I was born in Törökkoppány, a small village in Somogy County, Hungary. Today Törökkoppány is smaller – with regard to size of population – than it used to be. Many of my memories were formed there and I find myself recalling them more and more often. I remember the baroque church, where I spent eight years as a ministráns, which is the Hungarian word for “altar boy”. And I have vivid memories of the time of waiting and preparation for Christmas.
I am not familiar with the origins of the tradition, but on Christmas Eve afternoon, the village children – of whom there were still so many – would run up and down the streets ringing handbells in anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. I took part until I was about ten years old, when I found out it was my parents who put up the Christmas tree. But the important thing was not that, but rather our mutual joy!
I also have vivid memories of the magical ambience of Midnight Mass and the short walk, taken so often in glorious snowfall and cold, from our house to the church, and vice versa after Midnight Mass had concluded. And then of consuming the pumpkin that had been roasting while we were gathered at church... Our family was together: mother, father, both sets of grandparents, maternal great-grandmother, mother’s younger brother and grandfather’s widowed younger sister, whose husband had died a hero in the faraway Soviet Union in 1942. We would evoke his memory and of other family members who had passed, including my father’s uncle, after whom I had been named. Titular platoon leader Corporal Sándor Szakály (also known as “Sanyi the Baker”, the first man in the Szakály family who had not been a cobbler / bootmaker) had fallen at the Don Bend in 1943.
I could thank my forebears for keeping my feet warm in the cold church, whose interior not even the collective breathing of the congregation could help warm up. My little boots always radiated warmth. Just like the humble nativity scene in the church and the eyes of my fellow congregants. While singing Christmas hymns together, we would forget about our cares and problems, for love would show even in people who normally did not deem it necessary. But the truth is we have the greatest need for love...and faith...and hope.
May the spirit of Christmas find us all this year!
Image: ©Katalin Szalma