This fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past. Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets. The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees. In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:
And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree! In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant. Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy. Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness. The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.
My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story. In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness. Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory. Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.
When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory. Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes. Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka. Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room. Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.
A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him. He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:
The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved. Depraved within limits, a little. For excess, you know, is wearisome. You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life. Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…
Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…” The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage. Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays. Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love. As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.
I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope. New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.
I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.