Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2012

The Night Before Christmas (1831), by Nikolai Gogol, Translated by Constance Garnett

Nikolai Gogol (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A search for the title ‘The Night Before Christmas’  brings up 880 results, and it’s a safe bet to say that 879 of them are suitable for children.  Their covers feature a superfluity of jolly men in red suits, reindeer, tinsel and ‘loot’ under Christmas trees.  But refine your search with the name of the great Russian satirist Gogol, and what you get is a fairy tale not suitable for children at all. It comes from Gogol’s first collection of Ukrainian stories ‘Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka’, which he published in 1831.

Gogol’s Night Before Christmas is a tale of lust, jealousy, corruption and revenge, and though the good guy wins, he may regret his heart’s desire in time.    Taking the form of a grotesque fairy tale,  this macabre novella tells the story of the night the devil steals the moon so that under cover of darkness he can avenge himself on  the town blacksmith, Vakula.  Vakula is his prey because he painted an icon that shows the devil being vanquished and it hangs in the local church…

It is a night for men to go carousing, but they get lost in the unexpected darkness and there is a perilous snowstorm.  One after another, the respectable gentlemen of Dikanka blunder into the home of the local good-time-gal with whom one and all seem to have fond acquaintance.  Each must be hastily concealed in a coal sack to avoid discovery by the next one seeking to enjoy this not-so-respectable refuge from the storm.

One such is the Mayor whose lovely daughter Oksana is the object of Vakula’s affections.  Oksana is vain and ambitious, and like her father, has plans for an advantageous marriage.  Vakula, abashed by her scorn, would like to give her up, but is besotted.

As in all the best fairytales, the hapless suitor has a hopeless quest.  Amongst her other charms, Oksana has a little obsession for shoes, and fancies herself wearing those of the Tsarina. So she  fobs Vakula off with a promise that she will marry him if he brings her the shoes.   He does, though I’m not going to spoil the story by explaining how.  Suffice to say that this is a droll tale with mischief and mayhem and no wonder it was turned into opera and film by Tchaikovsky & Rimsky-Korsakov (See Wikipedia).

A Traveller's History of RussiaBut what, apart from human frailty, was Gogol lampooning?  He was the great satirist of Imperial Russia, so do some of these characters represent historical figures?  I don’t know enough about Russian history or culture yet to know, so I am about to start reading A Traveller’s History of Russia. And I’m definitely going to read more of Gogol…

Author: Nikolai Gogol
Title: The Night Before Christmas
Translated by Constance Garnett
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2011
ISBN: 9780811219471



  1. I read it last year and enjoyed it. It’s funny. I liked the idea of the devil stealing the moon. The villagers aren’t really likeable, are they?

    PS : I read (and reviewed The Nose too. It’s better)


  2. I was delighted to see a Russian story (Gogol’s The Night before Christmas) enthused over by Lisa Hill (ANZ Booklovers). It is one of the stories written by Gogol when he still lived with his mother down in the warm south (Ukraine), before leaving to seek his literary fortune in the cold north, in St Petersburg.He found the capital cold in more ways than one, and struggled to exist, writing stories, a novel, and the play The Government Inspector. All of these are hilarious, combining social satire with a varying degree of surreal comedy. The satire attacks the inequality of Russian society at the time, targeting above all the puffed-up self-importance of mediocre people holding down high level jobs in the civil service/government. (Could anyone question his relevance today?) What makes Gogol unique though is his ability to take absurdities of different sorts to ludicrous or heart wrenching extremes (usually both at the same time). The story ‘The Overcoat’ for example deals with poor down trodden clerk whose job (in the days before Xeroxes, let alone computers) is to copy out government decrees endless times. Yet so brainwashed is he that he delights in this mindless copying, and upon emerging from the office at the end of the day he can hardly tell whether he is in the middle of the street of the middle of a sentence. He will never ask for his rights, but a certain ghost acts on his behalf…’The Nose’ tells of a man who one day waked up to find his nose completely missing from his face, but he later spies it walking about town in the uniform of a very high-up civil servant…The hero of the long novel Dead Souls is the 19c Russian equivalent of a used car salesman, where souls =serfs= property on which tax must be paid. Students at first daunted by its length ended up doubled up – with laughter.


    • Wow, Judith, I am so grateful to you for this comment: I will add these titles to my Russian TBR with great pleasure!


  3. I love Gogol. I am thankful for your great post on this new to me work


    • Hello Mel, thank you for your comment:)
      It’s a really good one to start with, because it’s short and amusing and bitingly clever. I’m looking forward to reading some of the ones that Judith has suggested too. (See comments).


  4. intererstring


  5. I’m a big fan of Gogol, having read many of his stories as well as Dead Souls. There is the famous saying ‘All of Russian literature came out from under Gogol’s overcoat’. As for this Christmas story, a macabre ‘tale of lust, jealousy, corruption and revenge’, it sounds wonderful.


  6. been while since I read him but had planned to read on this summer so may be this one Lisa as it is set in ukraine and that is the reason I m reading him ,all the best stu


  7. Stu, this one won’t take you long, it’s only 70-something pages long.

    Tony, have you reviewed any of the ones you recommend?


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