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Welcoming Christmas with Three Kings of Russian Writers

Our willingness to help and take care of the less fortunate people and readiness to avoid the abuse of power are essential conditions for having joyful and miraculous Christmas.
Working in a Christian organization grants me the privilege of having an early Christmas holiday. This year the holiday started on 18 December, and it provided me with an ample opportunity to do one of my favorite activities—reading. Eager to broaden my horizon about festivities, I thought reading literary works about Christmas would be great, and this brought me to engage with three short stories written by three greatest Russian writers: Leo Tolstoy’s “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas”, Anton Chekhov’s “At Christmas Time”, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree”.  

I took Tolstoy’s “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas” the first story to read because I remembered reading its Indonesian version in a children magazine when I was a kid. It tells about an old widower who lives alone because his children are grown up live far away. He can suffice his daily needs by making and repairing shoes for the people in his village. It’s now Christmas Eve. Stepping outside his shop, the happy children laugh and Christmas meals smell remind him of the old days when he had a happy family. Returning to his shop, he opens the old family Bible and reads the story of Joseph and Mary when they could find no room in Bethlehem. This drives him to wish they could have come to his village so that he can shelter them. Reading the part when the three wise men gave Jesus splendid gifts, he says he wants to give Jesus the best pair of shoes he ever made, baby shoes his daughter had worn. While he is sleeping, he dreams Jesus says that his wish to see Jesus will come true. Jesus will visit him tomorrow, but Papa Panov should look carefully because Jesus shall not tell him who He is."


Waking up the next morning, Papa Panov sees a street sweeper is working early in such a cold winter morning. Moved by his hard work and miserable appearance, he invites him inside for a hot cup of coffee. Some moments later, a single mother walks down the street clutching her baby. She wants to go to the next village to work. Papa Panov invites them in, serves milk to the baby. Realizing the baby does not wear shoes, he gives the baby the shoes he has intended to give to Jesus. During the day Papa Panov keeps watching carefully so that he can recognize Jesus when he passes by. But there are only neighbors and beggars on the street. After he feeds the beggars, it is getting dark and Papa Panov takes a rest and thinks his dream was only a dream. But then he hears Jesus telling him that today he came to Papa Panov in every person he helped today, from the street sweeper to the local beggars. Hearing it Papa Panov is filled with joy.

Since this short story was intended for children, the plot is light and the language is simple. Despite its simplicity, however, it appears to be a heart-warming Christmas tale which touches a fundamental theme of Christmas, i.e. one’s obligation to serve the people facing adversity or being troubled by misfortune, as Jesus, alluding Matthew 25:40, at the end of the story tells Papa Panov:

"I was hungry and you fed me," he said. "I was naked and you clothed me. I was cold and you warmed me. I came to you today in every one of those you helped and welcomed."

This reminds us of the teaching that if someone loves his neighbors, it is an actualization of his love for God. In line with this, this short story reminds us that to have a blessing Christmas, one does not have to hold massive Christmas festivities or sharing expensive material gifts. When one sincerely helps the less fortunate people around him, he has given Jesus a present that pleases Him.
*****

Chekhov’s "At Christmas Time" (1900) is divided into two parts. The first part begins with Vasilisa, an illiterate peasant woman, hiring a local man, Yegor, who just came back from the army to write a letter wishing her daughter, Yefimia who had married with Andrei and lived in Petersburg for four years. The woman had never been in touch with Yefimia since then and now she wanted to wish her Merry Christmas through the letter. Vasilisa’s husband, Pyotr, was there, but just let Vasilisa tell Yegor what to write. Intending to pour all their love through Christmas greetings, it took time for Vasilisa to find the correct words. This made Yegor impatient, and after knowing that Andrei was a soldier, he added his own words sound like excerpts from a military manual. Consequently, Vasilisa’s love expressions were meshed with Yegor’s. Finishing writing the letter, Yegor read it through from the beginning. Vasilisa looked angry and suspicious but did not know what to say, while her husband, despite his inability to understand the letter’s message, nodded his head trustfully and thanked Yegor.

The second part begins when Andrei, the son-in-law, a doorkeeper at a hydropathic medical establishment received the letter from the postman and handed it to Yefimia, who was seated on a bed in a small room in the clinic with their three small children. After reading the letter, Yefimia burst into tears, hugged her eldest child, kissed him, and said the letter was from his grandparent who was a heavenly mother, saints, and martyrs. Hearing this, Andrei revealed to the reader that he never sent any of the previous three letters Yefimia had written to her parents. After describing to her son what a lovely life it was in her parent’s village and how wonderful her parents were, she desperately expressed her desire to return home.

