Among the wintry Russians, Tolstoy and Chekhov produced stories in which Christian goodness prevails. But in “The Night Before Christmas” (1832), Gogol, writing in the folk tradition passed down to him by his Ukrainian mother, tells a wild tale that begins in the witching hour (literally, with a witch on a broomstick), where the devil gets his due. Gogol’s magic is not Christian (miraculous and didactic), but that of a trickster who steals the moon and hides it in his pocket. As in Dickens, a man is flown about by a spirit, but for the purpose of mischief-making rather than moral instruction.
A century later, Nabokov wrote two stories typical of his canon in their cunning and tenderness, while at the same time pinning the essential elements of the Christmas genre. “Christmas” (1925) is about a father visiting his country manor after the death of a beloved son, whom he remembers netting butterflies. When he moves one of his son’s pupae into the heat of the house it emerges unexpectedly, a rebirth as fantastic as the Resurrection itself. This is fiction as consoling and full of powerful magic as any religion. It is written wittingly, inside, and out of, tradition – Christian, rather than Gogol’s paganism – and, like the smartest of these tales, knows its place, even as it tries to usurp it.
Three years later in “A Christmas Story,” Nabokov conducted the discussion of a story’s “place” out in the open, pondering the fate of the imagination under tyranny and reconsidering the debate about puritanism. Wondering how to write fiction in a manner acceptable to Soviet Russia’s cultural commissars, an old writer, a novice writer, and a critic all discuss how Christmas can be viable in times that insist only on the real. Finally, the old man comes up with a story in which well-fed Europeans are mesmerized by a shop-window Christmas tree stacked with ham and fruit, all the while ignoring a body slumped “in front of the window, on the frozen sidewalk – ”. The sentence needs no completion: the winning formula has been found (decadent foreigners blind to the suffering of the poor). As one might expect from Nabokov, it is a knowing piece – the old writer struggling to describe Christmas in the critically-approved language (the “insolent Christmas tree,” the “so-called ‘Christmas’ snow”), and the critic, who writes for a journal called Red Reality, praising the novice’s depiction of peasant lust, but dismissing his portrayal of an intellectual because “There is no real sense of his being doomed…”
A History of the Christmas Story: Not Altogether Christmas but Christmas All Together
Kate Webb December 16, 2015