The title of Dostoevsky’s short story “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” creates a certain expectation in readers: a wholesome story, perhaps a comedy, with Christian themes. Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, and traditionally it is a time of generosity to those in need. Weddings in literature call to mind Christ’s marriage to the church and Shakespeare’s comedies, which end with weddings; however, Dostoevsky is a master of irony. His stories are characterized by a bite of satire, a sting of social conscience, and a stirring of the Spirit. This early “Christmas” story is no exception.

The story opens at a Christmas party. But the reader quickly sees that Christian generosity is the last thing on the minds of the attendees. A social hierarchy determines the behavior of the adults: they ignore the insignificant attendees and pander to the rich and corrupt. Specifically, everyone stumbles over themselves to flatter a powerful man named Julian Mastakovitch. A more democratic social scale emerges among the children in attendance, but the child at the low end of the economic scale is made to feel his difference: when gifts are passed around, he receives an inferior gift. The children humiliate him, rather than accept him.

However, this child with no prospects finds one friend: a girl of eleven who has sought relief from the crowd in a separate room. The two children play together until Mastakovitch learns that the girl has already been given a substantial sum of money for her future dowry. Mastakovitch swiftly calculates the projected fortune her dowry will accrue in the five years before she reaches the marriageable age of sixteen and he decides that he must secure himself to her. He approaches her and her playmate, caressing the girl and frightening both children. When the boy refuses to leave Mastakovitch alone with his prey, Mastakovitch grows angry and later ruins the boy’s chance of moving up in the world. He then applies himself to befriending the girl’s parents. Five years later, Mastakovitch’s plan comes together: he marries the girl, now just sixteen. The young bride is visibly distraught. The narrator of the story dispassionately appraises the accuracy of Mastakovitch’s previous projection of the bride’s dowry. “He got his sum right, by Jove.”1

Upon first reading this story, my initial thought was, “The title is false advertising.” Like the best of short story writers, Dostoevsky says a lot in a few words, none of it expected. The story depicts the collision between the innocent world of children with the avaricious adult world of 19th-century St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky’s radical social circle of the time had rejected the Christian faith, yet accepted the moral-social values of the Christian faith (e.g. love, charity, generosity, humility, meekness, and human dignity).2 Dostoevsky may be setting this story at a Christmas party to show the result of such empty professions; a Christmas party at which Christ is nowhere to be found and a holy marriage disturbingly twisted into the self-serving tool of the corrupt. The story is a perfect picture of what happens when society divorces Christian values from Christ. Dostoevsky’s later work would delve deeper into this theme.

However, Dostoevsky’s intention, at this point in his career, was likely more social than religious. “The Christmas Tree and A Wedding” conforms to the style in vogue at the time of its publishing, in 1848, by protesting the social evils suffered by the defenseless at the hands of the powerful. Dostoevsky was a new and heavily indebted writer on the scene of St. Petersburg. Established writers and critics of the Natural School had warmly welcomed him into their fold after the publishing of his debut novel, Poor Folk, in which Dostoevsky’s “masterly delineation of character and the social conditions of his heroes” is on display.3 The central social theme of Poor Folk is “Dostoevsky’s variant of the same plea” one finds in Hugo and in Dickens — the plea addressed to the wealthy and powerful to assume some moral responsibility for their less fortunate brothers.”4 Dostoevsky may have been writing in this vein partially because it was popular and because it sold well. Always sensitive to the intellectual trends running through St. Petersburg, he would later define his work by bucking and criticizing the trends; however, he started his career by following the trends.

At this period in his life, Dostoevsky belonged to a Utopian Socialist group whose aim was “to stir up a revolution against serfdom.”5 Before taking any action, the group was arrested in 1849 and Dostoevsky was exiled to Siberia, where his faith would take on new importance. He was raised in the Russian Orthodox church, but pre-exile he had only just begun to experiment with a theme that would become a staple in his future work: the influences of Christianity and atheism on Russian society.

This story showcases Dostoevsky’s unique ability to empathize with the plight of Russia’s lower classes, a characteristic which set him apart from the great Russian writers of the first part of the nineteenth century — Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Herzen, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Necrasov. Importantly, he was the only writer among them who did not belong to a family of landed gentry. He felt an affinity for the lower classes. The biographer Joseph Frank put it this way, “The world as seen from below rather than above constitutes the major innovation of Dostoevsky vis-à-vis Gogol, whose sympathy with his humble protagonists is never strong enough to overcome the condescension implicit in his narrative stance.”6 We can see Dostoevsky’s empathy in the way he details the expressions on the faces of the children and how their futures are affected by Mastakovitch’s greed.

