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Our First Christmas in America, 70 Years Ago
Our First Christmas in America, 70 Years Ago

Top: Side view of our apartment, with front door; bottom: The Wards' grocery store and Post Office

Here I sit at the typewriter on the last day of the year, to write the last of this year’s News. 

Christmas too is over.  I didn’t get to Paprikás Weiss (a Hungarian specialty store in New York at the time) any more, but it was just as well, because if I remember correctly they advertised the real Hungarian szaloncukor (Christmas candy) at $1.50 (or perhaps $1.20) a pound, when sugar sells for 9 (nine!) cents – to be more precise, 10 pounds cost 91 cents.  That’s why, instead, Vivy made six different kinds of szaloncukor, and the whole family cut the wrapping and wrapped them the night before.  Remy suggested that we should get a small machine to cut the szaloncukor wrappers because, as we counted, we had cut the wrappers ourselves more often than we bought the beautiful Stuehmer brand.  It’s interesting that this kind of wrapping is unkown abroad.

There was trouble with the candle holders too, because you can’t get them here either (you probably can, it’s just that I haven’t found their source yet).  Here everyone uses electric candles and globes for decorating, so Vivy and Remy, with great difficulty, fastened the the pretty little red candles to the tree with wire, and together we put up the red, white and green wrapped szaloncukor.  Only Erika did not help, because after last year’s visit of the angels, she now declared that she would rather not take part in decorating the Christmas tree but would rather like to see it when it was finished.

In the morning, Erika and I delivered our small gifts around the village – a few small items for the Vajk family, and two beigli (poppyseed rolls).  But we had our comeuppance with that, because the last night Louise set to work in earnest and baked a finer beigli than ours.  Although ours was prepared a week earlier to be sent away...

We took a small tray of beigli to the Wards, to our landlords and to Elizabeth Good, that is, Joó Erzsébet.  The Wards are a little round couple, who have a grocery store half way between Raul’s and us, in a small white wooden shack under large trees, next to the fire station. It is also the post office, located at the back of the grocery store, with some 100 P.O. boxes and a small counter. Every Sunday morning, the Wards take the Vajk children and Erika to church in Princeton in their beautiful black car. They do it out of kindness and that’s why we brought them the beigli now.

Joó Erzsébet was delivering the mail with her car; for her, we merely put the small package on her porch, and we also hung a few szaloncukor on it.  This moved the little old round lady so much that while I was taking a nap in the afternoon, her car stopped in front of our door (literally!) and she handed Vivy a package containing canned fruit, a bottle of wine, and a box of apples. 

In the afternoon, having decorated the tree, we placed everyone’s presents on Remy’s bed which was covered with the cserge (a rough woolen blanket from Transylvania, often used as a bedspread), as well as on the covered nightstand and the floor, and covered each of them with a silk scarf, so they wouldn’t see their presents ahead of time.  For me, we also put the typewriter there, and for Vivy, the electric iron. Vivy lit the candles and we sang several beautiful Hungarian Christmas songs.

Vivy received a silver-plated butter dish (since butter had been a very scarce commodity in Germany after the War, this was symbolic of our improved situation. EPF), and a breakfast set of dark green glazed earthenware, which was very inexpensive in one of the department stores in New York.  Vivy was very happy because, after five years,  she was very tired of having four or five different cups or saucers for the four of us, according to what we managed to get from here or there.  So our breakfast table looked very good the following morning, it’s just that we still don’t have a decent tablecloth. 

From Louise, Vivy received all kinds of kitchen equipment, and a crocheted runner that had been made for her Dad (who died two weeks after we left Budapest. EPF)  She recieved a book on Tillman Riemenschneider from Germany, but it was not the same as the one that we left behind at home.  From Remy she received a broom, and from Erika a small cooking pot. The children considered the practical side.

Erika had a German book, the first one she was able to read and one that she loved, because it was about a little dog named Haidjer. She has read it to tatters.  Now she received two more Haidjer books, the first in the series, and the last.  Further, she received five half-yards of material for doll clothes, a nice large album from Antonia for photographs she will be taking in the future, two aprons her Mom put together, a new pair of shoes and stockings, and some small items. 

Remy’s chief present was also a pair of shoes, and he received in addition a Webster (a spelling dictionary and an encyclopedia all in one).

I had asked for apples and a wastebasket, and I would have liked a pair of leather gloves, because for want of anything better, now that the weather had turned cold, I was wearing those gray mittens Erika had knitted (a needlework project at school in  Essen) for Remy last year. (Remy has other knit gloves.)

We were very satisfied with Christmas, because finally, after six years, this was the first Christmas we could spend in our own apartment. Somehow we were even finished quite quickly, and on the 23rd we were able to be in bed by 10 o’clock, unbelievable as that seems, because over the past years the last few days were so exhausting that it was barely worth it.  Here, we knew how far we could go, and we didn’t have to run here and there ten times for every little thing, as in Germany during inflation, but we simply went into a store and bought what we had targeted.

There was wine soup followed by ham, and roast duck the following day.  We were invited to Raul’s for Sunday afternoon, who kept us there for supper for delicious roast turkey.  There was a lot of playing with the electric train, that Remy also joined in.

We too sent and received a lot of Christmas cards. According to local custom, Vivy also strung several lines over the fireplace (which was a fake! EPF) and hung the cards we received on them.  There were three lines, but there were enough cards for four,  and one line is Erika’s.

Our landlords also came in for a little while to see our Christmas tree, and brought a box of candy.  Mr. Hall, having taken a good look at our tree, ran out into his store and brought four candy canes. It seems this is the custom here, to have them on the Christmas tree; in some places there are such candy canes on the lit up pine branches that are displayed on outside doors.

For today,  Sylvester evening, we decided to by a bottle of Mumm.  We have not had champagne for New Year’s Eve for six years, and we believe, or hope, that our lot during the coming year will be better if we greet the New Year with champagne.

For a short while we will light the candles on the Christmas tree, will think over the past year which has brought so many and such great changes in our lives and look forward to the new year with a bit of hope.  We think a lot about those left at home as well, and wish them all a happy New Year, which for them – it already being ten o’clock at night here – has already come four hours ago.  May God give strength and health and peace, a little humane way of life and rest and recreation after all the well-done work.

Remig A. Papp (1901-1985), father of Erika Papp Faber, was born in Budapest of Transylvanian Armenian stock. He obtained a diploma in Civil Engineering from the Technical University of Budapest, and worked in Germany and France before the Depression.  Returned to Hungary, he designed the winter harbor of Budapest, among other projects.  He left with his family to escape the siege, and emigrated to the US in 1949, where he worked his way up to Associate in an engineering consulting firm, designing dams and other structures.  

 

 


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