The unnamed boy is the main character of ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree.’’ The narrator describes the child as a boy of six, or perhaps even younger. It is wintertime and he is lodging in a cellar with his ailing mother. Scared, cold, and hungry, the child leaves the cellar in search of food. He wanders through the streets, in awe of the bright lights, the Christmas trees, the attractions in the shop windows. He is ejected from a shop where women are passing out cake. The boy is fascinated with the lifelike dolls he sees in another window. After being tormented by an older boy, he runs off and hides behind a woodpile in a courtyard, where he curls up and falls asleep. During the night, the child freezes to death. His lifeless body is discovered the next morning. The child’s experience, however, is totally different. After falling asleep on the woodpile, he awakens to his mother’s singing and has a vision of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Other children welcome him to what they call Christ’s Christmas tree. The boy is happy and laughs along with the other children. The narrator explains toward the end of the story that his body is discovered together with that of his mother, but that mother and son ‘‘met before the Lord God in heaven.’’ The child, whose very young age and utter poverty inspire immediate sympathy in the reader, is depicted as both innocent and brave. He falsely assumes that his mother, whose body is cold, is asleep and sets out to find something to eat. Awed and intimidated by the sights and sounds of the city, the boy is still able to laugh when he discovers the lifelike dolls in the window. After being chased by the older boy, the young boy experiences an inexplicable feeling of happiness while huddled against the woodpile, and it is in this state that he falls asleep. The joy he experiences in being reunited with his mother—in heaven, as the reader eventually discovers—does not last very long. The reality of the deaths of the boy and his mother is reiterated when the narrator describes the discovery of their bodies and again when the narrator asserts that while he believes their deaths likely resulted from a combination of the freezing weather and starvation, the salvation the story implies remains questionable. By presenting such a sad ending, Dostoevsky fashions his portrayal of poverty into a tale that is as moving as it is bleak.
The Boy’s Mother
The narrator offers little information about the boy’s mother. She has become ill after traveling from another town. The boy does not seem to realize that his mother has died when she approaches her lifeless body in bed in the cellar, touching her face and shoulders. She appears again at the end of the story, singing to the boy as he wakes, that is, after he finds himself in the same place where Christ’s Christmas tree is located. She laughs as she watches him.
The children welcome the boy to gather around Christ’s Christmas tree. In their presence, the boy discovers that they are all like him, that is, they have all died, often under horrible circumstances. In the discussion of the ways in which these children died, Dostoevsky makes a number of cultural and historical references. Some of the children froze to death as infants that had been abandoned on the doorsteps of wealthy families in St. Petersburg. Others were suffocated after being ‘‘boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling.’’ The Foundling is likely a reference to the Foundling Hospital, an organization established in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, that rescued abandoned or orphaned children. The mention of Finnish women may be a cultural prejudice against individuals of non-Russian ethnic backgrounds. (At the time Dostoevsky wrote ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree,’’ Finland was not a sovereign nation but rather a grand duchy—essentially a territory—of the Russian Empire). Others died when their mothers starved to death. Here the narrator mentions the famine of Samara, a large city in Russia that experienced widespread famine in the early 1890s. The narrator also refers to the ‘‘foul air’’ of ‘‘third-class railway carriages,’’ citing this as another cause for the deaths of many of the children. The happy children comfort their weeping mothers, begging the women not to cry.
After the boy has fallen asleep at the woodpile, he is initially awakened by his mother’s singing and next hears another voice. At first he thinks it is his mother, but he immediately dismisses this notion. The gentle voice beckons the child to ‘‘come to my Christmas tree.’’ The child feels someone embrace him in the darkness and stretch his hands out to him. He soon learns from the other children that the Christmas tree belongs to Christ. The ‘‘my’’ must therefore refer to Christ. After being led to Christ’s tree, the boy begins to understand that he is in heaven. Christ is mentioned again as standing in the midst of the children and their mothers and blessing them. Christ and his tree convey to the child a sense of wonder and happiness as the child marvels at how ‘‘bright and shining’’ everything is. The joy depicted in this scene is undercut by the narrator’s questioning of whether or not this portion of the story could have actually occurred.
The narrator informs the reader that one of the boy’s fellow lodgers in the cellar is a man who has been drunk for the past twenty-four hours.
The narrator describes himself as a novelist. Given the fact that ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’ originally appeared in The Diary of a Writer , he may be taken to be a substitute for Dostoevsky. The narrator acknowledges that although he is a writer of fiction and knows that he has penned this story, he nevertheless imagines that it must actually have occurred somewhere Christmas describes the events of the story from the little boy’s point of view, doing so in such a way that his sympathies for the child are self-evident. At the end of the story, the narrator admits that the tale is ‘‘out of keeping’’ with a writer’s diary. Yet he asserts—as he did in the story’s opening—that he feels drawn to the notion that the events of the story could really have occurred. The narrator qualifies this sentiment by explaining that the mother’s death in the cellar, as well as the child’s death at the woodpile, could actually have happened, ‘‘but as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not.’’ In this statement, the narrator calls into the question the religious salvation expressed in the story, the only instance of hope or happiness in the tale. Without it, the story remains unrelentingly bleak. By expressing doubt that this part of the story could have happened, the narrator suggests that perhaps life is as bleak as the story makes it appear.
The old woman is another lodger in the cellar where the boy and his mother are staying. The narrator describes the woman as being about eighty years old, a former children’s nurse. Alone in the world, she is now suffering a painful death from rheumatism. The boy fears approaching her, having been previously scolded by her.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010