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Vintage German Advent calendar with very subtle Hansel and Gretel undertones. The angel in the upper left is about to munch on a hot pretzel.

There are lots of versions of Hansel and Gretel. This past week I read the most recent, so new that the book’s spine made a little creaking noise when I opened it. I got palpitations when I snatched it from the librarian’s hands and scurried home, one, because I’m an English nerd, specifically a folklore nerd; and two, because Neil Gaiman wrote it, and he’s no lily-livered twat who would shellac over snuggly themes like cannibalism and abandonment.

And bless his melancholic little heart, he didn’t do that. But despite the above, what struck me most was the gnawing, pervasive theme of hunger throughout his version. There’s the strictly food-hunger perspective:

-When we meet the children and their parents they are poor but not hungry. Soon, though, their country goes to war and they are always hungry. This propels the parents to leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods.

-The animals in the forest eat the bread crumbs Hansel has dropped to find the way back home.

-The children are so hungry that they eat bits from the old woman’s gingerbread house.

-The old woman is hungry for protein; her house is a trap for those who would snack on it.

But it’s also a story about how other kinds of hunger can motivate (for good and ill):

-The father doesn’t want to abandon his children, but his hunger to stay in his wife’s good graces makes him lead them into the forest.

-Hansel’s hunger to stay alive gives him wiles enough to trick the old woman into thinking he’s not getting fat enough to eat.

-Gretel’s hunger to save herself and her brother gives her wiles enough to feign stupidity and push the old woman into the oven.

-The father’s hunger to find his children and bring them home (and surely to assuage his guilt as well) sends him into the forest every day to search for them.

-The mother’s hunger (for what it is not clear, and even the author does not know) writes her early-death certificate.

It’s hunger—for food, certainly, but also for acceptance and for life and for freedom—that drives these characters.

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I’d be remiss if, in a post about hunger, I didn’t mention the hungry around us. Food shelters happily accept a single can of food or an SUV-ful. This week many supermarkets in the U.S. are asking patrons to donate a dollar or more to food banks as well. The other day the Pope spoke pretty powerfully about the dangers of greed, pinpointing it as our downfall if we keep turning a blind eye. It’s my hope that our hunger to do right will propel all of us to feed those who are food-hungry.

But in real life as in stories, there’s more to hunger than food-hunger; and no matter the variety, deprivation is all it’s cracked up to be. For those who are hungry in other ways—for attention, for a shoulder, for a laugh, for the truth, for a little peace—give a dollar’s worth if you don’t have much. Give more if your personal bank is in the black. Most of the time people, in my experience, are just hungry to be seen…really seen.

May we all be fed and be filled—bellies and hearts alike.

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