As a novelist, Charles Dickens owns Christmas, with his uplifting story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits who renew his soul in one night. But this year — when only a few months ago children were being separated from their parents at the Mexico-United States border — is an appropriate time to read a Christmas story by another giant of world literature: the writer Pope Francis has referred to as “the great Dostoevsky.”
“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” is a darker tale than Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and its young, nameless protagonist has even more severe troubles than Tiny Tim. But the story includes a vision inspired by the Gospel that serves as a reminder that, although society may see the poor and their children as problems, they are beloved by God.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) was a Russian novelist best known for works such as “Notes From the Underground” and “Crime and Punishment,” yet “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” is a short piece, available on the internet, that can be read in 10 minutes. In it the author explores one of the themes he deals with at greater length in his masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov.”
At the center of that 1,000-page novel, Ivan Karamazov dismisses God by talking about the suffering of the innocent, enumerating in detail horrific cases — based on actual incidents — of young children being mistreated, abused and killed. Then Ivan asks his saintly brother Alyosha the question that has always troubled people of faith: Would you create a world where such atrocities happen?
“‘No, I would not,’ Alyosha said softly.”
The younger brother’s only response, finally, is not to debate his intellectual brother but to talk about Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness.
Shortly before his death, Dostoevsky wrote in his diary that it is “not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.”
Dostoevsky’s own mother died when he was a teenager, and his alcoholic and abusive father was murdered by his own serfs a couple of years later. As a political prisoner he was subject to a mock execution and served a term of hard labor in Siberia. He had constant financial worries, made worse by a gambling problem, and he suffered from epilepsy. His first-borne child, Sonya, died when she was only three months old.
The little boy, “6 years old or even younger,” of “A Heavenly Christmas Tree” dies cold, hungry and alone after the death of his poor mother — while nearby children of affluent families are enjoying their holiday festivities. But near death, he hears his mother singing, and then he hears a soft voice whispering, “Come to my Christmas tree, little one.” The subsequent scene calls to mind both the Beatitudes and Matthew 19:14 (Jesus saying, “Let the children come to me.”)
It is a scene for any parent who has lost a child for any reason: sickness, an accident, abortion. Or whose child at any age has been, either literally or figuratively, lost.
But “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” ends not with a beatific vision but with a porter finding the frozen body of the dead child, a reminder that Christian hope is no excuse for ignoring Christian responsibility.
Dorothy Day was a great admirer of Dostoevsky and reportedly one of her favorite quotes was spoken by Zossima, a holy man in “The Brothers Karamozov”: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
As many people of good will — certainly people at the U.S.-Mexico border — know full well, the hard work of “love in action” is needed all year long, not just at Christmas. It is often forged in a crucible of doubt.
Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.