On spending Christmas without my family, or close friends, in Budapest this year

The one thing I like about spending the holidays alone is that there is no frenzy of Christmas shopping. Not that I shop a lot when I am in the US with my family, but I definitely think about which presents to put under the tree for whom, which usually means buying things. Then I have to drive out to the shops, although almost never the dreaded mall, and buy things. This year, I did take the tram to the Christmas fairs, mostly to browse the beautiful handmade craft items, and sent a few people the colourful bead necklaces I strung to pass the long dark evenings. I also wrote masses of Christmas cards, lovely Giotto madonnas, to friends all over the world.

Apart from that small but loving effort, envisioning each person as I wrote their name and licked the stamps to put on their envelope, since I am alone most of the time, and have a daily prayer and meditation practice, I have focused on Advent as a season of waiting, waiting for God to be born, both in Bethlehem, and in my heart. This feels like the spiritual version of the Christmas spirit that is otherwise expressed in our impersonation of the Magi, bringing gifts to one another as tokens of love and recognition, usually hoping for something special in return.

Assuming that I would be alone on Christmas eve and Christmas day, since I knew all my close friends here would be out of town for the day itself, I sent out an email to all the members of our English speaking mass community inviting anyone else who was alone, to come to my apartment for dinner on the 24th. I envisioned feasting with strangers who would answer the random invitation from someone they didn’t know, but go to mass with each week, creating communitas over some simple dishes I would have enjoyed cooking. No one answered the email, though, so God must have wanted me to be alone, for a home birth!

In anticipation of this fantasy social occasion, but also for my own enjoyment, I bought a small Christmas tree from one of the many vendors who have set up their wares in Hunyadi Ter, where I live. There are trees of every height, width and genus available, stacked up against the sidewalks and small sheds I can see from my windows. Vendors arrive in the before dawn cold and stay well past dark, standing around for twelve to fourteen hours hoping to make enough to live on for a few months. They stamp their feet to keep warm, smoke endless cigarettes, and chat to mark time. Today is the last Saturday before Christmas, and sunny, so there are plenty of buyers. At night the square is full of sleeping pines and firs, covered with tarpaulins, watched over by a tired guard until the vendors come to relieve him.

I bought my tree from the one young woman who had actually priced each of her trees, since my Hungarian is not up to haggling, although I was able to haggle over the price of apples in the market the other day! Christmas trees are beyond my capacity right now though, so I bought a charming specimen for HUF3000, or ten euros, and a few handmade decorations from a woman who has a stand at a small Christmas fair near Kalvin Ter. Zsuzsa, who tells me she is seventy, makes her hordes of angels and nativity scenes from corn husks, walnut shells, gourds, and other natural materials, and also spends all day and much of the evening at her stall, or her “pavillion” as she grandly calls it, gesturing me to enter with a sweep of her arm.

Not to be outdone, I made some decorations of my own last night, stringing rose hips and mini-paprikas that I bought from some elderly women at the market across the square, and rescuing a small ham tin from the trash so I could paste in a nativity scene, which I decorated with pine needles. I also have two crimson poinsettias, an advent wreath, and some narcissus I had brought over from the US as bulbs to force here.

My Christmas decorations are sufficient, simple, and beautiful, in my eyes at least. When I bought some homemade camembert from my cheese man on the square this morning, and he asked if I was ready for Christmas, I was able to say “yes!”. The best thing, of course, would be to have my family here, three sons, their partners and two grandchildren for the whole holiday! Maybe next year. There’s still four more days to go, so maybe some lonely stragglers will write and accept my invitation to the feast!