Feeling nostalgic about Christmases past

“And you no longer feel what it is like to live…what it is to love.” (Gy. Illyés: A sentence About
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Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on old memories.

“And you no longer feel what it is like to live…what it is to love.” (Gy. Illyés: A sentence About Tyranny)

Of all my childhood experiences, it is the Christmases that are the most outstanding.

The Communist regime in Hungary did not recognise Christmas officially. They renamed Christmas as ‘Pine Celebration’, as if it was the pine tree that people were celebrating.

Big Brother did not tolerate any authority other than his own, so the regime simply ignored Jesus’ birthday. But not the population. What the regime particularly loathed was that Christmas was the celebration of love not towards the Communist Party, but in relation to another Messiah; Christ.

In practice, just about everybody in Hungary celebrated Christmas — even most of the communists. Christmas there is celebrated on the eve of December 24.

The weather was typically freezing outside, most often heavy snow covered the streets. But inside our home it was warm and exciting and for that night communism was completely forgotten.

“Just remember that in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed which with the sun’s love, in the spring becomes the rose” – so goes the reminder, in the song, Rose.

Well, far beneath the bitter snows of communist tyranny, there lay the seed of love in our family.

It was relayed through my parents, particularly at Christmas. It came in big enough doses to thaw the frost of loveless communism and make us children blossom with delight.

No matter how harsh the snow may have been outside, inside in our play room every Christmas was cozy.

The heat was not just generated by the tiled, tall, wood fire heater in the room. Much of it came from our excitement: my father locking himself in the play room, secretly decorating the tree and arranging our much awaited Christmas presents.

Meanwhile my mother was rushing to finish cooking the Feast of the Year; that special Christmas dinner. This routine continued right through my childhood.

We children could hardly contain our excitement about what presents ‘little Jesus’ would deliver us this time.

It was only with the death of my Dad in 1964 when I was 17, and with him of those memorable Christmas nights in Hungary, that I was reduced for a while, to what Illyés says above, namely, that I could “no longer feel what it is like to live… what it is to love”.

In the Hungarian Christmas tradition the beautiful symbology of the birth of baby Christ representing the gift of love to humanity gained concrete manifestation in giving and receiving presents on the eve of his adopted birthday, December 24.

The parents’ gifts were not supposed to come from them, rather they were seen as presents from baby Jesus. So it was Jesus not Santa who brought the presents. Santa came days earlier when we got smaller presents from him like lollies and chocolates staffed into our big Christmas stockings.

Every year my father would complain for weeks before Christmas that this time it would be less rich than the last because we were poorer and therefore we children should not expect to get all the presents that we hoped for.

Every year we fell for this and braced ourselves for disappointment. Yet we were never disappointed. Every Christmas we received more presents than we could have hoped for even in our wildest dreams!

In Hungary in the 1950s it was only at Christmas and on our birthdays that we received presents and had feasts. Of these, Christmas was the bigger occasion. It was not like today’s consumer society where one can get presents and feast throughout the year.

It was the rarity back then that made these events extra special. One of my favourite dishes was goose liver in aspic that my Mum cooked for Christmas Eve. It was placed in the cold space between the double windows, while the snow was falling outside, to ensure the aspic would set and tremble nicely by the time the dish was served up at the Christmas table.

While our parents were busy with the preparations for Christmas Eve, my sister and I went to the special Christmas church service during the afternoon. The topic was typically about the importance of love and I felt always moved by these services. From the church we routinely snuck into the cake shop for our pre-dinner cabbage strudels.

At 7pm sharp, the alarm clock went off at home in the play room indicating we were now allowed to enter. All the lights were switched off, so we wouldn’t be able to see what presents were under the tree.

Excited with anticipation, we moved into the dark room, lit dimly by the many candles on the Christmas tree and by the bedazzling sparklers, which my father set off simultaneously.

Their sulphureous smoke, mingled with the smell of the pine tree, added a special magic to the occasion. All four of us stood in front of the Christmas tree and sung a carol, called From Heaven The Angel. We weren’t allowed to touch our presents until the song was finished.

