Mia – October 9, 2017

The Halloween countdown began a week ago and now that our house is decorated, I need to start rustling up costumes for my three kids.

As a middle-schooler, Jake will settle for something minimal—his grandfather’s old dog tags and camouflage cap, plus a few additions from the Army surplus store —and Alex has agreed to re-purpose Jake’s old Harry Potter costume.

I rely on no-fuss costumes for the boys, so I can put my full creative energies into Astrid’s costume. As in so many years past, she’s taken her inspiration from our well-read and beautifully illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales.

An old, illustrated cover of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales.

Many families, Danish and otherwise, own a copy of of Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tales. #hcafairytales

When she was younger, we created costumes from Andersen stories that made it to the big screen in versions that were very different from their original incarnations. The Little Mermaid, for example, wasn’t called Ariel in Andersen’s version, and she didn’t live happily ever after. And The Snow Queen, on which the movie Frozen was loosely based, is the story of Kay and Gerda, not Elsa, Anna and Kristoff.

The Wild Swans captured Astrid’s imagination this year with its strong current of fraternal love.  She wants to be Elisa, the selfless, silent princess who works tirelessly to free her eleven brothers from a spell cast by their wicked stepmother. This summer, Astrid had a painful run-in with a stinging nettle, so she understands the suffering Elisa endures while weaving nettles into shirts that will free her brothers from the spell that forces them to spend their days as swans, becoming human again only at night.

It’s a wonderful, memorable story, like so many of Andersen’s fairy tales. Who hasn’t read or at least heard of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling? They’ve enlightened and engaged millions of children for more than 100 years.

One of Denmark’s most famous and prolific authors, Andersen (1805-1875) didn’t sugar-coat his themes, choosing instead to work strong moral lessons and sometimes tragic endings into his imaginative, magical tales. Beloved characters like the Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina gently model personal transformation and persistence in the face of obstacles. The Little Match Girl reminds kids to consider those less fortunate, while The Princess and the Pea highlights why we should never judge others by their appearance.

While I would sometimes fudge a sad or scary ending while reading Andersen’s fairy tales to my children, Danish parents have no such compunctions. They don’t shy away from exposing their kids to stories that feature dark themes or hardships, which they view as necessary to raising children with empathy. Anyone who has read Andersen’s lesser-known Stone of the Wise Men may want to share it with their children in the daytime, if at all, nowhere near lights out (see photo at the top of this post).

Andersen, who grew up in Odense, faced his own challenges in life. The son of a shoemaker and a washer woman, he was a poor student and failed at several occupations before finding success as a poet and author. He had a series of unrequited loves (Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, was one of them) and never married. And his friendship with Charles Dickens came to an abrupt end after Andersen overstayed his visit with the English novelist.

A little girl wears a Princess Ariel costume with a bright orange-red wig.

Ariel, Disney’s classic princess based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Little Mermaid, remains a popular Halloween costume for young girls. #princessariel

Yet nearly 150 years after his death, Andersen remains a beloved figure. His birthplace and childhood home in Odense have been popular attractions since opening in 1908 and 1930, respectively. There is also a Hans Christian Andersen museum and an annual festival celebrating Odense’s favorite son as well as statues of Andersen and his fairy tale characters in cities around the world, including Chicago.

Andersen is also a favorite at The Danish Home, where so many of the residents grew up reading the same fairy tales that charm Astrid today. Our elderly friend who lives there, Farfar, is especially fond of the heroic and star-crossed Steadfast Tin Soldier, which always reminds him of his less eventful service in the Danish Royal Guard during WWII.

Astrid has been trying to convince Farfar to dress up as a tin soldier for the costume contest at The Danish Home’s annual Halloween Bash. And she’s promised to visit, as we always do on Halloween, so he can guess which Andersen fairy tale character she is portraying.

Farfar must really know his Hans Christian Andersen, because he’s never missed one yet.