December 5 found me slowly making my way from Kolozsvár back to Péterfalva, crawling through the snow-dusted Carpathians in a struggling van, sitting at border crossings that took as long as the mountain crossings, watching the chalky dusk landscape wiz by as the east-bound train gained speed. At the Ukraine border, I waited impatiently, burning holes into the 20 cars in front of us, knowing that each minute that ticked away was a minute later we would be to the celebration.
December 6 is Saint Nicholas’s feast day, and the night before, he visits households all over Europe to deliver goodies into children’s waiting shoes. And thus, in Hungarian culture, on Christmas it is an angel or the Christ child who delivers the gifts. Saint Nicholas – or Mikulás, as he is called in Hungarian, shows up here long before Christmas.
And it just so happened that he was coming to the Péterfalvai Református Lícuem on December 5th at 7pm. Or at least, the third year students had planned a Mikulás program for that evening, and I was intensely curious.
We arrived 40 minutes late, but the program was still going strong. There was some singing – accompanied by an mp3-playing cellphone – and a few skits. I didn’t really understand much of them, but apparently they were uproariously funny, because the pastor and the principal a few seats down were wheezing with laughter.
In the final skit, Mikulás did indeed show up, doling out presents to some of the staff members and brining in a very special gift to each one of us. Members of the third class brought in enormous twigs – really, you should probably imagine tree branches – and started passing them out, making their way slowly across the room. I learned afterwards that these were supposed to represent the switches Mikulás gives to a naughty child. They were tall enough to scrape the ceiling and all together looked like a suddenly-sprouted forest, bobbing in our hands like branches on a blustery day, thick as the trees by the river, but not quite as thick as our laughter.
Picture from here