REMEMBERING CHRISTMAS OF 1989
Preface: The week before Christmas in 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe felt velvety and joyful, the bloodiest revolution of all raged in Romania. Then, on December 22, it seemed it could be over, but the news was slow to reach into the mountains.
A fine dusting of snow filtered down on the village of Borsa-Dej. Pastor Laszlo gazed out through the diamond-shaped panes in the windows of the parsonage wing of the Reformed Church. His breathtaking view of Mount Pietrosu was almost obscured by the flurries. In this Carpathian valley every winter day was nearly always overcast, and the weather every Christmas Eve was ominous as well – as was the outlook for the days to come, because Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and every day, were days of stifled dreams and repressed ambition. The sheep herders and timber cutters of Borsa-Dej had never known anything else than being under the iron fist of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis, and then the Communists.
For four decades the Christmas Eve service was the only time the Reformed congregation ever dared to gather, except on Sunday morning. And for two of those decades, every Christmas Eve Pastor Laszlo watched from his pulpit as Nicu Hoge stood in the back corner of the sanctuary taking notes on every word the Pastor said, and carefully recording who came to church. It was as if the two of them, at opposite ends of the room, were on opposite sides of Borsa-Dej, one a communist representing hostility to religion, and the other a Christian pastor, representing a holy mystery that somehow threatened to destroy political oppression on a night like this. There were too many candles, and too much singing of angels and of God, for tyranny to stand it.
“Comrade Nicu, in your report tell them how the Christians of Borsa-Dej love Jesus,” Pastor Laszlo had said last Christmas Eve as the informer had brushed past him on his way out of the church building.
But this year the snow flurries were lighter than usual, and even the faint silhouette of Mt. Pietrosu was briefly bathed in an orange and lavender glow from the setting sun, as Pastor Laszlo allowed himself to be transformed by the wonder of the events of the last week. Most of the time their remote village was ignored by the powers that played games in distant cities, but, Pastor Laszlo well knew, at least by the time the snow-packed mountain passes had melted in the spring, some effects of their maneuvers would drift up to Borsa-Dej. How long would it take this time, Pastor Laszlo wondered, for the tremendous news he had heard over the static on his radio to make this latest change felt in their remote valley? And what would be the first sign of the change?
On his lap a tattered Bible lay open to the words from the Christmas story, “And on earth PEACE….” It was the need for peace that sent tears streaming once again down the pastor’s cheeks. News had come of the slaughter of children and innocents by the hundreds. Even there in Borsa-Dej, where they had never seen an army tank, Pastor Laszlo could imagine the sight of their firing down a street filled curb to curb with people carrying flags. “What flag?” he mused. The national tri-colors … with the communist emblem snipped from its center, as if it had been ripped out by one of the tank’s bullets on its way into the crowd. Pastor Laszlo imagined the scene, mist in his eyes, as mist began to enshroud Mount Pietrosu. He envisioned, too, how the soldiers would have been sent around the public square to toss the dead into trucks like cord-wood to be dumped into a ditch and covered by a bull-dozer. Finally, Pastor Laszlo formed a picture in his mind of how his fellow pastors in less remote places must have been attacked over the last few weeks of the hideous crack-down. Some of them must have broken legs and burnt skin that results from an interrogation by the secret police. The revolution, after all, had first broken out in a Reformed Church in Timisoara.
As the grey-green forests grew dark outside Pastor Laszlo’s window, the faces of Elena and Corneliu Ratescu floated into his memory. This very night marked the second anniversary of their disappearance. Such a happy couple, Laszlo thought, the brightest and best of Borsa-Dej. That is, of course, why they were sucked into the mindless bureaucracy of government service and relocated far from their beloved mountains. It was the government’s prime ploy to rip people out of the places they love, and apart from the people they love, and into settings where they are helpless and forced to live with people they do not know. Even so, the spirit of such a couple as Elena and Corneliu was not so easily extinguished. For five years, they almost flourished as accountants and shift managers in a factory producing farm equipment to harvest hay. Their work, they wrote home, reminded them of the mountainside hay fields in the Carpathians near their village. And the people with whom they worked, they reported, also had spirits, once you got to know them. Such spirits, evidently, drew them into church on Christmas Eve where they were neatly set upon by the police. For two years there had been only silence.
Whatever had happened to Elena and Corneliu Ratescu could well become the stories of all the souls of Borsa-Dej, they thought last Christmas Eve. Village after village was being relocated into urban concrete apartment towers, layer on layer, like bees in hives. The government, of course, cast no thought to the matter of their village relationships, their love of the mountains bred in over a thousand years of living there, nor their native devotion to the Lord God and the stone church in which every important event of their lives was celebrated. One by one, already a thousand or more villages had been abandoned and then leveled so the people could not be tempted to return.
