Photo: Laszlo Vegh
The First Christmas
By Gábor T. Szántó
Translated from Hungarian by Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry
He was shuffling among the Christmas tree vendors in the Lehel Square Market. He had never before bought a Christmas tree but in this winter of 1969 he felt he could no longer hold out; his two children were complaining in an accusatory tone that everyone in their class would have a tree except them. His wife, Anikó, also looked at him with such despair as if the whole world would come to an end if the children had to do without a shitty tree.
Robi, his older son, snivelled when the father blamed him for not understanding: Christmas is not their holiday; neither is Easter even if they get some chocolate eggs every year.
It’s not fair that others have their holiday and we don’t, the younger son Peti said sulkily. Then he went on blinking and watching with trepidation. His brother did not argue. He felt that his rebelliousness would cause pain to his parents. He also feared the consequences and so preferred to close himself off and suffer quietly.
The reason we don’t celebrate Jewish holidays either, the father explained, is that for modern enlightened people religious things are outmoded. Family holidays, birthdays, wedding anniversaries are different, but not saints’ days because they have nothing to do with us.
The children seemed to accept the explanation, but he was aware that they were suffering; when he walked with them to and from school holding their hands, they would glance sadly at the Santa Clauses in the shop windows. Once they even remarked resignedly: Let’s watch it here even if we won’t have a Christmas at home.
This was a jolt to the stomach. He had no counterargument. His children were in distress.
You decide! I don’t want you to regret it later that you gave up your principles because of the children or because of me, Anikó whispered at bedtime when he told her that he was being ground down by indecision.
Why me? You decide, he said. He felt that his wife would like their children to be happy but she wanted to shirk the responsibility because she was not capable of going alone against the taboos her parents had hammered into her.
He stood there in the whirlwind of the market, the characteristic scent of the pine trees filled his nose and as he examined the more suitable ones (their apartment, a modern condominium in the Újlipótváros district, was 2m 80cm high), even after twenty-five years he recalled vividly the Christmas of 1944 when their work camp was near a snow-covered forest.
He had not smelled pines since. He had not gone hiking. It was their elderly neighbour who would take the boys walking in the woods or to the top of János Hill, the same lady who babysat them from their early childhood; he, on the other hand, had no desire to go into Nature, thank you very much.
I have walked enough for a lifetime he grumbled to Anikó, who sighed: You need fresh air. And she knocked on Tante Klári’s door.
He stood there among the pine trees which were tied up in twine and remembered how the stove in the wooden barracks flickered. They did not know whether they should be glad that they had not been driven farther west in the snow or if this unexpected calm should be taken as an ominous sign. Under the circumstances it was impossible to want to push forward even if they suspected that the relaxed attitude was not a good augur. Food was getting scarce, they could not count on a new supply in the middle of the forest. The nearest village was two days’ walk away in snow which reached up to their knees.
In the morning another group showed up, they also set up camp there. Those who were aware of the date knew that they were spending Christmas Eve with the remainder of another forced labour battalion and its guards. A few ornaments hastily made from newspapers were fastened to one of the trees, along with a couple of candles.
To celebrate their meeting and the holiday the soldiers boozed up on apricot brandy and ordered the labourers out of the barracks. They had to line up and be harangued by the senior officer, Captain Ferenczy.
It’s Christmas, you Jews! Don’t you know that it’s a holiday of brotherly love? That is when Jesus was born, the one you crucified. But to prove that we are not like you, we will give you a chance. We will organize a race and only those who fall behind will have to croak. The rest will be let off the hook. This is your Christmas present. He turned to the soldiers. Teams of five will compete with each other from the two battalions. You can only shoot at those who fall behind and belong to the other battalion. Is that clear? You’ve got to have rules both in games and in life.
There were loud guffaws from the guards on both sides.
All right, let’s get ready. If it gets dark you’ll shoot wildly and you might get some of those who are strong enough to carry on.
The labourers pulled off their coats, jackets and sweaters in silence. A few even removed their trousers and stood there freezing in long johns or just their underwear to be sure that nothing would slow them down.
