Dostoevsky’s short story ‘‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’’ opens with the narrator observing that as a writer, specifically a novelist, he has created this story, although he has the sense that it surely must have actually happened at one time somewhere. As the narrator explains, a little boy aged six years or younger wakes up one morning in a frigid cellar. He is wearing a thin dressing gown and is hungry. The boy’s mother, who is thin and ill, lies nearby. The boy and his mother have recently come from another town and taken up residence here. Also in the cellar—a room rented out by a landlady who has recently been arrested— is a drunken man. In another corner is an elderly woman who, stricken with rheumatism, grumbles at the little boy to the point where he fears approaching her. The fact that it is nearly Christmas is inferred from the narrator’s comments about the drunken man, who could not wait until Christmas to imbibe in alcohol to the point of extreme intoxication.
The little boy helps himself to a drink of water in another room, but he can find nothing to eat. Feeling frightened, he repeatedly considers waking his mother but decides against doing so. By dusk, no candle or lamp has been lit. The boy touches his mother’s face and discovers that she is cold and lifeless. Although the boy does not comment on it, the narrator informs the reader that the woman has died; it seems her son has not yet apprehended this fact. The boy fetches his cap and leaves the cellar. He has been prevented from doing so earlier due to the constant howling of a large dog at the top of the stairs, which the boy obviously fears. Now, with no sign of the dog, the boy departs.
While walking down the street, the boy marvels at how different this new town is from the one he has recently left. In his old town, there is only one street lamp on the whole street, leaving the town quite dark. The townsfolk do not venture out at night and remain within their homes. Dogs howl all night long. There, however, he has always been warm and been given food to eat. In the new town people are out at night, the streets are lit, and the noises of horses and carriages abound. The boy is also acutely aware of the cold—and his hunger. Nevertheless he plods on. A policeman turns his head away to avoid seeing the child. Finding his way to another street—a noisy, brightly lit one where he feels certain he will be run over—the boy peers through a window, where he sees an enormous fir tree. The tree, which reaches to the ceiling, is decorated with lights, gold-colored paper ornaments, fruit, and small toys. The boy sees freshly scrubbed children, attired in their best clothing, running, laughing, and playing with one another. The little boy longingly watches the other children eat, drink, and dance. He can hear the music through the window, and he laughs a little before remembering how badly his fingers and toes ache due to the cold. He begins to cry and runs off.
At a different window he sees another Christmas tree and a table laden with all types of cakes. The boy watches as people come in from the street. The ladies sitting at the table distribute cake to everyone who comes in. The boy scrambles in from the street but is shooed away without being given any cake. One woman does give the boy a coin before ushering him back into the street. The little boy becomes frightened. His fingers are too stiff to hold the coin, which rolls away. Trying not to cry, he continues on his way, lonely and scared. The boy runs toward a crowd of people who are admiring something behind a window. He sees three little dolls, which he initially mistakes for real people. Realizing that they are only dolls, he laughs while at the same time feeling like crying as well. Someone in the crowd grabs at his smock, hits him on the head, and steals his cap after intentionally tripping him.
Terrified, the child escapes through a gate into a courtyard. Hiding behind a woodpile, the boy finds that his fear has suddenly and inexplicably been transformed into a feeling of happiness. His hands and feet grow warm. Waking with a shiver, the boy thinks that he must have fallen asleep withoutrealizingit.Intendingtoretracehisstepstolook at the dolls again, the boy suddenly hears his mother’s singing. He tells her how nice it is to be sleeping here. The child hears a voice beckoning him to come to the Christmas tree, which he suddenly realizes is not his mother’s voice. A figure bends down and holds him, but it is too dark for him to see who it is. The boy stretches out his arms toward the figure and is overcome with the brightness of a light. He then spies a Christmas tree unlike any that he has ever seen before. The child begins to wonder where his. As he approaches the Christmas tree, he notices all the other children, whom he first mistakesfordolls.Thechildrenkisshimandheisswept up in their midst, at which point the boy does see his mother, who is smiling and laughing at him.
When the boy asks the children who they are, they reply that the tree is Christ’s Christmas tree, that Christ has provided a tree for all the children who do not have one of their own. The boy discovers that all the children are like him; they have died, some as infants that froze in the baskets in which they had been abandoned. Others have been suffocated, starved, or died in various other ways. Suddenly noticing that Christ himself stands in the middle of all the children, the boy, the other children, and the ‘‘sinful mothers’’ all receive Christ’s blessing.
In the morning a porter discovers the frozen body of the little boy on the woodpile. The mother, too, is found dead. The narrator ends the story by asserting that what happened in the cellar and by the woodpile could have happened, that he believes these events must have occurred. He also admits that he cannot say with certainty whether the appearance of Christ’s Christmas tree actually took place.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Published by Gale Group, 2010