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The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

December 21, 2011 20 comments

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol. 1832. French title: La Nuit de Noël, translated into French by Eugénie Tchernosvitow.  

I wanted to read a Christmas story and I found The Night Before Christmas on my shelves. It must have been there for a while since the price is still in francs. It’s a tale from the book Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

Le dernier jour avant Noël était passé. Une claire nuit d’hiver était descendue sur la terre ; les étoiles apparurent ; majestueuse, la lune était montée au ciel pour dispenser sa lumière aux braves gens, comme d’ailleurs à tous les habitants de ce monde, afin que tous puissent avoir plaisir, cette nuit-là, à chanter les « koliadki » et à glorifier le Christ. The last day before Christmas had passed. A clear winter night had fallen on Earth; the stars appeared; the majestic moon had come in the sky to shed its light on the good people, and on all the inhabitants of this world, so that they could all enjoy signing koliadkis and glorify the Christ during that particular night. (My clumsy translation. I couldn’t find one online)

The villagers prepare for their usual Christmas night. Tchoub is expected to diner at the sexton’s house, leaving his beautiful and conceited daughter Oksana alone at home. The blacksmith and religious painter Vakoula waits for Tchoub to leave his cottage; he intends to pay a visit to Oksana. He’s desperately in love with her but it is unrequited love so far. He would unhook the moon for her if he could. (In French we say décrocher la lune ie, to do something extraordinary. It’s mostly used to describe something you’d do for someone you love deeply.)  

Actually someone does unhook the moon that night. The devil does. He holds a grudge against the blacksmith because he painted him so truthfully on the church’s walls that he now lacks candidates for hell. The devil wants to play havoc with these villagers’ plans and switches off the natural light bestowed by the moon. He hopes that Tchoub will stay at home preventing Vakoula to spend his evening with his beloved Oksana. But does anything go according to plan when devil and humans meddle with each other’s affairs?  

It’ a folk tale which mixes traditional themes (witches, devil, dancing stars…), life in a Ukrainian village with its shrews, its drunkards and its local elite (mayor, sexton, rich artisans). I could picture people gathering around a fire, listening to these stories passed along from one generation to the other, enriched with new details by each storyteller. It’s a testimony of the oral culture that will progressively disappear. It’s also a nice picture of Christmas traditions in rural Ukraine. Young people used to walk from house to house singing koliadkis (Christmas carols) under the people’s windows and were rewarded with food. They gather at the end of the evening to show their prizes.  

But Gogol stretches the tale up to a farce. The scene where the shrews argue reminded me of the song Hécatombe by Georges Brassens. So funny. (It’s worth reading the lyrics of that song if you can read French) He also takes advantage of the tale to scratch the rich and powerful with little remarks and acid comparisons. He exposes ridicules and vanities. As I had already noticed in The Nose, the text includes play-on-words, especially about devil-related expressions.

It was a funny and lovely read. It left me with the image of paintings by Bruegel. I know, it’s not at all the same century but it sounded such an immutable picture of rural life that it came to my mind anyway.

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