Readers can easily be repelled by the narrator of “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding.” Originally, the story was written as part of a series of works to be known as “From the Diary of an Unknown.” But Dostoevsky later altered and revised the stories of this cycle to eliminate this overall plan, and so we are left with “A Christmas Tree” and “A Wedding” as a single story, unconnected to the rest of his work. Dostoevsky’s story may also have been heavily censored, a common complaint of his. So it is difficult to imagine his original intention.

The unknown narrator is a “youngish, cultivated, and reserved bureaucrat leading a ‘hermit’s existence’ mainly characterized by ‘a sharp eye for the social incongruities of a world that he observes with caustic detachment.’”7 8 He remains curiously aloof from the events of the story, showing little emotion. He offers no moral evaluation of the despicable scenes, rather appreciating Mastakovitch’s capacity for accounting for his would-be bride’s dowry. Though not entirely lacking a moral reaction to the scenes before him, he seems to serve almost exclusively as a witness to Mastakovitch’s greed — although he does step out from his observer role just long enough to mock Mastakovitch, embarrassing the man. Although this narrator’s curious behavior hints at Dostoevksy’s later preoccupation with the psychology of his characters — an extremely unusual and unpopular element of his work during his early publishing history — the character itself is a nondescript element of the story. However, the point of the story can be neatly separated from the narrator.

Dostoevsky’s critique of the worldly idea of success is the strongest statement made by the story. The fact that the indigent young boy shows more character than any of the adults is likely part of Dostoevsky’s critique. Money confers no virtue. But the daughter of more wealthy parents also shows character, a fact suggestive of Dostoevky’s utopian socialist leanings: according to this story, inherent human nature is not the problem, but avarice. The two central children in “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding” have no avarice. They quickly befriend each other and have already begun to care for each other. In innocent children, the heart of Christ can be found. When the disciples of Christ argued over who was greatest, he told them, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”9

This theme of children drawing nearest to the heart of Christ continues in Dostoevsky’s later works. Dostoevsky’s other Christmas story, “The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree,” depicts an orphan freezing to death and finding himself at “Christ’s Christmas Tree.” In Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, the titular “Idiot” protagonist is beloved for his childlikeness, even as he is constantly mocked. Dostoevsky, like Christ, doted on children. In many of Dostoevsky’s writings, the childlike may suffer and die, but they ultimately earn the highest of spiritual rewards. But if children are taught by their parents to value wealth above generosity, the vicious cycle will continue. The children in this story are stomped into submission by those in power. Likely they, in time, will become like the adults in the story — if they survive to adulthood.

It is hard to imagine a more godless Christmas than is portrayed in “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding.” Christ is supposed to be at the center of Christmas — He who in Scripture is called Immanuel, or “God with us,” and He who treasures children. Yet the story’s characters unintentionally and ironically mock the very traditions they practice. They degrade the needy instead of helping them and valuing them as human beings made in God’s image. And if the intelligentsia of 19th-century St. Petersburg couldn’t successfully divorce Christ from the values he taught, surely there is no need to test the theory ourselves. And yet, today, parents send their children to schools where values such as charity, generosity, and human dignity, are taught — without meeting or introducing their children to Christ. Christians talk of the “social gospel” while local charities suffer for lack of funds. Church can easily become an exercise in social climbing, rather than a hospital for the spiritually sick. Without transforming faith in Christ, virtue ethics are an empty religion that will result in hypocrisy and selfishness, as we see in “The Christmas Tree and a Wedding.” In this scenario, everyone — especially the most needy among us — suffers. If we take our eyes off of Christ and focus on anything else, no matter how wholesome, we risk missing the point of this story and life as a whole: the heart of Christ. What — who — can be “Christian” without Christ?

Notes:

1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Christmas Tree And A Wedding,” in The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. David Magarshack (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), digital edition.

2 Joseph Frank, A Writer in His Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), Preface, digital edition.

3 Dostoevsky, THSSOFD, Introduction.

4 Joseph Frank, AWIHT, Chapter 7 Poor Folk, digital edition.

5 Ibid., Preface.

6 Ibid., Chapter 7 Poor Folk.

7 Joseph Frank, “Chapter 21: Petersburg Grotesques,” Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), digital edition.

8 Ibid.

9 New American Standard Life Application Study Bible, “Matthew 18:4” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).