The story begins on a cold, gloomy New Year's Eve. The title heroine, a poor girl, walks in the snow without shoes and hats. When she left the house earlier, she was in her mother's slippers, which were too big for her. When she tried to run across the road where she was almost run over by a large horse-drawn carriage, she lost both slippers. One slipper got lost in the snow, while the other was stolen by a boy who just shouted at her that one day he would use her slipper as a cradle for one of his children and ran away.
Her legs were red and blue from the cold, and she wore several boxes of matches in her apron. She walked in the cold all day and failed to sell any box of matches.
"And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent."
The girl wandered the streets obsessed with cold and hunger, wanting to return home, but she knew that her father would beat her if she returned without selling a single box of matches. After all, she was not comfortable at home either, because she had nothing but a roof through which the wind blew, and the holes in it were patched with old rags and straw. So she continued to walk the streets. Behind the window she saw warmly lit homes and tables full of food.
"Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!"
When she could no longer walk, she sat in a corner between two houses. She pulled her little legs under her and began to remember the memory while trembling. As she was very cold, she thought she could light a match to warm her frozen hands. So she pulled out a match, lit it against the wall and watched the flames dance like a candle.
"Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light!"
She felt the warmth of the flames and began to feel as if she were sitting in front of a large stove, but just as she wanted to warm her feet, the flames went out, and the beautiful stove with brass ornaments disappeared. All that was left in her hands was a burnt match.
She decided to light another match, and soon, the wall she was leaning against seemed transparent. When she looked better, behind the wall she saw a table with a snow-white cloth on which gleaming dishes were arranged. On the table stood a roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples. Just as she looked at her, the goose jumped off the table and ran towards her with a knife and fork in her chest. The flames went out before the goose reached her and all she could see was the cold, thick wall again.
The girl lit the third match, the flame of which evoked the image of a magnificently decorated Christmas tree lit by a thousand candles, decorated with beautiful small paintings. As she held out her hand as if to take one, the match went out.
"She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out."
Decorative candles on the Christmas tree turned into stars in the sky, and one fell, leaving a trail in the form of a fire. The girl thought that someone was dying, because she learned from her dead grandmother that when stars fall from the sky, a person climbs to the sky. She desperately missed her grandmother's love, so the girl decided to light another match to conjure up a picture of her grandmother and ask her to take her with her.
""Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God."
Knowing that her grandmother would disappear like other visions, the girl lit a whole bundle of matches against the wall and a bright glow appeared. She saw her grandmother laughing at her, clear and beautiful. She hugged the girl and, in a cocoon of joy and warmth, they both rose higher and higher into the sky.
"Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God."
The perspective of the story changes and reveals that the girl froze overnight. Passers-by find her sitting with red cheeks and smiling mouths, and the New Year's sun rises on her stiff body. They speculate that she had to light matches to keep warm, and they can't imagine the beauty and joy she saw in the last moments of her life.
""She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year."