But, if the incredible bits and pieces Laszlo heard over the radio proved to be true, all that might be over. It was being said, if he heard correctly, that the nightmare of the dictatorship was ending. There was even news, now, that in a dozen other countries vast changes were sweeping out tyrannies and letting in the wind of freedom.
Pastor Laszlo breathed in the air from his room. He imagined it felt freer inside his lungs than it had felt. But this feeling alone was not the confirmation he needed after so many years and disappointments, in order to dare to allow his emotions to feel free and his soul to feel ecstatic gratitude. That must come in some other way. But what would the sign be that even tiny Borsa-Dej was now liberated?
The snow had become more than a crystalline mist. Fat silvery flakes were bouncing on the beams of light that stabbed the darkness outside his window. Now that the day was over, as evening came, it was time to celebrate Christmas. And, even though the thrilling thoughts of freedom from fear and peace on earth would not go away, it was time to open the church doors to receive the villagers’ annual pilgrimage.
Inside the chapel the candles were ready for lighting and the nativity scene was arrayed in front of the communion table. There, solid Joseph, radiant Mary, and the Christ-child lying in a manger with chubby arms reaching toward heaven were in place as they had been every Christmas since a woodcarver had brought them down from his Carpathian cabin high up on Mount Pietrosu one Christmas Eve a hundred and thirty years ago. That loving generosity had initiated a Christmas tradition in the Reformed Church of Borsa-Dej. From then on, people had brought an offering for the Christ-child every Christmas Eve, some carved trinket, or a sack of grain, or a jar of preserves. It was a love offering that Pastor Laszlo shared with those of the parish who needed an extra measure of love.
Reassured that everything was in place and ready, Laszlo reached for a rope hanging from a hole in the ceiling of the vestibule and began to heave on it. Gently, the stentorian toll of the great bell in the tower began to remind the faithful that the Christ-child was waiting for them. After several minutes of ringing, more than usual perhaps, because of the excitement in his heart that threatened to break out at any moment, Pastor Laszlo went back to collect his thoughts and to pull on his antique black robe with its high frilled white collar of the Reformed faith. Nicola Botez had climbed the tiny stairs into her nest above the back doorway where the organ was hung, and she was filling the room with sounds of Christmas.
There was no doubt of the signs of Christmas, Laszlo reflected. But what would be the signs of “Peace on earth?” Laszlo half expected angels to announce the advent of this peace with its new liberty, or perhaps the dazzling glory of a star from the East penetrating into the chapel itself. He was prepared, it seems, for any scene but the one that presented itself to him.
As Pastor Laszlo stepped into the pulpit of the church of Borsa-Dej, Comrade Nicu was not standing in his customary place. For twenty-three years, Comrade Nicu had stood in the back of the church every Christmas eve transcribing the pastor’s comments and recording the names of every worshipper.
At Laszlo’s appearance, Nicola pounced into the familiar beginning of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” so that the faithful of Borsa-Dej could process to the manger with their Christmas love offerings. In the midst of all the commotion, the door at the back of the chapel opened unnoticed by everyone except Pastor Laszlo who was ensconced in the elevated pulpit. Onto the end of the procession came three people whom Laszlo did not recognize until he got a better look at them, Nicu Hoge with Corneliu and Elena Ratescu.
By now the whole assembly was watching them as they found their way to the holy family. There from the folds of his long green coat Comrade Nicu extracted a ponderous sheaf of twenty-three reports on yellow paper from his twenty-three years of vigilance. These reports would never find their way into any investigations nor into any police file, for at the manger he filed them with Jesus. Then, for the first time in his twenty-three years, Nicu Hoge bent down to kiss the forehead of the infant in the manger.
Laszlo admitted at last that the static-distorted message he had heard from the radio and the much clearer message from his tattered book of Luke were both true. Corneliu and Elena were back home in Borsa-Dej in the mountains they loved. The war against the innocents must be over as well. Even men like Nicu Hoge were free to love Jesus, and after years of secrecy, to show their love. There was no need for another sign. Pastor Laszlo had seen the sign in Borsa-Dej that God has pronounced, “Peace on earth.”
Postscript: This story was written for the Christmas Eve service of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, before the amazement diminished that the Soviet Union had ended and the Cold War was over. Of all the final acts by the dictators, the atrocity during the days before Christmas inflicted on hostage children in Bucharest by the Ceausescus was the bloodiest. On Christmas Day the tyrants were shot by a firing squad.
After 30 years it is growing hard to remember how astounding and difficult it was to believe the nightmare was probably over. Our forgetfulness comes with a risk. Again we seem to be forgetting what life was like when dictators ruled.
[The picture above is of the Calvinist Church in Dej. The story imagines Borsa-Dej as a smaller village than any of the real towns of Borsa or Dej. The characters are imaginary, but the setting is as authentic as I could compose from news on the three days before Christmas 1989.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.