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Wrapping the intangible

There’s something in the air that smells remarkably like goodwill mixed with the heady fumes of mulled wine and grog. I’ve noticed a subtle change in the general level of niceness floating around as people jostle good-naturedly through the Christmas markets without complaint. I’d nearly go so far as to say that we’re all a little bit better disposed towards our fellow man.

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It’s a time for reminiscing, remembering those who have gone before us and others who won’t make it home this year. A Hungarian friend recently told me a story that both saddened me and restored my faith in love and life.

christ3She has a friend in his early nineties who survived the concentration camps of WWII. He returned to Budapest after the war to find strangers living in his house. His family were dead. He had nothing, no one. He spent some time in the States before eventually moving back to Hungary. Today, he’s in hospital, where he has been for a month now; when he does get out it will be to a sanatorium. He’s fortunate that, as a Holocaust survivor, he has the support of a Jewish foundation that ensures he has a nurse visit him twice daily. Without her visits, and those of my friend, it is doubtful that he would have survived his time in hospital where things are bleak at best; food is left on bedside lockers untouched if the patient hasn’t the wherewithal to feed themselves, or hasn’t a friend or relative to do it for them.

His wife of 48 years would be there if she could, but she can’t. She is at home, bedridden, in a full-leg cast, with a broken knee. She is in her sixties, far younger than him. They have no family. This is the longest they have been apart. When they married, she was just 19. People thought her mad – he’d soon be old and then where would she be? She said that if she had ten good years with the man she loved, it would be worth it. They’ve had much more.

They communicate by phone, separated as they are by circumstance and their respective disabilities. They miss each other terribly. They are the light of each others life and want nothing more than to be together. And they’re not.

In the coming weeks, our skies and roads will be full of people travelling home for the holidays – some because they want to, others because of familial duty and obligation. Families will be reunited. Grandchildren will be hugged for the first time. Lovers, separated by economic necessity, will cram a month of living into a few days. Children will split their time between divorced and separated parents. Many will spend the holidays in hospital or at home alone. The fortunate amongst us – those with friends and family we can be with – are in danger of taking it all for granted, forgetting to count our blessings and give thanks, instead losing ourselves in the commercial mania that is Christmas.

We will be scavenging christthe shops and markets in an effort to fulfill other people’s expectations of want. I’m no exception. But as is my wont at this time of year, I am revisiting the list made by novelist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) when asked for suggestions as to what to give for Christmas:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Now if only I could figure out how I might wrap them …

Wherever you are this Christmas, my wish for you is that you are at peace with yourself. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 December 2014

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Christmas is associated with giving – and unfortunately much of what’s given is unwanted, not needed, and a huge waste of time, effort, and money. Yet the one gift that is most sought after, is also the most difficult to find. Time. Everyone seems to want it and no one seems to have any. It’s all rush, rush, rush, wrap, wrap, wrap. Presents to buy, parties to go to, gifts to give. The mania is well and truly upon us. But we forget, perhaps, that the most meaningful gifts we can give are love, compassion, and  … a hug.

Down at the Topház Speciális Otthon in Göd (a state orphanage) today with a gang of IHBC’s Give a Little campaigners, both time and hugs were in demand. We descended on the place at 10am and then set about entertaining and being entertained. The Lions Club had donated Santa Bags for all the residents and while they danced and sang and recited, we had a tune or two of our own to share.

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It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to have so many hands reaching out to touch you. It’s humbling to know that by simply shaking a hand, or giving a hug, or just letting someone touch your hair, you can make a big difference to their day. The staff are wonderfully caring, supportive, and loving. And to see this in their interaction with the residents is heart-warming. They seem to have endless patience. It takes a very special type of person to be able to do this sort of work, day in, day out. For those like Kristóf, or Norbert, who have visitors maybe once a year, having people like us visit literally makes their day.

In an era when social media is doing its bit to distance us from each other physically and the main experience we have of being tactile is a frighteningly intimate relationship with a smart phone or an iPad, visiting Göd is a sobering reminder of what matters.  As we move closer and closer to Christmas, when thoughts turn to gift-buying and partying, we could do worse than remember that the best gifts we can give are our time and our compassion. We might not be able to wrap a hug, but it’s one gift no one will want to exchange.

