This winter tale offering isn’t a traditional Christmas ghost story — there isn’t a ghost to be found. But it’s just the kind of story I like.
“Christmas Eve” is from Nikolai Gogol’s two volume collection of short stories, known in English as Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the collection that helped make his reputation. Gogol was born in the Ukraine, and all the Dikanka stories brim with bits of Ukrainian folklore and details about Ukrainian village life. This particular story is full of supernatural hijinks, witches and the devil. However, this devil is more comical than frightening, and the whole story feels a bit like a Chaucerian farce. “Christmas Eve” also has a rather cinematic feel, in the way it cuts back and forth between multiple simultaneous situations. No wonder Wikipedia lists four film adaptations, as well as three or four (depending on how you count) operatic versions. It’s a bit longer than the pieces I usually share, but if you haven’t read it before, it’s well worth it.
My favorite translation of this story is the first that I read: Christopher English’s 1980 translation, from the collection Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Since it’s not in the public domain, the version I’m sharing with you is the 1860 translation by George Tolstoy, from Cossack Tales (James Blackwood, London).
Tolstoy’s translation of “Christmas Eve” is perfectly enjoyable, though some of the sentence structure is a bit odd to a native English speaker, and some of his translation choices, while probably good at the time, are more distracting than helpful to a modern Anglophone reader. I took the liberty of changing a few of his archaic translations to more modern terminology: vodka for corn-brandy (and correspondingly, tavern for brandy-shop); broom for besom; sotnik (a Russian or Ukrainian military rank, from Christopher English’s translation) for centurion; a few others, as well. Other than that, the text of the story is as Tolstoy rendered it.
Gogol added two footnotes, for the benefit of his non-Ukrainian readers; Tolstoy dropped one and paraphrased the other. I added them both back in, using English’s translation. Tolstoy and English both added explanatory notes of their own, as well. I’ve retained the ones from Tolstoy that I thought were useful to understanding the story (not all the notes were entirely necessary, in my opinion). I’ve added additional ones where I thought it appropriate, some adapted from English’s notes.
- Footnotes from Tolstoy are marked [GT]
- Footnotes quoted from English are marked [CE]
- Footnotes from me are marked [NZ]
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
Cossack Tales includes Tolstoy’s translations of “Christmas Eve” and “Taras Bulba” (from Mirgorod), and an introduction that gives some background on Ukrainian history, and of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. It’s online at the Internet Archive.
I see some copies of Christmas Eve and Other Stories (Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1991 — published in the USSR, which is kinda cool) on Amazon (US), at mostly reasonable prices. The volume includes all of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (called Village Evenings Near Dikanka in this translation) and two stories from Gogol’s other Ukrainian collection, Mirgorod. The stories from Mirgorod are “Taras Bulba” (translator Angus Roxburgh) and “Viy” (translator Christopher English). English translates all the Dikanka stories. The volume’s preface, by S. Mashinsky, again gives some helpful background on Ukrainian history.
I don’t have Village Evenings Near Dikanka and Mirgorod (Oxford University Press, 1994), but it appears to be all of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories, also translated by Christopher English. I assume they are the same translations as in the above collection. The table of contents for the volume is here.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (Vintage 1999, translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) includes four stories from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (including “Christmas Eve”) and three from Mirgorod (including “Viy,” but not “Taras Bulba”). It also includes six of Gogol’s most famous Petersburg tales (including “The Nose”).
Image: Christmas Carols in Little Russia, Konstantin Trutovsky. Source: Wikimedia