Of all my Christmas memories, there is one that stands out among the rest. It happened in Budapest several years ago. The Boy Scouts from my school were going to throw a Christmas party at a local orphanage. I’d help chaperone. The children at the orphanage were all preschool age and had severe hearing disabilities. Our Scouts were one of the first groups of foreigners these children would meet.
When we arrived at the orphanage, we drove the van through an old rusted iron gate into a courtyard. The building was large and gray. It looked unloved. The director greeted us at the door. Her name was Erzsébet. Elizabeth. When we stepped inside, we removed our hats and scarves and kicked snow off our shoes. Tall white iron radiators crackled as we walked down the hall. Erzsébet escorted us into a room where at least twenty-five young children sat waiting on crowded wooden benches. Their feet didn’t reach the floor.
As we gathered in the room, the orphans chattered and pointed and wiggled in their seats as young ones do whenever a visitor whom they have been waiting for walks in. Their teachers sat close by against the wall. Erzsébet stood in front of the children and introduced us.
Soon the party began. After eating our treats and exchanging Christmas songs, the Scouts started handing out the gifts they had brought. The children squealed and ran their fingers over the shiny paper and played with the bows. They hugged their gifts and showed their friends.
Suddenly Erzsébet drew in her breath sharply.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“What’s wrong?” I repeated.
Covering her mouth, Erzsébet leaned over to me and began to whisper. Her voice was shaky. “They…they don’t know there’s anything inside the packages.”
I snapped my gaze at the children. They were all laughing and pointing and holding up their new bundles, but none was opening a single one. My heart jumped into my throat. The wrapping is present enough. I looked over at the other teachers. A few were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. They realized what was happening, too.
Then Erzsébet stepped over to the children. With watery eyes, she smiled and clapped her hands. They looked up at her and stopped talking. Very gently, Erzsébet began to speak.
“Gyerekek, a csomagban van valami.” Boys and girls, there is something underneath the paper, she told them. The older kids’ eyes widened. But the little ones didn’t understand. Erzsébet picked up one of the presents and pointed to the inside. “Nézzetek csak, ebben van valami,” she repeated. “There is something in it.”
Gasps filled the room as the entire group looked down at their gifts. I expected the kids to immediately start ripping open their packages, but none did. They must be waiting for permission to open them, I thought. But no one was speaking.
Then, realizing what she needed to do, Erzsébet knelt down beside one little girl and started showing her how to unwrap her present. The others looked on. My lips parted but no words came out. They don’t know what to do with the paper. They’ve never unwrapped presents before.
For a second I stood there motionless. Then, together with the other teachers and the Scouts, I got down on my knees and helped tiny hands open their gifts.