I wrote a verse describing such a typical Christmas Eve:

‘FROM HEAVEN THE ANGEL’

‘FROM HEAVEN THE ANGEL HAS COME DOWN TO YOU…’

Yes the angel did come to us,
To Budapest, 55 Rákóczi Road, every year when Christmas was with us.

‘SHEPHERDS, SHEPHERDS…’

We stood before the Christmas tree, at seven in the evening,
Dad, Mum, Sister and I doing our From Heaven The Angel singing.
The candles flickered in the dark room, from the tree brunches hung lollies and angel hair
And my mother had already set the table for the Christmas dinner to share.

‘SO AS YOU HURRY TO BETHLEHEM, YOU MAY SEE HIM, MAY SEE HIM’

My eyes anxiously searched under the tree for my presents in the faint light:
Is there a scooter, a stamp album or at least a tape recorder, right?
For Dad said again, as always, that I should better hear:
He had no money to meet all my needs this year!

‘SON OF GOD WHO WAS BORN IN STABLE, IN STABLE…’

Gee, I would have loved to switch on the light and onto my presents pounce,
But till ‘From Heaven The Angel’ was over, nobody could move, not even an ounce!

‘HE SHOULD BECOME YOUR SAVIOUR, INDEED, INDEED!’

The smell of baked goose and braised cabbage had been spreading
But in my and my sister’s tummies two cabbage strudels were already swelling.

‘BESIDE HIM LAY HIS SWEET MOTHER MARY, MARY…’

For each Christmas Eve while Dad stayed at home to decorate,
My sister and I went to church, then to the strudels shop and secretly ate.

‘IN THE STABLE RESTS, AMIDST THE CATTLE LIES, HER HOLY SON, HOLY SON’

At last, the lights were switched on and for sure,
There were the scooter, the album, the tape recorder; all and more
And as I gratefully hugged my Dad for fulfilling my dreams and exceed,
Sweet love embraced us this Christmas again, indeed, indeed!

Fifty-three years passed since my last childhood Christmas in Hungary. But every year since then, even if we can only do it on the phone, my sister, two years my senior and I, revive the memory of those inimitable Christmases by singing this carol, From Heaven The Angel, together on Christmas Eve.

It took me years to learn to get into the spirit of Christmas in Australia. It was hard to adjust from a childhood of white Christmases in freezing winter to the Oz Christmas in the heat of the summer.

But of course, the more fundamental loss was leaving my childhood behind in Hungary at the age of 17 together with those white Christmases.

However, with the arrival of our own children and my Aussie wife insisting we have a real pine Christmas tree every year, looking at the lit up tree on Christmas Eve and watching the faces of the kids as they unwrapped their Christmas presents in the morning, I often had flashbacks to my Hungarian Christmases.

Blessed are you all who have grandchildren as you watch their excitement at Christmas. We are yet to have them.

But:

Is Christmas Today Really What It Used To Be?

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Isn’t that right? Right!
We aren’t kids any more. The thrill is not the same; not quite.

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Right? Wrong!
Kids’ Christmas excitement is just as strong!

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Right? Right!
Where is mother’s stuffed chicken we dreamt of whole night?

Now kids can feed on chooks daily at Red Rooster, Kentucky or Charcoal Chicken.
And they eat it without song and dance, let alone a cancan!

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Isn’t that right? Right!
Our children have more than we had; wasn’t this worth the fight?

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Right? Right!
To us prezzies were special, now kids get bored overnight!

And what shall we buy them? They have everything!
Each Christmas they want an ever bigger thing!

Christmas isn’t what it used to be! Right? Wrong!
Children are still ready for that special song!

Take them by the hand and tell them of the mystery!
Of that amazing baby boy and mother Mary!

Tell them that if they sing with all their heart,
They will feel special through day and night!

And when they find tingling tears of joy sparkle bright in their eyes,
The spirit of Christmas is here, worth more than money can buy!

And this spirit is the same today as it was yesteryear,
So have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Were your childhood Christmases special? What are your family Christmas traditions?

  1. Shereen  

    What an amazing storyteller you are! I enjoyed the poem you included at the end. Some of the old spirit of Christmas is dying, but some aspects are still alive and can be celebrated forever more!

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