I grew up in a small town in Europe. My family was not wealthy in the material sense, but where love of family was concerned we were very rich. Our winters were hard, and snow was never in small supply. Living in close proximity to the Danube, the humid winter air was bone chilling. The snow squeaked under our feet, and our noses stuck together. Every child acquired the skill of snowman building and snowball fights were honed to a fine art. Snow days at school were unheard of, unless you had to travel to another town that was too far for walking and the trains got stuck. This happened infrequently, but when it did celebrations were in order and we were in for a day of hard sledding. Our parents bundled us up in plenty of warm clothes, most of which we would shed as soon as we were out of sight of our mother.
Early in December the excitement of what was to come started to stir in our souls. Every chimney in town was spewing fragrant smoke that competed with our foggy breaths. Chestnut vendors on street corners filled brown paper bags with their delicacies that kept our fingers deliciously warm. The one grocery store in town stocked up on shoe polish before the 5th of December, because on that night all the kids would feverishly shine the only pair of shoe they had so as not to be embarrassed by the visiting Saint Nicholas. Before we would retire for the night, we would unlatched the window and carefully place our spotless shoes on the windowsill hoping to find it filled next morning with sweets that we have not seen since last Saint Nicholas Day - oranges, figs, almonds, a candy bar. Some of us lucky kids were even visited by Santa Claus. He usually came knocking on the door at night, and we had to fess up to him our past misdemeanors, promising to be good from then on. Outdoor holiday decorations were unheard of back then. Celebrations were mostly observed indoors and in our hearts. Baking began in earnest after St Nicholas day and our homes never smelled so good.
The freshly cut Christmas tree was not assembled until the evening of the 24th.
I had to go to bed early and try to fall asleep, which I usually did, for I was worn out from the excitement. Innocently I dreamed of the angels who would bring the tree and leave a present under it. My mind never questioned how angels could fly with all those trees and gifts, not to mention bring it into our house without any of us hearing them. Once my parents were convinced that I drifted into dreamland, they then set to work at a feverish pace decorating the tree my father’s friend cut that afternoon and delivered to our house under the cover of darkness. It was always a Douglas fir, because its branches were made for hanging ornaments, and its refreshing pine scent was intoxicating. We had very few store-bought decorations. They were expensive and you had to travel to a larger town than ours to find them. But this was never a problem. My mom’s specially prepared candy in fancy wrappers paired with cookies with holes in their middle, white tissue paper snowballs, gilded walnuts, apples that were preserved from the summer in the attic were more than enough to dress up the little evergreen.
Then, just after the candles were lit on the tree, my father would tap a fork on a glass that sounded like a bell an angel would ring, and I would wake to this wondrous sight. My parents hid behind the door and after I made the beautiful discovery, they would also join me, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, as if they were also just woken up by the bell. The soft gleam from the candles reflected in our eyes and slowed our breaths.
The room was aglow and deliciously warm not only from the candles but also from the love we felt for each other. The few unwrapped presents that were left behind by the angels were maybe a book, perhaps a doll, and possibly a warm scarf. I never had a lot of presents, but whatever I received I’m sure was more than my parents could afford. While beautiful Christmas music played on the radio my father would grab his camera to preserve these moments forever.
When the evening turned into night we bundled up in our warmest winter garb and hurried to the old, hillside church for midnight mass, where we sang our hearts out. After the short service to standing room only we hugged our neighbors and passed out kisses to all our relatives as the bells tolled. On the way home our footsteps were muffled by the softly falling snow that made this evening truly magical and forever lasting in our memories.
Marika Ujvari, a writer living in Windsor, Colorado, is a frequent visitor to Nantucket.