Christmas becomes a challenge to one’s better nature. Each year it reminds us that we can work at being better people, less selfish and small. Something about the season encourages an evidence-defying hopefulness. Nabokov published two stories explicitly devoted to Christmas. Each suggests, in different ways, how Christmas is at once a burden and a promise of release. He wrote “Christmas” (Details of a Sunset and Other Stories, 1976) late in 1924 and published it in January 1925 in Rul’, a Russian-language journal in Berlin, the city where his beloved father was murdered in 1922.
The story is set in Russia, the country Nabokov and his family fled in 1919. Sleptsov’s young son has died in Petersburg and the father returns to his country manor after the body is interred in the family vault. It’s Christmas Eve. The snow is deep and the windows are frosted: “He was amazed to be still alive, and able to perceive the brilliance of the snow and feel his front teeth ache from the cold.”
Sleptov looks at his son’s butterfly collection, his net, spreading boards and “an English biscuit tin that contained a large exotic cocoon which had cost three rubles. It was papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf. His son had remembered it during his sickness, regretting that he had left it behind, but consoling himself with the thought that the chrysalid inside was probably dead.”
Sleptov takes the tin to his warm room and the cocoon bursts open. The final two paragraphs are unbearably beautiful, concluding with this sentence: “And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.”
“The Christmas Story” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, 1995) was published on Christmas Day 1928, in Rul’. Set in the Soviet Union, the story concerns a small group of writers and critics who wonder whether a true Christmas story can still be written in the Worker’s Paradise, where atheism is state-mandated. In the writer Novodvortsev, Nabokov dramatizes the inspiration and gloom that shadow a fiction writer: “He felt the tickling vacuum that always accompanied the urge to write. In this vacuum something was taking shape, growing. A new, special kind of Christmas. . . . Same old snow, brand-new conflict . . .” But the feeling passes. Novodvortsev knows every word he writes will be evaluated for political correctness, for hewing to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. He pictures an enormous Christmas tree in the window of a department store, “with hams stacked at its base and expensive fruit affixed to its branches.” Here is his solution and the story’s closing lines:
“With triumphal agitation, sensing that he had found the necessary, one-and-only key, that he would write something exquisite, depict as no one had before the collision of two classes, of two worlds, he commenced writing. He wrote about the opulent tree in the shamelessly illuminated window and about the hungry worker, victim of a lockout, peering at that tree with a severe and somber gaze.
“`The insolent Christmas tree,’ wrote Novodvortsev, `was afire with every hue of the rainbow.’”
Novodvortsev surrenders to the cliché and the uncertain hope that his story will be published.