Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950) was a Russian writer and essayist who emigrated to France after the October Revolution. The Year of God (Лето Господне) is a book of his recollections of pre-revolutionary life in Russia. The narrator, an adult person, recalls everyday life and religious festivals of a merchant family in Moscow, into which he was born. He turns a loving eye to his childhood memories, going through them like a fantastic kaleidoscope of events. For this Christmas season I have translated a respective chapter of his book…
Ivan Shmelyov – Christmas
You want, my dear boy, that I told you about our Christmas season. Well… Should you not understand something, let your heart guide you.
Imagine me as old as you are now. Do you know what snow is? Here it is rare, and it melts as soon as it falls. But in Russia once the snowfall started, no light of the day would be seen for three days or so! The snow covered everything. The streets were all white, with large drifts. The snow was everywhere: on the roofs, on the fences, on the streetlights – lots of snow! It would even hang down from the roofs – and suddenly it would drop, like a heap of flour, and even get behind one’s collar. The caretakers collected the snow and took it away, otherwise everything would sink in it.
The Russian winter is silent and dull. The sledge may ride fast, but you do not hear a sound. Only when the frost comes, then the runners screech. And when the spring arrives, and you hear the sound of the wheels, then what a joy it is!
Our Christmas comes from afar, very quietly. The snow is deep, and the frost is getting stronger.
Once you see the frozen pork being delivered, then you know that Christmas is near. For six weeks people were fasting on fish. The wealthier ate beluga, sturgeon, walleye, navaga; the poorer had herring, catfish, bream… In Russia, we had all kinds of fish. But at Christmas everyone ate pork. At the butcher’s, they would lay those pigs, like tree logs – up to the ceiling. The gammon was cut off, for corning. And so these cuts were lying in rows, and the snow dusted the pink stripes on the ground.
The frost was so strong that it riveted the air, turning it into a foggy frosty haze. The wagon trains were coming for Christmas. What is it, you ask? Well, it is like a train, except there were wide sledges instead of carriages, and they were riding on the snow, coming from the distant lands. One after one, they went in single file, stretching for miles.
The horses were from the steppe, to be sold. The drivers were all healthy, strong men from the Volga Region, near Samara. They brought pork, piglets, geese and turkeys, from the “ardent frost”, as they said. Then there was a Siberian grouse and a black grouse. Do you know a Siberian grouse? It is mottled, or pockmarked, that’s what its Russian name means. It is as big as a pigeon, methinks. It is a game, a forest bird. It feeds on rowan, cranberry, and juniper. And what taste it had, my brother! Here this bird is rare, but in Russia it was delivered by wagon trains. The merchants would sell everything, including the sledge and horses, buy the cloths and calico and go back home by cast iron. What is cast iron? Ah well, it is the railroad. It was more profitable to travel to Moscow on a wagon train: the merchant carried his own oats for his horses from his plants on the shoals of the steppe, and sold the horses in the capital.
Just before Christmas, in Konnaya Square in Moscow – or the Horse Square, for they sold horses there – the groans never stopped. This square… how to say it? It was more spacious than… the one where the Eiffel Tower is, you know? And there were sledges everywhere.
Thousands of sledges stood in rows. Frozen pigs were piled like firewood for miles on end. The snow would cover them, but snouts and bottoms were lurking from beneath. Next stood the vats as great… as this room, perhaps! The corned pork was cooked there. The frost was so strong that the brine froze, and you could see thin ice on it. The butcher was cutting the pork with an axe, and sometimes a piece of it, as much as half a pound, would bounce off – no care! A beggar would pick it up. These pork “crumbs” were thrown to beggars by armful: have it, the fasting is over! In front of the pork there was a piglet row, for another mile. And farther they traded geese, chicken, ducks, black grouse, Siberian grouse… They traded directly from the sledge. There were no scales, and everything was mostly sold by piece. Russia is a very hearty country: no scales, things are done by the eye. Sometimes the factory workers would harness themselves to the large sledge and off they went, laughing. And in the sledge there was a pile of piglets, and pork, and corned pork, and mutton… Life was rich then.
Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.
Other posts in Translations.
Ivan Shmelyov, Christmas, part 2.