by Eva Kende
(Visit Eva's site by clicking here.)
Post war Hungary, when I was growing up, was no bed of roses. Political oppression permeated every facet of life, even that of small children who hardly understood what it was all about, but sensed that things were somehow out of alignment. Christmas was officially abolished and replaced by the "Festival of the Spruce Tree".
I remember in grade 2, 1948, what should have been the traditional school Christmas play, was replaced by "Sahalini Visit", a drama about Lenin visiting that outpost. We were crammed into the large dingy gym. There were a few naked light bulbs burning, but no light from the large windows penetrated, because brown paper was used to replace the glass that was shattered during the house-to-house battle that took place 4 years previously in Budapest. I can't recall much about the play, but still remember watching in fascination the grade 5 girl, it was an all girl's school, playing Lenin with a pointed white beard made of cotton batting. The beard bobbed up and down as she said her lines, fiercely in the fashion of Lenin, revealing her fresh young face from time to time. All forms of religion or reference to religious holidays were banned. People whispered about politics, church and religion, taking care not to be overheard by the children who might inadvertently repeat an unguarded comment.
Mikulas, the celebration of Saint Nickolas or Santa Clause on December 6th was considered a secular holiday and much more fun for us children. No whispers were needed, no subterfuge. We polished our boots the night before and put them in the window for Mikulas to fill them with fruit and candy, if we were good, or with a switch of leafless branches if we were bad. No one I knew ever got a switch. The only switch I ever saw was gold sprayed and laden with lovely candy decoration in the candy shop window. I once asked my mother for one of those, but she said she couldn't afford anything that fancy. So, when I saw a man come out of the shop carrying one of these decorated switches wrapped in tissue paper, I decided he must be a millionaire. I had no reason to complain. Both my boots were always filled to the brim and, often a small package of gifts were beside them. Later in that day, a number of relatives would drop by with a chocolate bar or a small bag of sour drops for me.
I was quite oblivious to the fact that money, food and consumer goods were scarce and caused hardship for the adults. I didn't realize that butcher shops should sell meat, not just the great slab of lard that graced the center of the counter at the shop nearest to us. The grocery shop carried bread, milk, butter, bologna, and jam in a block. I knew that butter was for special occasions only, because it was expensive, and didn't miss the salami, sliced ham, sardines, and other fine foods that my grandmother reminisced about. I never acquired a taste for them.
I would not have missed eggs if the adults wouldn't talk about it so much. Eggs were scarce and coveted. If a store got in a small flat, word would spread in the neighborhood like wild fire: "They are distributing eggs at the corner store!" They made it sound like it was being given away and it surprised me when my mother paid the clerk. Usually they rationed it to one egg per person. Often the line-up was 15-20 minutes long and you never knew whether the supply would last until you get your turn.
Great-aunt Anna was a marvelous cook. She was raised on a big estate with numerous servants, in the country, but moved to Budapest years ago to keep house for her brother-in-law when her sister died. He had a lovely apartment in his own six-unit building in the Buda Hills, in the green-belt of Budapest. In summer, Aunt Anna grew vegetables in the garden, canned the fruit from the trees, and tended her prized red climbing roses. In fact, I always see her in my minds eye with her soft and kind face framed by a bunch of fragrant red roses. I often followed her into her kitchen. Chatting with her while she prepared coffee and a tray of treats for her visitors was always special to me. Her kitchen was a magic place. The counter was a great marble slab and she would concoct wonderful candy, spreading it on the cold marble to cool and shape. I was in awe of the beautiful Delft blue coffee grinder on her wall and watched her as she decorated the coffee with a dab of apricot meringue to make it look as dramatic as any confectionery shop delicacy downtown.
One Sunday early in December, I caught the adults discussing something in hushed tones. "....we have to do something...", "...she is really depressed...", "....she is too old to understand or to change..."-filtered out from the living room. The following week found my mother who hated line-ups, standing in line for one egg in this store, another in another store. Even my grandmother who always felt anything to do with the kitchen was beneath her, went in search of eggs and actually stood in line to get some, carrying her precious egg home in the pocket of her fur coat. She declared eons ago that a "lady" doesn't carry groceries, consequently, whatever didn't fit in her huge pockets, wasn't bought. Eventually all the eggs that the extended family could procure were taken to aunt Anna.
On Christmas Morning we took the streetcar into the Buda Hills, leaving behind the brown muddy slush of Pest, for the white snow covered hills of Buda. We trudged up the hill from the streetcar to the house in the crunchy snow. In Pest you never saw much white snow. As soon as it fell, the crowds mashed the glistening white into a brown slushy mess that got your boots dirty. When we got there, Aunt Anna embraced us in a warm welcome. A few other relatives were there already and I made my rounds for hugs and approvals between them, eventually ending up sharing the big armchair with my great-uncle.
The Christmas tree stood in the dining room. It wasn't very big, but I was riveted by its beauty. It had a gold star on top, multicolored metallic glass baubles, white twisted candles in clip-on holders and "angel hair", glass wool, spread over the whole. The flickering candles played their dance over the ornaments and the whole effect was magnified by the snowy white "angel hair".
Next to the tree on the table was a huge silver tray that held the most fantastic collection of cookies and pastry I have ever seen. Aunt Anna bustled in with coffee for the adults and a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream for me. She passed the tray of cookies around and admonished everyone to take more.
When everyone was settled, Anna, statuesque in her traditional embroidered and beaded costume, stood beside the grand piano and sang the old traditional carols accompanied by her nephew Luli. Her clear soprano rang through the apartment, her face was up-lifted with eyes shinnying bright. Her happiness radiated like a beacon through the whole apartment or may be through the whole world. You could almost touch it.
When she finished, the company broke up into smaller groups to converse, more cookies were passed around, more uncles remarked on my growth, and aunts commented on my dress. Luli continued to play well-known jazz pieces of the 30's, winding up with "Old Man River", his voice as deep as he could make it to imitate Paul Robson.
Many great Christmases have come and gone since, but the spirit of love and peace that was in that room on that day remains etched in my soul.
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