They had to run sixty metres in the snow from the starting line to reach a cliff in an abandoned quarry. Both groups took off when the starting gun was fired. Those whose turn would be later were completely numbed. All they could hear in the surrounding silence was the crunching of the snow, their panting and the whistle of the bullets. They sank up to their knees in the virgin snow as they lifted their legs with panicky movements. The bullets that missed them ricocheted from the rock with an ear-piercing sound.
Does blood stink? asked Váradi from the textile trade, as the two of them hit the wall side by side.
It was not clear whether his companion was just trying to catch his breath or was hit.
I have no idea, why? he said, panting. He did not realize that he was still alive.
Because if it doesn’t then I shit myself.
At that moment whimpering sounds came out of him, neither he nor his companion could tell whether he was laughing or sobbing, and he just collapsed in the snow.
He wanted to get the boys presents which would make their first Christmas memorable. In the import company where he worked his colleagues could, with special permission, get duty free items. As there were two weeks left until Christmas he could make sure that the surprise gift he had looked up in the catalogue would arrive from Czechoslovakia in time. On the other hand he was not willing to buy Christmas ornaments, lights, sparklers and special candies that would be hung on the tree.
You go and buy these lousy trinkets, he said to Anikó, who nodded in silence, and she thought: Once they had made up their minds to go ahead, why did he have to spoil everything by his attitude? Why did they have to feel bad when they could actually enjoy themselves?
Their agreement was that he would carve the trunk and set up the tree in the living room by the window and she would decorate it. He did not even enter the room until it got dark and his wife told him, embarrassed but with childish excitement, that he should get the present from its hiding place because the boys were getting impatient. They lit the sparklers and called the children to come in. The boys stood in awe with flushed faces in front of the tree. The younger one watched the zig-zagging sparks and the blinking coloured lights with his mouth agape. They took in the smells of the phosphorus and pine which filled the room; Robi, for his part, glanced first at the tree and then at his parents, as if expecting them to indicate what he was supposed to do.
His wife pressed his hand behind his back. He let the woman touch him but did not react. When the sparklers had burnt out, the only illumination came form the coloured lights. Anikó turned on the dim lamp beside the sofa but he switched on the chandelier in defiance.
What is this? Robi asked, fingering the joint present with excitement. Peti was already tearing off the golden wrapping paper from the long package. When they had removed the wrapping the present was still not visible: it was covered in a brown cotton bag.
Could it be a fishing rod? Robi looked at his father wondering.
But we never go fishing! Peti, crestfallen, let go of the wrapping paper.
Their father’s poker face and enigmatic smile gave them no hint. The boys undid the narrow opening of the bag but they needed his help to remove the quite heavy Slavia 6-20 air rifle with its black steel barrel, still protected by nylon, from its case.
Wow, this is really cool! the boys exclaimed in appreciation. They kept touching the weapon and, each in turn, put his arm through the sling and hoisted it across his back, and marched around the room. They aimed it to find out how heavy it was. Their mother watched them in alarm. Up to that point the boys had not even had toy guns.
Make sure you don’t aim it at each other or at anyone else! and she whispered in her husband’s ear, Isn’t this going to cause trouble?
He embraced her and pressed her to his side. Anikó’s alarmed face did not relax. In the meantime the boys managed to bend down the barrel with a joint effort to fill the container with air and with their father’s approving nod fired the empty weapon.
Well boys, do you want to try it out?
Yes, yes! Robi and Peti shouted.
Just watch! I will show you how to load it, and took it out of their hands.
But how can we try it out? Robi asked, we don’t have a bull’s eye.
Just wait, the father said still smiling like someone who had thought this through in advance.
The Christmas tree stood in front of the window. He pulled aside the curtain and opened the window. Across from their five-storey apartment building there was a pitch black space that used to be a lumberyard, where now empty lots were awaiting redevelopment. He went back in the middle of the room to join the boys.
We won’t shoot the candy, only the ornaments! he said as he put the tiny lead pellets into the rifle and handed it to his elder son.
Robi took a step back in shock. His eyes were searching his mother’s face, she was clenching her younger son with tears in her eyes.