Mikhail Zoshchenko’s story was a childhood favourite, and, rereading it more than thirty years after I’d originally read it, I find myself surprised anew by the turns it takes. It opens with the description of a tree, decorated for the holiday with “beads, bunting, lanterns, walnuts, pastilles, and Crimean apples […] and underneath the tree were presents.” As a child, I was mesmerized by the idea of a tree decorated with edible items: that tradition had all but disappeared in the 1980s.
Brother Minka and sister Lyolya begin eating the sweets off the tree, though knowing that they’re doing something against the house rules. Soon, their desire for sweets escalates. “If you took another bite from the apple, then I won’t stand on ceremony anymore and I’m going to eat a third pastille and in addition I’m going to take this bonbon cracker as a souvenir,” Lyolya says to her brother. The main turn of this story comes after the guests arrive and the children’s mother discovers that the gifts she had meant for the visiting children have been destroyed. The conflict escalates further, from being between children to being between parents, and the moment when the mother takes offence at her son being called “a bandit” (or “a brigand” in this translation) and lashes out at the other parent was deeply satisfying to me as a young reader.
The mother chooses to drop the rules of polite behaviour, and sides with her children against the visiting families. Today we talk about attachment theories and unconditional love between parents and children: these ideas were far from mainstream in the Soviet Union. To me, as a small child and even as a teen, this story was the ultimate wish-fulfilment fantasy. Not only do the kids get to gorge on sweets, but also their mother supports them with unconditional love – all done with humour and merriment. Happy New Year!
Collected in A Very Russian Christmas: The Greatest Russian Holiday Stories of All Time, New Vessel Press, 2016
Chosen by Olga Zilberbourg. Olga English-language debut, Like Water and Other Stories was published in September 2019 (WTAW Press). She is the author of three Russian-language collections of stories.