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Au pied du sapin, a collection of Christmas texts

December 22, 2012 6 comments

Au pied du sapin, which means Under the Greenwood Tree, but I think this title is already taken.

Someway the Christmas spirit was evading me this year and I decided to put myself in a Christmas mood. So I bought a CD of jazzy Christmas carols and started reading Au pied du sapin, a collection of texts related to Christmas. It’s a small book, most stories aren’t more than a few pages long. As you won’t find the exact equivalent in English, here are the stories included in the book:

Unexpected Christmas Eves:

  • Le Réveillon du Colonel Jerkoff by Joseph Kessel
  • Nuit de Noël by Guy de Maupassant
  • Un Réveillon dans le Marais by Alphonse Daudet
  • La Petite Fille aux allumettes by Hans Christina Andersen

Dream Christmas Eves

  • Noël by Théophile Gautier
  • Les santons by Jean Giono
  • Noël sur le Rhin by Luigi Pirandello
  • Un arbre de Noël et un mariage by Fedor Dostoyevsky
  • Noël quand nous prenons de l’âge by Charles Dickens

Unconventional Christmas Eves

  • La Fascination by Honoré de Balzac
  • La fugue du Petit Poucet by Michel Tournier
  • Conte de Noël by Alphonse Allais

Au_pied_du_sapinIt’s a great list from various authors and it’s a good way to read in French if you want to improve your knowledge of the language. My favourite stories were the ones by Maupassant, Pirandello, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. I tried to read the Dickens twice but I couldn’t finish it. It’s only nine pages but its patronizing tone put me off.

Maupassant relates how a man got trapped for life for looking for the company of a woman on Christmas Eve. It’s Maupassant, so it’s not what you think and it’s quite surprising.

Pirandello’s story moved me. It’s a first Christmas in a family after the father died. A man helps decorating the Christmas tree. Sadness filters through the narration, Pirandello’s sensitive prose shows subtly how merriment in marred by the loss of a beloved husband and father. Life is fleeting, he seems to say in an undertone.

Balzac brings us into one of his familiar settings: the family of a former officer of Napoleon’s army. They are gathered for Christmas Eve, the servants are gone for the night. They’re sitting in the living room and Balzac describes the caring father, the loving mother and the children with many relevant details. He depicts the light of the candles and the fire on faces, the shadows in the room and how the feelings of the characters reflect in the setting. It looks like a Dutch painting. The peace is disturbed when a stranger pounds on the door and begs for hospitality. He brings a storm into the household…

Dostoevsky is bitterer as he relates a Christmas Eve party where he witnesses how a grown man lusts for a girl after her parents made it clear she would get a hefty sum when she marries. The contrast between the man looking at this eleven year old girl as his future bride and the girl playing with a doll is striking. It’s sordid, tainting innocence with greedy thoughts. It’s also even more shocking on a Christmas night. Dostoevsky makes it clear that daughters are commodities, livestock. Pretty, they’re valuable because a good marriage can bring in money or connections to the family.

As you can read, the stories are quite different and some are more essays than stories. (the Dickens and the Giono) I enjoyed reading this collection of texts, it was a sort of journey into time and places, visiting Christmas nights in different countries. It showed Christmas under a kaleidoscopic light: poverty, traditions, parties, family, grief, love, lust and all kinds of notions mixed up in one night.

A nice introduction to that time of year.

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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