Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I worked in an office with a woman called Anna who was, by then, approaching retirement age. Our desks faced each other, which meant that we too faced each other for most of the day. But she didn’t talk much – preferring to get on with her work quietly. She came originally from one of the Baltic States and whilst she had already lived in Australia for a quarter of a century, her accent was still very strong; and because she spoke rather softly it required one to pay close attention.
Anna was a small woman, perfectly thin, always impeccably groomed. Each day, she would appear in a two-piece suit of skirt and jacket, with a blouse fastened at the neck by a broach, and wearing sensible shoes. She wore her hair short and it was always immaculately permed with never a strand out of place, even on wet and windy days. Everything about her seemed designed to achieve a harmony of practicality, modesty and age-appropriateness; and that it did.
But if Anna was neat in appearance, it was only a prelude to her work practices. Her desk was always tidy, even when she was at her busiest. The documents and implements she needed were lined up as though there was an invisible grid pattern on her work surface governing their location. Her pens and pencils were arranged in parallel with the tips forming a strict line at right angles. She wasn’t obsessive about this. For Anna, it was just as easy to place a pen in its correct position, as it was to place it anywhere else on the desk.
And when she spoke, it was with the same degree of precision, her words carefully chosen and clearly enunciated, albeit with that accent and some slight peculiarities of grammar that were probably inherited from whatever was her native language. One could tell, however, that she was irritated by any sloppiness, carelessness or lack of attention to detail in the work of others. She wouldn’t say anything. But the merest tinge of annoyance that she couldn’t hide would appear in the very corners of her eyes and one could almost see her bite her tongue for although she didn’t approve, it was not her place to criticize others; and she was not the type of person to overstep her authority.
I often thought that Anna might have been a school teacher in her ‘old country’ but I never found the courage to ask her that. In fact, we rarely talked on a personal level beyond the formal greeting in the morning and the customary farewell at the end of the working day. Perhaps I was afraid that she didn’t approve of me because I was young and not as diligent as her. Or perhaps, at that age, I just wasn’t interested in making conversation with a little old lady from a country I barely knew existed. But one time, just before Christmas, when the office atmosphere was more festive, more cheerful than normal, I did venture to ask if she had any plans for the holidays.
“I do not celebrate Christmas,” she replied succinctly, with her customary precision.
“Because you’re Jewish?” I continued to probe, with a level of impertinence that makes me cringe now when I read back what I have just written.
“No,” she contradicted matter-of-factly. “Because it was on Christmas day that the soldiers came and took my son away; and I have never celebrated Christmas since then.”
I was shocked, not only by the content of her explanation but also by the faint trace of emotion that colored her normally stoic expression. I didn’t know what to say. I wished I could have taken back my question. She continued to stare for a moment, not at me but into the distance, perhaps back in time; then she looked briskly down at her desk and resumed working as if the conversation had never taken place.
As you can see, I have never forgotten that moment; and at this time of year I often think of Anna and the unspeakable pain she must have suffered. I wished there was something I could have done; or something I could have said that would have brought some consolation to her; but perhaps it is only those who have suffered to a similar extent who are able to understand the suffering of others enough to offer an appropriate response.
Personally, I have no reason not to celebrate Christmas; and knowing Anna’s story, I count myself immeasurably fortunate for that. Since my childhood ended, the Christmas times I recall most fondly are those we celebrated when our own son was a child. Even shopping for gifts for him was a joy then; as was hanging the Christmas decorations and dressing the tree and surrounding it with mysterious packages in brightly festive wrappings. And on Christmas morning, the greatest gift of all for me was watching him open his presents. He was a patient child as far as this was concerned for he knew that there was a ritual we always followed. After breakfast, around mid-morning, I’d take the car and fetch my mother, then my aunt and bring them back to our home so that we could all be together for the exchange of gifts and the lunch that followed; and soon the floor of our living room would become a multi-colored mess of discarded wrapping paper and boxes and envelopes as one by one the gifts were unveiled and the cards were put on display. It was a scene no different from many, many others played out in homes across the world on that day. The happiest of memories, captured on videotape and on film to remind us, as if we needed reminding, of what happy times they had been; times unspoiled by echoes of a tragic past.
I wish that the world could always be as happy as we were then; and I wish it for everyone, everywhere, whether they celebrate Christmas or not. Joy is a contagion that I would gladly spread if I had the wherewithal to do so. But as I look around me I continue to see sadness, poverty and hunger, persecution and oppression; and there are too many parents whose sons will return no more. For Anna, it was just as easy to place a pen in its correct position, as it was to place it anywhere else on the desk. And I cannot help but imagine what a world it would be if we could simply choose peace and harmony over enmity and discord; and we went ahead and made that choice without giving the alternative a second thought.
Two thousand years ago, a simple man had a simple idea: let us live in peace and love one another. Two thousand years ago. Can we still make it happen?
Peace and goodwill to all.