Unlike “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas”, Chekhov’s "At Christmas Time" was not written to be a heart-warming Christmas tale. Although the actions in the story look ordinary, Chekov manages to effectively use them to reveal a painful reality we might have been unaware of in daily life: misery emerging from someone’s abuse of power that is intentionally or unintentionally and consciously or unconsciously conducted. Being illiterate, Vasilisa and Pyotr suffer from Yegor’s absurd addition of his own words into the letter. His misuse of his ability to read and write ruins Vasilisa and Pyotr’s intent to send their love to Yefimia, as shown in the following:

“To our gentle son-in-law, Andrei Khrisanfych, and our beloved daughter, Yefimia, we send with our love a low bow and our paternal blessing forever inviolable...Pay attention to Volume 5 of the Military Decrees.  Soldier is a common noun, a Well-known one.”

Yefimia’s marriage has ruined her life. It has isolated her from her loving parents. Andrei treats her badly. He did not send even one of the three letters Yefimia ever wrote to her parents. Even his mere appearance terrifies Yefimia: ”She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” That’s why, after reading her parents’ letter, Yefimia states her desire to return home: “Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother, and Defender, take us away from here!"

Andrei is also not free from the abuse of power. The general, one of the habitual visitors of the clinic where he works, treats him as if they are on a battlefield. The general has Andrei take off his great-coat, addresses him the same questions he has often asked, and Andrei can do something else only after his steps have died away. 

By telling a story that ends sorrowfully, Chekov seems to intend to accentuate that Christmas is not always full of miracles, joys, and hopes for many people. Our abuse of power, though we conduct it unintentionally or unconsciously, victimizes other people, and it certainly ruins love and happiness every person is supposed to have in the Christmas seasons.
*****

Dostoevsky’s “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” (1876) is set on Christmas Eve in an unnamed city. It opens by introducing a six-year-old boy dressing in rags who is sitting alone in the cellar close to his mother who has just passed away. Unaware that his mother is dead, the boy touches her face but she does not respond at all. Being very hungry, he goes out to search for food. While walking in the empty streets, he looks through the windows of the houses and sees many well-dressed children celebrating Christmas happily, dolls, huge Christmas trees and delicious cookies. He knocks on several doors, but nobody lets him in. Frightened by some older boys, he hides in a yard behind a pile of wood.

In his hiding place, he begins to have a vision of an amazing Christmas tree surrounded by dolls that turn to be the spirits of other orphan children who have died frozen and starved and gone to heaven. They now become angels and are joyfully reunited with their respective mothers. They tell him that the Christmas tree belongs to Christ given to the little children who have no tree of their own. After cheering and blessing one another with the boy, the angels kiss their mother, and wipe their tears away using their little hands, and beg them not to leak for they are now happy. In the morning, a porter finds the boy’s frozen dead body on the wood stack. His mother’s body has also been found, and both meet before God in heaven.

Like Chekhov’s "At Christmas Time", “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” is a sorrowful Christmas story. It is even more mournful because since its beginning up to its end, except the unearthly scene with the angels in the wood stack, the events tend to keep on draining the readers’ tears. Thus, similar to Chekhov’s "At Christmas Time", this story also emphasizes that Christmas is not always full of miracles, joys, and hopes for many people.

However, if the miserable Christmas in "At Christmas Time" is due to the characters’ abuse of power, the despondent Christmas in “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree” is due to people’s indifference to those being troubled by misfortune. Everyone in the town where this story is set is neither oblivious nor indifferent to the poor. Even “A policeman walked by and turned away to avoid seeing the boy.” When the boy knocks the doors of the houses in which the affluent people are happily celebrating Christmas, no one let him in or share foods to him. Otherwise, “they shouted at him and waved him back! One lady went up to him hurriedly and slipped a kopeck into his hand, and with her own hands opened the door into the street for him! How frightened he was.” In another house, he is even hit, kicked out, and chased by older boys.

It is interesting to consider that Dostoevsky uses nameless characters in this story. Even the city where it is set is unnamed. Such a technique is used to attain one or more of the following goals. The first is to prevent readers from unconsciously relating the characters’ identity to a certain person, ethnic group, or social background. Secondly, the author wants to accentuate that the nameless characters’ existence is not important for their society. Thirdly, the author wants to highlight the universality of the theme he is conveying. In the context of “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree”, I think, Dostoevsky means to achieve the second and the third goals. By using nameless characters, he wants to emphasize the city dwellers’ view that the poor are not important for them so that it’s okay to exclude them. At the same time, by using an unnamed city as the setting of the story, he also means to remind the readers that the affluent people's indifference towards the poor can take place anywhere.

To sum up, these three short stories are not only interesting and touchy but also inspiring. Overall, they reveal that our willingness to help and take care of the less fortunate people and readiness to avoid the abuse of power are essential conditions for having joyful and miraculous Christmas. I had a good time and was enlightened by these three kings of Russian writers' works. Why don't you try to have the same experience with your family while welcoming the next Christmas? You can access these short stories by clicking the titles provided in the introductory paragraph above. Have a blessed reading! 


Author : Parlindungan Pardede (parlin@weedutap.com)

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