I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write ‘suppose’, though I know for a fact that I have made it up.
The Heavenly Christmas Tree was initially published as The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas in 1876 in A Writer’s Diary. It’s fair to say that it reflects the religious conversion that Dostoevsky underwent during his time in a prison camp in Siberia.
His first Christmas story, A Christmas Tree and a Wedding, written before his time in Siberia, was a rather cynical view of Russian high society and its unhealthy focus on status and wealth.
This story is far more sentimental and moralistic.
The poor in The Heavenly Christmas Tree are even poorer than in the first story. And down trodden and ignored.
A little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry. Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow.
I’m not really giving anything away by saying that his mother was dead since the reveal happens by the end of the second paragraph!
The hungry, cold six year old boy, wanders out into the town in search of something to eat. He is amazed at how much light fills the streets compared to his old town that was always closed up and dark. Although at least when he was there, he was fed and warm, not like in this new town.
He wanders the streets, peering into lit windows to see children playing with their new toys and tables full of food. Eventually he finds a wood stack to hide behind.
If you have ever read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl (1845), you can work out how this story ends for our cold, hungry six year old. In fact, it did make me wonder if Dostoevsky had read the fairy tale himself and was inspired to write a Russian version.
He contrasts light and dark, feast and famine, and the haves and have-nots. He is sentimental and brutally honest at the same time.
“This is Christ’s Christmas tree,” they answered. “Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own….” And he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself; that some had been frozen in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling and had been suffocated, others had died at their starved mother’s breasts (in the Samara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air; and yet they were all here, they were all like angels about Christ, and He was in the midst of them and held out His hands to them and blessed them and their sinful mothers…. And the mothers of these children stood on one side weeping; each one knew her boy or girl, and the children flew up to them and kissed them and wiped away their tears with their little hands, and begged them not to weep because they were so happy.
The poor have been graced with a purity and spiritualism that is apparently denied the wealthy. At the end, though, he leaves us uncertain even about that. Happy ever after does not appear to be Dostoevsky’s style!
The moral lesson to be learnt from this story is that is really, really sucks to be poor.
Title: The Heavenly Christmas Tree Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky Translator: Constance Garnett Imprint: Project Gutenberg Published: 13th September 2012 (originally published 1876) Format: Ebook Pages: 3
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.