Christmas 1956 was not the usual celebration for our family. When I returned from ballet school on 21 December, I didn’t know that that would be the last time I would see our home in Central Pest, with its high ceiling, and cosy green tiled ceramic stove which heated the living and dining room at the same time.
Christmas in Hungary
Our Christmas tree was not yet put up, since Central European Roman Catholic countries celebrate Christmas Eve and decorating the tree is part of that celebration, and is done by adults in the family. We children were entertained in a separate room by an aunty and grandmother, while our parents prepared the living or dining room by erecting and decorating the Christmas tree and distributing the presents underneath the tree. Due to our high ceiling and contacts in the countryside, we always managed to get a high tree, which smelt of fresh pine. It was lit by real, small candles secured by special clips. The pine smell was mixed with the smell of melting wax. In addition to glass ornaments, there were speciality Christmas sweets wrapped in colourful paper, different colour glitter and finally my favourite, some magical sparklers.
When the room was ready, a little bell would announce that we children could enter the room, where little Jesus had brought us presents. The darkened room was lit up by the magic of the sparkling tree. We would sing carols while inconspicuously peeping at the parcels under the tree trying to guess which parcel was ours. Of course, I hoped it was the biggest one.
After the parcels were opened, we all sat down for a meal. Traditional fish soup as the main course, as meat was only eaten the following day, 25 December. One couldn’t get any sea fish, Hungary not having access to a sea and being cut off from trade with most other countries. Carp is still the usual fish eaten at Christmas in Hungary and Poland. Poppy seed and nut cake and, if available chestnut purée with whipped cream was the usual dessert. I attach recipes at the end of the article.
Christmas in Baden Württemberg
Sadly, the Christmas in 1956 was very different. When we fled Hungary, we left all our extended family behind. But we were luckier than a lot of other refugees. We had family in the West. On 24 December we travelled by train to my mother’s aunties in Germany. There were no stories by Budapest aunty and grandmother, and no large, decorated Christmas tree. The German aunties rented two rooms from two elderly German ladies. There was a small Christmas tree in the landladies’ living room, but carols were sung in German, a language I didn’t understand and I was afraid that Jesus would not find us in this house of strangers. Would he be able to bring us any presents?
I did get a porcelain doll and my brother got a small train set we all played with. We were lucky children, as many refugees did not have families to host them at Christmas. But it was still tough for us. We missed our comfortable home and close family. And poppy seed cake.
Many of the Christmas traditions are still unchanged in Hungary, except some families who are not religious have adapted to Father Christmas bringing the children’s presents. My cousin who lives in London carries on our Hungarian family tradition and his three young boys still get their presents from Jesus. It is his birth being celebrated, after all. Due to practicalities, it is Father Christmas who delivers the presents.
Not a merry Christmas for all
Christmas is a time for joy, love and giving but, at the same time, an emotionally charged time. We think of loved ones no longer with us. Families without a home and poor families who struggle to give their children the presents their heart desires. Lonely, often elderly people suffer in isolation. Refugees in camps or detention centres are reminded of the homes and loved ones they left behind. Do they manage to make the holidays special for their children?
I was never to see my beloved grandmother again, as she died a few months after we fled Hungary. I missed her, but Mother was very good at recreating Christmas celebrations similar to the ones we had in Budapest, once we had a flat of our own. She managed to somehow get us presents even when we were really poor. I never forget seeing a bicycle under the tree in 1958. It was not new but, for me, it was the most beautiful bike I had ever seen. No expensive gift I was given in later years gave me as much joy as that bicycle.
Maybe we should remember in these days of plentiful Christmas gifts, while we celebrate with our families, how many children are not that lucky. And let us not forget, that Christians are celebrating the birth of a little boy in a manger. His family was homeless. They were poor refugees. If they had come to the UK, would they have been sent to Rwanda?
Miles away from family. Soaked to the bone. Scared for the future.
It’s a far cry from what this time of year should be like for children, but that’s the reality for hundreds of refugee children and their parents in Calais.
Right now, the situation in the north of France is critical. Unrelenting rain and storms have flooded camps, drenching children who only have thin clothes and flimsy shoes as protection. Violent evictions by French police have meant many families have had their tents destroyed and the last of their belongings taken away from them.
Parents, who have risked everything to protect their children from unimaginable horrors of terror and persecution at home, are now left desperately trying to keep them safe once more. Christmas should be magical – but for child refugees in Calais who are struggling to stay warm, it couldn’t be a less special time.
With heavy rain forecast this week, and temperatures dropping to just 8 degrees on Christmas Day, refugee children desperately need tents, warm clothes and shoes. Can you chip in to keep a child in Calais warm this Christmas?Charlotte at Care4Calais