward to in heaven. Now I am a born-again Christian and know that Jesus did not just come to give us a ticket to heaven but to give us the keys to the kingdom, the earthly kingdom which we can enjoy here and now. His glory lives in us and changes everything.
I also love Beatrix Potter and the Harry Potter books as well as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The Narnian Chronicles by C. S. Lewis which I read in fifth and sixth grades gave me a much better idea of Christianity than the nonsense of The Littlest Angel.
Thank you for your comments that so resonated with me and spared me from having to watch the whole thing.
I think you missed the point of the song.
I share much of your gag and grimace reaction to the Littlest Angel. I saw it in movie form in the auditorium of my public elementary school back in the early 60’s. For me, as an adult, the most glaring aspect of schlock writing is that this kid is in HEAVEN and is missing some junk on earth. The author is resonating with a common cultural perception that heaven is a boring place. This is not at all what is hinted at in the Holy Bible which says we are not even capable of imagining how great it will be. If God is not enough for you, you don’t belong in heaven anyway (read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). Not that anyone will be in heaven because they deserve to be there. Thank God for grace.
I think this whole “people becoming angels” nonsense may have started with the insiped chubby cherebs on the Sistene chapel ceiling. Baby angels. Gag & grimace!!!
The only partially redeeming factor in this story (not sufficient for me to recommend it to anyone) is the aspect of God choosing a gift of humble qualities to become a shining star. It harmonizes with a lot of New Testament truth. Christ Himself was born in humble circumstances among the poor. Paul teaches that God uses the foolish, weak, and ignoble to glorify himself.
Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!
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Yes!!!! I only vaguely recall hating the movie as a child, and never saw the book. But I am now at my parent’s house on Christmas Eve, and after hearing Bing Crosby sing the story, I had to look it up. Came across your post. Yes!!!!! Dead people do not become angels, and the story is a pathetic (and secular) interpretation of heaven by people who have apparently never read a Bible.
My husband remembered this book from his childhood…so he Googled it…and up popped your review. You had us both in tears laughing hysterically! As a former Catholic, educated within the faith [Grammar & HS], I was especially amused. Thank you for the thoughtfully punny review 🙂
These are all the reasons it is a STORY, fiction, folks! Lighten up. You also need to remember when it was written – 1942, early days of WWII, and I suspect folks were looking for any kind of reassurance they could find.
Maybe some people do become angels, even if they are only minor ones. Who really knows?
Correction: I misread date of publication, should be 1946. But my point remains you need to consider the times in which the story was written – even with the war it was a gentler time: try reading The Five Lityle Peppers and How They Grew. Sappy, but at the time I loved it. Poor little Phronsie!
Lighten up, for Heaven’s sake! It’s just a children’s story. I remember reading it as a child, but haven’t thought about since. I don’t believe I was harmed in any way by this little tale.
Bah humbug! said Mr. Scrooge. Sorry you didn’t get it. The best things in life are the simplest.
I am so glad to find a similar reaction to this story, after a lifetime of trying to rationalize its painfulness. My father lost a younger brother when they were very young, his brother a toddler. The imprint was deep, never discussed. I finally evoked a more beautiful image, imagining a precious horse chestnut the tender child proffered to God surrounded by pure Love beaming around, him as my father beamed down to me after his own passing as an old man. Great imagination necessary.
I have a very different experience with this story. I was 7 and my father had died just a few months before. I was a very sad little girl. I saw in this story a little boy, like me, who just wanted to play and enjoy life, but death had gotten in the way, and nobody around seemed to understand. In the story, the boy finally found someone who did understand; I never felt like I did. I’m not Christian, and my family was never religious, so the religious aspects of the story eluded me. it was other aspects of the story I related to.
Fish in a barrel, gf.
I watched this as a child and what always kept with me was the song the little boy sang about “these are the miracles of the earth.” As a child, I didn’t think about whether or not people became angels. I thought about how wonderful it was that God loved the little boy so much that He would let him have his most precious things back, even though they were left on earth. I thought that what was precious to children on earth is precious to God. That made me happy and still does. I totally understand your comment and laughed along with you, but I will always have a tender spot in my heart for this Hallmark Hall of Fame show because it made me feel that God cared. As a 10 year old child, that was a message I needed to hear and remember.
For me the book is the best Xmas story because what I see happening is all the airy, fairy stuff about heaven, god, angels, morality, etc. can be bracketed and shelved and what comes to the forefront then is the idea that it is the common, ordinary things of the earth that are the most sacred. Earth is Holy, spirit and matter are the inside and outside of the same cloth. Sorry, in a hurry and don’t have time to deepen this claim.