My pastor, Nick Ittzés, was born in Budapest, Hungary. This is one of his earliest and most poignant Christmas recollections. It’s a great reminder of how much God cares about even the seemingly little details of our lives.
We had been put to bed for an afternoon nap, assured that as we slept, “Jézuska” (the Christ child) would come, beautifully decorate our tree, and leave His gifts. Then our parents would waken us to wait for the sound of a tiny bell on our Christmas tree, signaling that the Christ-child had visited us. We would nearly burst with excitement.
Eventually we children found out that our mom and dad had served as stand-ins for Jesus. Nevertheless, their gifts always were truly His gifts.
One Christmas stands out in particular for me. It was the agony-filled end of World War II in Hungary. Though Hungary had pleaded several times to join the Allies, she was rebuffed and lumped with the crumbling Axis.
Air raids punctuated our Advent season. Howling sirens would announce the dreaded bombings and send us fleeing to the basement. No one dared come in from the surrounding countryside because of the fierce air raids. So the stores were empty, groceries unavailable. Mere survival was a daunting challenge.
Could there be a Christmas in the midst of such a torn and broken world? How were my parents to supply the tree and toys we had come to expect of Jesus? Would Jesus deliver such childish things in a collapsed economy and infrastructure?
Our maternal grandparents lived with us. One day shortly before Christmas grandma went down to the entrance of the apartment building. To her amazement, two soldiers were coming toward her, each carrying a Christmas tree.
She approached them and asked: “Would you consider selling one of those trees to me? My husband is a Colonel in the army, and our grandsons are with us. We have no tree.” They insisted she take a tree as a gift.
Custom dictated that the tree be decorated with special homemade candies, decoratively wrapped in find tissue and foil. Of course, no ingredients were available for such luxuries. But mom and dad did have some cube sugar, and some nice toilet paper which doubled for tissue. Someone had saved the foil wrappers from cigarette packages. Thus the “candies” appeared.
Somehow they located some candles for the tree, too. But what about toys?
Later, Grandma and Grandpa wandered onto a small side-street, and happened on a tiny shop. There, a gentleman was selling wooden toys he had fashioned: wooden trains and some beautifully-made building blocks. I still remember the blocks. There was also an old set of blocks back at the apartment.
But what about Christmas dinner? The Lord took care of that too. My dad, a surgeon, had saved a young boy’s leg from amputation. His parents who were farmers showed up one day. To express their gratitude they brought a chicken, flour, butter, milk, eggs and more!
Soon it was time for the Christ-child to arrive. On schedule, the little bell rang, and we were ushered into the living room, to be greeted by a tree resplendent in dressed-up sugar cubes, other ornaments, and bright pinpoints of candle lights.
We sang a hymn, prayed, and then got to play. My younger brother, Eugene, saw the new blocks and said, “Those belong to Nick. The old ones are just fine for me.” War could not stop the Christ from visiting a family that dared to hope in Him!
In my childish enthusiasm I said, “This was the best Christmas ever.” In some ways I guess it was. Not the richest, but the most clearly a sign of Christ in our midst, whose love overcame death, life, angels, demons, past and present, powers, height and depth, and all else in creation.
Indeed, even death. It was my little brother’s last Christmas on earth. Quietly, for some time, I would look for him with a broken heart, not fully understanding death. But he is safe with the same Jesus who visited us in the winter of 1944. More than sixty Christmases have passed since then. Somehow, each Christmas seems to gain significance from that one most amazing Selah in the midst of ruin. Christ still comes to those who will receive Him. Always!