It is Christmas day, 1994 and I find myself sitting in a quiet little apartment in Bratislava, Slovakia. Slovakia is part of the former Soviet Union.
Life, at times, can be extremely lonely far away from home during the Christmas season. I am an I.T. Officer for the U.S. Government on temporary assignment. I am alone, in a strange land.
My assignment at the moment is to temporarily replace someone during the holidays. I will be here until the end of January 1995 and then onward to another assignment, somewhere.
Bratislava is a grand old city. There are numerous gift shops throughout town. They make wonderful crystal items and hand-carved wooden figurines. The cities architecture is magnificent, though old, and in need of repair (40 years of Soviet rule didn’t help the place any). It is, also, very cold right now.
A light snow had fallen a couple of times during the week, but now it was almost all gone except for the bone chilling cold.
Friday would be a half work day before the Christmas weekend. I left work shortly before noon to do some window shopping before returning to work to finish up on some last-minute business.
While shopping, I came across a Christmas market. The market was wonderful. Wooden booths lined both sides of the square and people of all types were wandering about cheery and happy, wearing their fur hats and heavy overcoats. The afternoon air was crisp with a light scent of spiced, hot wine being sold at one of the booths. This was going to be a lonely Christmas, just my thoughts and I.
Looking around the market I saw lots of homemade, handmade crafts. Everyone was smiling and it was obvious that the Christmas spirit was alive and well in Bratislava.
I walked over to a booth that was selling Christmas center pieces. My eyes locked on one in particular, it wasn’t that great but it was pretty and gave the feeling of Christmas. I bought it. It had pine cones, some dried flowers and real moss. I bought it thinking of the telephone operators where I worked and how hard they had worked the past year and just wanted to say thank you and cheer up the telephone desk.
The operators were thrilled that I, a temporary boss, would do such a thing. They thanked me and I felt good. I went upstairs to work and finished up around 6pm. While going out the front door one of the operators handed me a small Christmas gift. It was wrapped neatly in green tissue paper and had a cheerful golden ribbon attached. I thanked them, wished them the best of the holiday season and left the building heading back to my little apartment.
On the way home, passing through the Christmas market, I bought myself a table piece similar to the one given to the operators. Returning to my apartment, I placed the table setting and the small package on the living room coffee table.
That was to be my little Christmas tree. Complete with a little gift sitting beside it, to be opened on Christmas day.
Saturday evening, Christmas Eve, I was alone in my apartment thinking how sad it was that I had to spend another Christmas away from my wife and home. It was then that I lit the candle on the center piece and sat back and enjoyed the candle light. I got up and turned off all the lights and went back to the couch and just sat and stared and watched as the candle flame played back and forth. The Candle was beginning to burn low and this made me sad to think that on Christmas day I wouldn’t even have the luxury of a simple candle to burn. I wished that I had had the foresight to purchase another candle. But, I hadn’t. I reached over and snuffed out the flame.
Sitting on the couch that Christmas Eve, I found myself wishing that I had purchased more for my weekend dinners than just snack items. There wasn’t anything to eat in the place, except chips, cheese and lunch meat. The entire city would be closed for the weekend. No restaurants, cafes, nothing.
My boss had invited me to a party that she was giving in her apartment above mine, but I had declined due to a bad toothache. Wish I had accepted….the food was free. Not too long after having these thoughts there was a knock at the door and I slowly got up to answer it. It was the boss holding a large bowl of rich and steamy cabbage soup!
This kind person, with all the hosting going on, still took the time to think of me and bring me this very nice Christmas Eve dinner!
I gave my thanks and soon found myself enjoying the soup and the candle.
Christmas day arrived all too soon. I got dressed and made some coffee. Taking my cup to the living room I peered out the curtains to see a wonderful white blanket of freshly fallen snow. It was still early and know one had walked down any of the streets. It was clean, fresh, pristine and beautiful. The buildings were all blanketed in white.
I turned and sat down on the couch. I reached over and lit my little candle for the last time, it was nearly gone now. Maybe two minutes more and then my Christmas would be over. As the candle started to sputter with its last breath, I reached over and picked up the small little gift. I shook it. It didn’t rattle. I smelled it. There was a faint aroma coming from the package. I squeezed it. It was solid. I opened it.
As my little candle finally sputtered its last, I slowly removed the green tissue paper from the little package. It was a candle! A large, green, scented Christmas candle! I was ecstatic. Removing the remnants of the burned candle, I replaced it with the new one. Lit it and sat back to enjoy my Christmas alone. Just me and my candle.
As the morning grew on I put out the candle and getting into my heavy overcoat I opened the door to leave. Sitting on my doorstep was a small package and a Christmas card. I brought both inside and upon opening them I found a large, scented beeswax candle. This gift was from the boss.
Life is full of wonderful surprises at times, but this is one that I will never forget.
During the holiday seasons, people often search far and wide for miracles when most often as not, they need only look as far as their own doorstep.
Years from now, I won’t remember the name of the telephone operators, or of the Chief, that had given me those wonderful gifts. But, every Christmas morning from now on, I will light that large green candle for a short while. And think back to a Christmas long ago, in a strange land, where people cared for one another.
And simple little prayers were answered.