Home for the Holidays-Pandemic Edition

Everything is the same. Nothing is the same. I run the last pre-Christmas errands in Budapest, buy the same candy as in all other years, but the store has almost run out of them. Panic buying, the shop assistant whispers somewhat incredulously from under her mask, we’ve run out of almost everything, what if they shut us down for Christmas, you know. I wish I didn’t.

On the train, the landscape is a blur. A landscape that used to be familiar to the last bush and backyard, it now passes almost unnoticed. A woman coughs, repeatedly, at the far end of the carriage. People frown, someone anxiously asks her about her health, it’s a chronic condition, I am fine, dying a little, but not of COVID, you know. I wish didn’t.

When we bring home the Christmas tree, it never fits the boot of our coupé, my father ties the lid, loosely, with the cable of his phone’s charger. Half a tree ceremoniously dangles out and we slowly make our way home hoping no one will run into us. Sometimes they did, the ride always worried me sick. This time around, once inside, a strange calm overtakes me. No more interacting with people for a while, you know. I wish I didn’t.

I go for a run, mask stuck to the sweat on my face, I discover an amazing innovation introduced in my six month absence, a set of traffic lights at a busy crossroads. A group of people is already patiently waiting by the staunchly red light, almost too patiently for the fidgety nation that we are. Mothers with children, elderly women carrying shopping bags, two office workers puffing away at their cigarettes. Complaints surface, this is unbearable, we’ve been waiting for ages now, the light doesn’t change. There’s a button though, someone could push it, but we hesitate. Surfaces aren’t so contagious, supposedly, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, you know. I wish I didn’t.

I don’t go to the Christmas service. I do not remember ever not going. As a child, I loved it, I got to recite a little poem about snow, angels and the grace of God and then received gifts, colouring pens, soft toys, oranges and jelly filled candy. Then we walked home with my grandparents and more presents would await under the tree. Some of my happiest memories. Growing up brought increasing impatience and boredom, new kids reciting old poems, my grandmother’s voice growing increasingly sharp and shaky with age until it faded away altogether. I secretly wished for the time when I didn’t have to go through this compulsory motion of the Christmas tradition. I wish I hadn’t.

It takes me two days to put up the tree, another break with tradition, but this time around it feels, if not alright, passable. Same decorations, same playlist, grown richer with a few recent additions, a jug of mulled wine I hope not to spill on the lighter bits of the carpet. I carefully wrap presents, fewer than in other years, for one reason or another, temporary or final, some of us are missing. Everything is the same. Nothing is the same.

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