By John Toth
I polished my shoes at night before I went to bed and put them on the windowsill. It was the night of Dec. 5. I was a small child, waiting for St. Nicholas.
I could barely fall asleep. Every sound in the room alerted me. Was that St. Nick flying by with candy and chocolates to put in my shoes? I finally fell asleep. St. Nick would have to work his magic without me - for another year.
I woke up early the next morning. It was St. Nicholas Day. All the kids had to get ready for school, but we all got up extra early and rushed to the windowsill.
The shiny shoes were filled with candies of all sorts. Sometimes they even had an orange. Even more infrequently, a banana.
Then we all rushed off to school and could not wait to tell our friends what St. Nick brought. We all wore shiny shoes that day.
Dec. 6 was a big deal for me and other kids who lived in Central and Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain. Our St. Nick was poor, but he did the best he could. Sometimes he needed our parents' help to stand in long lines for a chance to buy an orange or a banana. After all, he was supposed to visit thousands of children in one night. He did not have the time to stand in those lines.
Dec. 6 was always a long school day, or at least that’s how it felt because the contents of my shoes were waiting for me at home.
By the way, home was a small room in a three-room apartment. My family occupied one. My two cousins and my aunt were in the other, and another family with a girl my age in the third room. The kids got along great. It was like summer camp all the time. But the conditions put a lot of stress on the adults, who sometimes, shall we say, had disagreements.
When I got home, I headed straight for my candy stash. If St. Nick brought a banana or orange, all the kids shared it. The adults just watched us eat it. Those were rare commodities behind the Iron Curtain, still recovering from World War II, and in Hungary’s case, a revolution and continued Soviet occupation.
After the kids finished the orange (it didn't take long), the parents put the peels on the coal-burning stove in the corner of the room. As they shriveled up in the heat, we all inhaled the aroma for a few minutes.
It was our way of extending the moment. After all, there was no guarantee that St. Nick would be able to repeat the fruit part of the shoe trick.
I don’t remember shining my shoes and putting them on the windowsill in Vienna, Austria, once my mother and I left behind our communist dictatorship and started a new life in the West.
Had I continued to follow the tradition, I would not have been surprised with oranges and bananas anymore. They were cheap and available year-round. When we first got out, I stuffed myself silly with them.
I would have expected some Legos, miniature race cars, some Milka chocolate and, of course, a Pez candy dispenser.
I quickly noticed the difference between the two lifestyles. I had a way to compare, unlike most kids around me.
I appreciated every bit of the Western culture and goodies. We sent some back to our family. They appreciated it also. That’s what they also wanted but could not get behind the Iron Curtain under a communist dictatorship.
I realized that St. Nick really didn’t need to visit the kids in the West. They could get all the goodies we regarded as specialty items in the East, anytime they wanted. They didn't have to wait for St. Nick to fill their shiny shoes. Plus, at Halloween, they went and gathered up all the candy they could stomach.
At age 10, I found the secret to a happy life: Appreciate what you have and help those who have less - just like St. Nicholas.
Happy St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, 2022.