As one mad week finishes and another hovers on the horizon, I am grateful for my involvement with the Give a Little campaign, and the orphanage. I certainly get far more than I give.

PS A reminder of what novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) had on his suggested gift list:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Happy shopping:-)

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Let the spending begin

Let’s all go out and spend our hard-earned money on stuff. Let’s go mad and buy up every high-tech gadget we can find. Let’s buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes that we won’t be able to fit into once we’ve pigged out for the next month on turkey and ham and goose and cold Brussels’ sprouts. Let’s go absolutely stark, raving mad and unleash the spendthrift inside us, that same wastrel who has been battling with our inner scrooge all year. Let’s throw fiscal responsibility to the wind and do what we despise our governments for…let’s waste our money. Why not? It’s tradition.

Knowing the cost of everything…

Caught up in the holiday frenzy, we spend millions of euro, pounds, and dollars (and billions of forints) on unwanted gifts. We go mad buying for people whose middle names we don’t even know. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, postmen, binmen, milkmen, all come in for something… just because… it’s Christmas. Family, relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, classmates, the list is endless. And now we even have variations on the theme… no, no, it’s not a Christmas present, it’s just a little ‘thank you’ for all your help during the year, for watering my plants while I was away, for feeding the cat, for picking me up from the airport, for listening to me go on and on and on about whatever, for being there for me. What is it about Christmas that brings out this latent generosity in us all? Do we really save up all our gratitude for December? Are we overcompensating for being mean and miserly all year? Are we simply balancing the books? Perhaps if the three wise men had left the gold, frankincense and myrrh at home, we mightn’t be in this mess.

Christmas has been hijacked by retailers. Discounts, special offers, and bargain deals abound. Untold pressure is put on people to buy the best of everything, the latest this, the most expensive that. Kids, passive victims of advertising campaigns want everything they see. Christmas letters to Santa Claus have evolved into lists, complete with make, model, and serial number. They cover all the bases, ending usually with the ubiquitous ‘and a surprise’.

…and the value of nothing

Me? I copped on a long time ago. I was seven. I asked Santa for a cradle for my doll, Lucy. Instead, I got a plastic knitting machine. I learned a valuable lesson: blessed is she who never expects anything for she shall never be disappointed. Now, if you ask me what I want for Christmas, I’ll tell you. And I’ll be specific. None of this… ‘Oh, something for the flat would be nice’. I want a tall, wrought iron book case, with five shelves, narrow enough to fit at the end my kitchen presses and shallow enough not to stick out past the wall (it doesn’t exist). Forget the timid…  ‘Maybe some perfume?’ Nope – I want some Dior Hypnotic Poison 100 ml shower gel and 100 ml body lotion (impossible to find!).  As for jewellery, can you be more specific than a 5-cm diameter circle of Kudu bone set in a raised silver ring? I don’t think so. I’ve learned my lesson: I ask for the impossible and when it can’t be delivered I offer up Option B: mmmm, I know you’d your heart set on buying me something but you could always give me cold, hard cash instead. Cash that I can send to friends who are working, doing good somewhere in the world with people less fortunate than myself. Cold, hard cash: that perfect gift that keeps on giving – one size fits all and the colour goes with everything! But that’s if you’re buying. If you’re making me something by hand, that’s a different matter entirely. I’m one of those annoying people basking in smugness right now who Christmas shops all year round: hand-made jewellery from Lithuania; beaded placemats from South Africa; knitted scarves from Gozo; dío madár from Hungary.  Support local artisans and give something that hasn’t been mass produced and marketed to death. Or better still, do something for me. Cook for me, take me somewhere, wash my windows.

Let’s face it, there’s a helluva difference between need and want. Fulfilling a need is rewarding; satisfying a want is indulgent. And don’t forget the ‘r’ word – we’re in recession, remember! So, if you’re racking your brains about what to give this Christmas, perhaps a suggestion from novelist, journalist, and humorist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) might help: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.

Boldog Karácsonyi Ünnepeket. Nollaig shona dhaoibh. Merry Christmas.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 December 2010