Friday, December 20, 2013

Memories of Christmas Past - Blair McDowell

Memories of Christmas Past
Blair McDowell

Go to my blog at for a chance to win an e-copy of my Christmas fantasy, 'Abigail's Christmas'.

My fantasy Christmas happened long ago. It will live in my memory forever as the most beautiful Christmas I’ve ever experienced. I was in Hungary, studying at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music for the year, away from home and husband and missing both severely.

The Budapest of that time, 1971, was a drab and dreary place. Mementos of the brief, abortive 1956 Hungarian Uprising against their Soviet oppressors were everywhere. Sides of buildings were riveted with bullet holes. Russian soldiers patrolled the streets in pairs, machine guns slung across their shoulders, unsmiling, stony faced, ignoring everyone and everything in their path.

I remember being cold all the time. Buildings were not centrally heated – rooms had ceramic stoves heated with soft coal. It was warm only immediately next to the stove. I cut the fingers out of a pair of gloves so that I could wear them in class and still take notes.

But I had been fortunate in finding a wonderful place to stay. After looking at several rooms near the Academy that ranged from dreary to dismal, I decided to look farther afield. I had bought a little yellow VW in Amsterdam, so it was possible to search beyond the city limits. High in the hills on the Buda side of the Danube, (that’s the Duna, in Hungarian) I found a wonderful old pouszta (country) style home with a room to rent. The house was blindingly white, long and low, with a series of archways across the front and a red tile roof. I later learned that the red tile roof was new. Just a couple of years before it had been thatch.

I rang the bell at the wrought iron gate and a young dark haired woman came bustling down the flagstone path, accompanied by several dogs and some hens and roosters she shooed out of the way. Unlocking the gate she said “Tesek”, a word I learned had many meanings, but at that time clearly meant I was to come in.

Talking all the while, she led me into a kitchen rich with the aromas of garlic and paprika. Soup bubbled on the stove. I had taken a year of Hungarian lessons before coming to Hungary, but they had in no way prepared me for this onslaught of indecipherable conversation. I smiled and nodded a lot.

She sat me down at the little kitchen table. “Ehes?” she asked, proceeding to dish out a large bowl of the rich dark soup and cutting me a slice of heavy black bread to accompany it. By this time I had decided to take the room whatever and wherever it was in this household. I think I’d have happily bedded down in the chicken coop.

But that didn’t prove necessary. The room was small, but bright, its single bed and armoire were painted green and decorated in peasant style with birds and flowers. There was a window looking out on the garden, which could be opened if the weather was balmy or closed and shuttered against winter winds, and there was a sheepskin on the floor beside the bed so that bare feet wouldn’t land on chilling tiles.

I had found a home. That was in October. I soon became a part of the household, just another family member along with Sari, her husband Gyuri, their two children, Kati and Peter and the patriarch of the family, Nagypapa, (Grandfather).

We quickly settled into comfortable routines. I had been there only a couple of days when Sari sat down at the table with me and produced two small books – one entitled “English-Hungarian Dictionary and the other “Madgar-Angol Szotar”. We started talking, referring to our dictionaries every two or three words. Sari, who had lived most of her life in a country occupied by invading armies, first the Germans and then the Russians, had insatiable curiosity about everything beyond Hungary’s borders. What was it like living in the west? How many rooms did my house have? How much money did a school teacher make in America? Where did we go on holidays? What did we eat?
My vocabulary increased exponentially, perhaps aided by Nagypapa, who would pour me a water glass full of wine every evening, which he never allowed to become empty. The family grew grapes and made their own wine that was stored in a cave dug into the hillside. Nagypapa would go out to the cave, siphon off a pitcher of the fruity white wine and bring it into the kitchen where Sari and I were at our language lessons, saying, “Kisci bor jol aludni.” A little wine, good sleep. It was very good wine and I slept exceedingly well.

But I missed my husband so I made plans to go home and spend Christmas with him. When I told Sari that I would be leaving on December 15th and returning after the New Year she was appalled. “You’re not here for Christmas? This is not a good thing. It is an important family holiday and you will not be here with your Hungarian family to celebrate?”

There was nothing for it but to hold Christmas early. The night before I left we had a traditional Hungarian Christmas dinner, ending up with a scrumptious traditional desert, Almas Retes, then we went into the long narrow room with all the arched windows. There, Gyuri had set up the Christmas tree, freshly cut pine, its pungent scent filling the air. There were short fat candles on each branch. Real candles. At a given moment he lit them one by one until the whole tree was blazing with soft flickering light. No tree I’ve ever seen before or since has been as beautiful. Under the tree were boots. My boots, Kati’s boots and Peter’s boots. And in the boots were presents. Mine was a hand embroidered table cloth that had belonged to Sari’s grandmother.

The next day I flew back to the US and for the next two weeks I did the usual round of holiday parties and admired myriad, mostly artificial, Christmas trees with their blinking electric lights and saw houses outlined in lights with Santa Clauses up on the rooftops and reindeer in yards—and my mind kept returning to my beloved Hungarian family and the fresh cut pine tree with the real candles.

I was happy to see my husband. It was never easy being separated from him as we were all too often by his work or mine. But Christmas for me will always recall memories of a pouszta-style house in the Buda hills, Almas Retes, and a tree lit with real candles.

Sari and I have remained life-long friends. I have returned to Hungary many times since, and she has visited me in the US, in Canada, and in the Caribbean. We’re both widows now, but we’re still family to each other.
Recipe for Almas Retes (Hungarian Apple Strudel)

Preheat the oven to 350

- 6 apples
- Sugar as needed
- Ground walnuts as needed ( at least a full cup )
- ½ pound (more or less) of melted butter
- A package of filo sheets. This is a dough that comes in paper thin sheets, each about a foot long. It comes in a long thin box. Filo dough is available in most high end specialty food markets.

You will need a large baking tray, a pastry brush and a damp tea towel. (The damp tea towel makes it easier to handle the fragile pastry.)

- Slice the apples into thin wedges. Have the ground walnuts in a dish ready to use and the sugar in an open container.
- Melt the butter.
- Place the damp tea towel on a smooth counter surface.
- Take the roll of filo dough out of the package. Unroll it and carefully remove two sheets, placing them on the damp tea towel.
- Brush butter on them generously. Be careful to brush lightly. The dough is fragile.
- Sprinkle the dough with sugar and ground walnuts.
- Add two more sheets on top of the first two. Butter and sugar these as you did the first two. Sprinkle them with ground walnuts.
- Add two more sheets and repeat the process.
- You are now ready for the filling. Place the apples in a long narrow strip at the end of the tea towel closest to you.
- Now lift the edge of the tea towel closest to you and gently roll the filled dough from the end nearest you to the other end. You will end up with a long narrow roll with the apples at the center.
- Now roll the retes onto the baking sheet and butter the top.
- Bake for 45 minutes and serve warm

Merry Christmas! a Rafflecopter giveaway


Debra St. John said...

Blair, That definitely sounds like a fantasy Christmas, even though you were away from your husband.

And how wonderful you've stayed in touch with your Hungarian 'family'.

Gayle Glass said...

Great memories, thanks for sharing.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Wonderful memories!

Thanks for sharing your recipe, too. :)