As an only child born to immigrant Hungarian parents in Northwestern Ontario, I often felt like I was stuck between two worlds. There was the public world of the surrounding culture I experienced via school and playground, TV and books. Then there was the private world at home with my mom and dad, still very much rooted in “the old country,” as we called it. This dual-culture disconnect was never more palpable to me than at Christmastime.

Hungarian Christmas traditions are a bit different from what most Canadians are familiar with. For one thing, our family was always the last in our neighbourhood to put up a tree, waiting until the day of Christmas Eve. The night before, Mom, Dad and I would head off into the thick bush at the edge of town, chop down a tree, rope it to my toboggan and tow it home down the snow-covered streets of Thunder Bay. The next day, we’d spend the afternoon decorating it and stacking the presents below its fresh green branches. After a light supper, we’d gather around and spend the evening opening our gifts under the warm, kaleidoscopic glow of the Christmas tree lights. It was just the three of us, sharing a happy evening as a family.

To this day, I wonder how my folks always managed to give me a Christmas with all the trimmings, no matter how tight things were. Sure, they’d give each other a gift or two, but the majority of the presents under that late-arriving tree would have my name on them.

Unlike other Canadian kids, I was never told that Santa brought the gifts. Rather, in a tradition whose logic I never quite grasped, Santa (or “Mikulás,” Hungarian for “Nicholas”) played some undefined role but it was in fact the baby Jesus (“Kicsi Krisztus,” literally “Tiny Christ”) who was credited with bringing both tree and presents. Not perhaps the most Biblically informed tradition, but still pointing in its own way to the great Giver of the greatest gift of all.

Over time, other people brought new facets to our family traditions. There was a lady named Mrs. Cross who had befriended my folks during their first years in Canada. Other than her name, all I knew was that she was Scottish and an avid curler. Every year before Christmas, she’d show up at our door with a box full of baking: shortbread and fruitcake and my favourite to this day, mincemeat tarts. Strangely enough, I never saw Mrs. Cross at any other time. Like a comet of kindness she’d enter our orbit once a year, deposit her box of goodies, and then depart till the next December.

In later years of my childhood, a local Hungarian family that had come to faith in Christ began looking for ways to share the love of Jesus with us, especially at Christmas. After that, we never had to trudge through the snow and haul our tree home on a toboggan.  A few days before December 24, we’d find a freshly felled tree planted in the snowbank beside our back door, waiting to be brought in on Christmas Eve morning. And there were gifts, too; not just toys or clothes, but also Bibles, in Hungarian and in English, in hopes that our family might crack open the Word of God and find Life in its pages.

I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, but I’m grateful God put me in a loving and stable family where Christmas was truly a time of peace and joy. I’m thankful He placed His Word in my hands at an early age, even though it sat on the shelf for years. When I was at last hungry for that Word, it was there waiting for me.

Looking back at those Christmases, standing as they do at the crossroads of two cultures, it helps me appreciate how Christ’s gift of salvation is offered to people of all nations and languages. What’s more, through the kindness of my folks and Mrs. Cross and that Hungarian family and so many others, I came to realize I wasn’t in fact stuck between two worlds. I was experiencing the best of them both.

As for our tardy Christmas tree, it would make up for its late start and hang around until January 6, the feast of Epiphany. It’s the day on which Western church tradition celebrates the visit of the Magi and the manifestation of Christ to gentiles like them – and like us.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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