by Jonathan B. Rickert
Sometimes a Christmas tree is more than just a decorated evergreen.
In connection with Christmas 1994, the last Yule celebration in Bucharest for me and my wife Gerd before our transfer back to Washington at the completion of our tour, we hosted a large holiday party for many of our Romanian friends. The lovely Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) residence on Strada Pangratti was richly decorated for the season. The focal point was the large Christmas tree standing in the living room next to the staircase leading to the second floor. The tree was well over twenty feet tall and beautifully trimmed, with electric lights and decorations from the United States, my wife’s native Sweden, Romania, and other countries where we had served. For us it was a delight to behold as it and the decorations held so many associations with family and Christmases past.
Our guests all seemed to enjoy themselves, eagerly sampling the generous selection of seasonal goodies on offer, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to share our holiday with them. One guest even brought with him a group of a cappella singers, who enriched the festive atmosphere with lovely traditional Romanian colinde, or Christmas carols.
Another guest struck a serious note, however, when he pulled us aside and told us with emotion how important the tree was to him. He explained that during the grim communist years, when Christmas and other religious holidays were downplayed, if not eliminated entirely, the annual lighted and decorated Christmas tree at the DCM’s residence had served as a beacon of hope for him and many others. It was easily visible from the street through the outsized living room windows. He lived in the same neighborhood as ours and said that whenever he had passed by in the December gloom and glanced furtively through the windows, the tree stood as a rebuke to the dreary reality of life under communism and a reminder that a different, better existence still could be hoped for. He was delighted to be able to enjoy the tree at close quarters with us for the first time, instead of vicariously from afar.
The Romanian’s words touched us deeply and reminded us that, especially in a closed or authoritarian society, not only what we as Americans do and say but also how we live our daily lives have an impact on those with whom we come into contact, and even some who observe us from a distance. Public diplomacy indeed is much more than “just” cultural and educational exchanges, scholarships and travel grants, libraries, and the like, as important as all of those are. Since learning what our tree in Bucharest, and those of our predecessors, had meant to people who had been forced to live under communism for so many years, I always have looked at Christmas trees with much greater appreciation.
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.