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).
But 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