I have been in Canada now for 38 years. But every once in a while, usually around the holidays, I get homesick and reminisce about the ‘good ole days’ in Hungary; the snow – deep, noses rosy from the cold, but hearts warm and teeming with the spirit of the season.
A Hungarian Christmas really kicks off much earlier than Dec. 25th. Actually, December 6th, is St. Nicholas Day; the children gathered together, shoes at the window – hoping for fortune to smile and fill them with goodies. The notion of ‘presents’ in North America usually add up to a hefty credit card bill come January. But in Hungary, it’s the simple pleasures that acquire more meaning; children, hoping for hand-wrapped cookies, candy or chocolates. Good children were always rewarded for their virtue the past eleven months. But those who had been more naughty than nice knew there were reprisals, in the form of a branch, known as ‘virgacs’, placed in lieu of the more inspired goodies. Okay, so maybe even those that were ‘less than perfect’ still found reasons to rejoice on the 6th.
In Hungary, St. Nicholas is a revered figure from history, not quite the fanciful creation with the bulbous belly, red suit and long white beard we know here; but just as benevolent. From Dec. 6th to the 24th, the mood decidedly changes; people filled with that special glow of the season. Neighbor visits neighbor, old friends renew their acquaintances and family draw nearer still. Time-honored alliances are rekindled and new friends are made. Maybe even a romance or two gets on the agenda. After all, it’s Christmas. The heart, lighter than the head, looking forward to all the cozy congregations leading up to the blessed 24th.
Incidentally, Christmas trees go up on the 24th; not those made of pine, but branches cleaved from the deciduous kind; barren brushwood to be adorned with brightly painted, hand-made ornaments, festoons of beaded candy or popcorn and the occasional hand-wrapped treat to be enjoyed at the annual Christmas banquet. The 24th is the biggest day, where presents of every shape and kind are exchanged. Again, ‘presents’ are of the more modest ilk. Sweaters, perhaps, to keep everyone warm, and shawls, pants; practical souvenirs that can be used all year long. Toys were a luxury, you see, and very much appreciated.
The highlight of the 24th is, of course, midnight mass; everyone linked together as they meander between snowy bowers; the night clear, frosty and starry-bright; children frolicking with one another, or racing ahead of the adults on the road to church. Candlelit mass is always a very moving religious experience; a chance to reflect on the glories of God with anticipation for his love to be spread among the parishioners as they join in the choral celebration with voices raised up in song. Afterward, the quiet trudge through the crisp night concludes in silent reflection.
To awaken Christmas morning on the 25th is to look forward to yet another round of parties; the dawn – lazily giving way to late morning brunch and then, the planning of a more elaborate meal for later in the evening. Men gathered, share a good drink and perhaps a pipe or cigarette. Women conspire in the kitchen to produce a fabulous feast fit for a king. Roasted meat is a delicacy. So, the sight of a pig or lamb on the spit is cause for great excitement. Oh, how well we will all dine tonight!
As the sun sets, the children share their presents and play together while the adults talk, laugh, tell stories and express their gladness for the good fortune of being near and dear to so many in their community. Life seems almost to begin anew – or perhaps, reset on all the struggles and strife endured during the past eleven months; ill-will and bitterness giving way to a newfound renewal of hope that the pending New Year will provide more joys than sorrows, and greater prosperity for all.
Christmas is not just a season in Hungary, but very much a state of mind. We pray for forgiveness and strength to meet the new without old prejudices. We find it in our hearts to forgive, warmed by more than cocoa or a good shot of brandy. We spend what we have, though mostly our time, with those who mean the world to us. And we recognize that the wonder of the season is not to be discovered much further than our own backyards.
For life is preciously felt and ever more appreciated as the hours dwindle to a close. As time goes by, the precient affections for those who love, and are very much loved by others in return, sets the tone for our tenacious resolve to say with genuineness, Merry Christmas…and a very Happy New Year. These are my fondest wishes for all of you too.
So, God bless and keep you safe and warm. And yes, ’tis the season’…jolly and good and full of the riches that life has to offer.
We give thanks. I extend mine to you and yours.
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