There are few holidays which have the same emotional impact on people as Christmas. Anyone who grew up in the US would be familiar with The Night before Christmas by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). This story tells the reader about the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, a stingy, bitter, wealthy man who dislikes the Christmas season. He alienated himself from his family and tells his lone employee, Bob Cratchet, that if does not come to work on Christmas day he would be fired. Cratchet has a handicapped son, Tiny Tim, and his family is rather poor, but happy.
The evening before Christmas, Scrooge receives a visit from the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley. Marley informs him that he will be visited by three more ghosts (Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come). After being visited by these three ghosts, Scrooge has a change of heart and wakes up on Christmas Day a new person. He buys a turkey for Cratchet and his family and reunites with his own family.
This is the story that most people think of when they think of Christmas. However, there is another story which does not have the same tone, but also sends a very important message. The story I am speaking about Christmas Eve by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). It opens with the devil flying above the small village of Dikanka, enjoying one last night of freedom before he must return to hell, when he decides to steal the moon and put it in his pocket in order to thwart the amorous designs of the local blacksmith, Vakula. In addition to being an excellent blacksmith, Vakula is also a talented painter, and his favorite theme is the vanquishing of Satan. His artistic triumph was a picture painted on the church wall in the chapel on the right. In it he depicted St. Peter on the Day of Judgment with the keys in his hand driving the Evil Spirit out of hell: the frightened devil was running in all directions, foreseeing his doom, while the sinners, who had been imprisoned before, were chasing him and striking him with whips, blocks of wood and anything they could get hold of.
In stealing the moon, the devil hopes that the father of Vakula’s beloved will stay at home instead of attending a Christmas Eve party at the sacristan’s. And because the father—Tchub is his name—dislikes Vakula, Vakula will be prevented from visiting the daughter.
Things don’t turn out as the devil expects, however. Without giving too much away, Tchub goes out despite his laziness and, before the novella ends, finds himself hiding in a rubbish sack, along with the mayor and the sacristan (at whose party nobody arrives because of the darkness), all at the home of Vakula’s mother, who, for good measure, also happens to be a witch. Vakula does indeed visit his beloved (as well as St. Petersburg on the back of the devil) and outmaneuvers his scheming mother.
The tale first appeared in Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, and as a number of scholars have pointed out that it contains many staples of traditional Ukrainian folklore. Victor Erlich notes that the comedy of these tales “rests more often than not on unabashedly farcical, slapstick effects drawn from the traditional repertory of the Ukrainian puppet theater.” The characters of the stories—such as “the shrewish wife, the cunning gypsy, the gullible peasant, and the ‘dashing’ Cossak”—are “stock characters.”
While Gogol wears his religious commitments somewhat more lightly in his earlier works than he does in Dead Souls, he nevertheless uses slapstick (a form of comedy) and stock characters in Christmas Eve to serious effect. He reminds us that the devil will be confounded by his own darkness and that God, in his infinite wisdom, will use simple folks, like blacksmiths, with all of their crudeness and selfishness, to participate in his vanquishing of St. Nicholas. God does not use the self-righteous—the merely pristinely polished life—to further his kingdom. He rarely uses the elite or the religious “pundit.” Most often, He uses the simple and unrefined to accomplish His work because they, at least, will give glory where glory is due.1
This is definitely not a children’s Christmas story, but this does not mean that the story should not be made available to children. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote an opera, Vakula the Smith 2, (1874) based upon Gogol’s short story. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) also produced an opera (1895) entitled Christmas Eve 3 which was based upon this short story. It is true that this story includes a witch and a devil among its characters, but it makes a very important moral message which can easily be understood by children.
The love of God can and will overcome any difficulty. He may not respond in the way that we expect, but that does not mean that He is not responding. Gogol shows us another way which God interacts with us, even though we may not realize it at the time.
1) “Nikolai Gogol’s The Night before Christmas” http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/12/nikolai-gogolrsquos-the-night-before-christmas (accessed 5/23/12)
2) “Vakula the Smith” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vakula_the_Smith (accessed 5/23/12)
3) “Christmas Eve (opera)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Eve_(opera) (accessed 5/23/12)