Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Christmas Tree and the Wedding": The uglier side of holiday parties
Two years ago, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Christmas Tree and the Wedding" (1848), and even though I don't celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense, I come back to this story every holiday season. It has a timeless charm. In his trademark prose, as in Crime and Punishment's notable line, "The deeper the grief, the closer is God!"—lilting but undemanding, soft but striking, loving and loveless—Dostoevsky writes another dry, cynical tale that juxtaposes perversion and innocence, using characters that are careless and depraved.
I have always found that reading Dostoevsky is an act of sober reflection. His literature is a vehicle for social expression and it holds up a mirror to our most secret ills and inclinations—think again of the intense corporeality of guilt and its consequences in Crime and Punishment.
This short story begins with an unnamed, omniscient narrator chancing upon a wedding. The beginning is significant; it acts as the catalyst that whisks him away into nostalgia. Cut to five years earlier, and it's Christmastime, where our storyteller finds himself observing the actions of an indecent adult who fixates on a young girl at an upper-class Christmas party.
The titular tree derives its significance from the party, the people around it. There is no Christmas cheer, no holiday-season pomp, no familial warmth. The gathering of bourgeoisie; the untarnished views of children, unperturbed by their parents' mindless conversation; the enforcement of decorum, even when attendees don't particularly enjoy each other's company—these are the things that the tree highlights.
The party is a classic Dostoevskyian motif. It is not subtle, but it doesn't need to be. Our narrator, an astute onlooker, loves watching children. He reports to us of the hushed whispers describing a hefty dowry, the exclusivity in the distribution of one's attention, and the isolation faced by the child belonging to the lowest rung on the class ladder. At this party, guests have brought letters of recommendation in their favour, children's presents diminish here "in value in accordance with the rank of the parents", and we are introduced to Julian Mastakovich, who has just finished a conversation with the host owing the aforementioned dowry, and begins to count on his fingers the amount by which it would increase should he marry the latter's daughter in five years.
At the time of his diligent calculations, Julian has not even seen the girl, and she is eleven. It's an impressive change in the narrative; we move with the narrator, first taking in a young girl playing with her doll, then witnessing a degenerate exhibition of greed by one of the party's most distinguished personalities. When Julian finally approaches the object of his affections, a painfully uncomfortable interaction unfolds.
Dostoevsky, through his story, makes it clear what he thinks of the Julian Mastakovitches of the world. But he also knows of the influence they have on this world. Julian is safe in the knowledge of his importance, secure in his stature, saccharine in his approval, scathing in his morals. His assurance in himself is the most prominent heirloom passed around in his class. Wealth and entitlement give him free rein. As a result, it's not a strong indictment of society when he succeeds in his goal, as witnessed by our narrator at the close. It's what we expect.
The ending is poignant. An earlier scene—where the young girl cries due to Julian's overbearing actions—informs the pathos of the climax. At the end, she is left "pale and melancholy", "red with recent weeping"—robbed of what the world owed to her as a birthright: innocence. We cross the street with the author, because like him, we cannot help her. It's the ultimate betrayal. And we are all guilty.
Sejal Rahman is a contributor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.