Home > 19th Century, Gogol Nikolai, Russian Literature, Short Stories > The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. December 21, 2011 at 2:04 am

    This sounds wonderful 🙂 I have been looking for the ‘Dikanka’ collection for a while now, but it seems to be out of print in English (I was lucky enough to get OUP review copies of ‘Dead Souls’ and ‘Petersburg Tales’ earlier this year).

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    • December 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

      It’s a great tale and a glimpse at popular culture.
      From what I see on Amazon US, you can find used copies of the Dikanka collection. There also a free kindle version in French. You can read it in French, it’s easy.

      Guy is my acronym teacher, are you his assistant? What’s OUP?

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      • December 21, 2011 at 10:05 am

        Oxford University Press 🙂

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        • December 21, 2011 at 10:13 am

          MDR.
          Thanks!!

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  2. December 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

    This sounds indeed lovely. I will have to look if it is in my collection of his short stories. Funny that you were also in the mood to read a Christmas story.
    In the Swiss Alps the children still go from door to door singing like this. Do they not do it in the French countrysid, I’ve never stayed much in the country in France, so can’t tell. Not much singing in Paris.
    Since I’m reading Jane Austen I have a real thirst for Russian literature. Sense and Sensibility is the first that I find quite boring.

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    • December 21, 2011 at 9:58 am

      I don’t know all the French local customs but I’ve never heard of children going from door to door and singing.

      What’s the link between Jane Austen and a thirst for Russian literature? Sense and Sensibility isn’t my favourite Austen. Marianne is silly and Elinor “emotionally constipated” as Andrew said about Instetten. That said, she’s really good at describing characters. When I want to re-read an Austen, I chose Pride and Prejudice or Emma. I prefer bold and witty heroins.

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      • December 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

        I was being sarcastic… I meant no matter how dark Russian literature can be sometimes it’s still more to my liking than Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I’ll finish it anyway, it’s entertaining enough but a bit of a light-weight.

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        • December 21, 2011 at 11:46 am

          OK, thanks. I think Litlove’s post on Sense and Sensibility is spot on.

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  3. December 21, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I am sure that Chrismas was far more meaningful when carol singers were rewarded by simple gifts of homemade food.

    My favourite Christmas sory is The Other Wiseman http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10679
    but it wouldn’t appeal to anyone who wants a completely secular Christmas.

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    • December 21, 2011 at 11:40 am

      I know Emma is keen to read more Hardy, so I’ll add that there was a great Wassailing scene (or two!) in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ 🙂

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      • December 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

        Thanks! It’s my next Hardy. I couldn’t put Desperate Remedies down last night. He’s not good for my sleep.

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    • December 21, 2011 at 11:47 am

      Yes, probably. It’s all about business now.
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have a look at it. Maybe for next Christmas? (Very convenient, the kindle.)

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  4. TBM
    December 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    This one sounds delightful. I’ll have to keep an eye out for a copy this year and read it during the holidays in 2012. I’m afraid I’m running out of time this year.

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    • December 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks, it was a nice read indeed. It seems a little difficult to find in English though. I hope you can find a used copy.

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      • TBM
        December 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm

        I love a good challenge!

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  5. December 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I didn’t know Gogol had written a Christmas tale, Emma, but leave it to him to give such a prominent role to the devil! Anyway, loved your description of the story and laughed at your comment about the book being priced in francs (by a sheer coincidence, I was looking at a chanson de geste right before bed last night and noticed the 80 FF original price).

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    • December 21, 2011 at 7:00 pm

      Thanks Richard.
      There’s also a Nuit de la Saint-Jean in the same book.
      The collections Librio / Folio 2€ are real gems. You can discover new writers and sometimes they give a new chance to forgotten texts. (Like Princess Ligovskaia by Lermontov that I reviewed a while ago and which seems unavailable in English.)

      Let’s hope we’ll keep the Euro, it’s been difficult to do the mental change from FRF to EUR.

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  6. December 15, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    Somehow I failed to leave a comment on this last year. I have a used copy of Gogol’s folk tales and this one in included. I meant to read it this month but I’m running out of time

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    • December 15, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      I liked it a lot. I’ve read a collection of Christmas tales, I need to write the billet now.

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