By Laurie Ezzell Brown
IN MY CHILDHOOD HOME, we observed many rituals of the Christmas season. Among them, the annual unpacking of the Christmas decorations, most of which were either handmade or handed down. As they emerged from the aging yellow tissue paper in which they had been wrapped the year before, the stories unfolded, their origins were revealed, and each one found its own place in our home.
It was strangely comforting to know that none would be discarded, that old was just another way of acknowledging how special some ornament was, and how rich its history.
The creche was among the last of these. We always carried it to a spot near the fireplace. And as we unwrapped each figure, we arranged them according to the wondrous story we had learned and memorized and spoken, over and over again, of Jesus’ birth.
A small yellow lightbulb was placed near the roof of the stable. When lit, it transcended its humble, worldly utility and was transformed into the miraculous, the star of Bethlehem—a sign of the Messiah’s birth.
Finally, the angel appeared in the sky above the creche, suspended from a thin golden thread. “And the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In the mid-50s when I was still very young, the story of Joseph and Mary being turned away from the inn, and finding refuge in a manger, became inextricably intertwined for me with the story of another family. The Horvaths were among thousands of refugee families welcomed into the United States from Communist-dominated Hungary. They were invited to Canadian, and to what must have seemed an uncertain future, by the people of this community, who were inspired by Mayor Oofie Abraham’s Thanksgiving Day suggestion that we might offer them shelter and a new life.
I remember our parents waking us late one night and loading us into the family station wagon for the short drive down Main to the Santa Fe railway station, where we were among many welcoming Julius and wife Julia, their 10-year-old daughter Julia and 8-year-old son Julius to their new home. They were as mysterious to us as we must have been to them—strangers in a strange land. They knew no English. We knew no Hungarian.
But the bonds that began forming that January night, amid the din of the passenger train that brought them, were unbreakable. Though the Horvaths eventually moved to Kansas City, where Julius found work in the trade he had always known, those bonds live on today, in visits with old friends, in the exchange of letters, and in the shared gratitude and respect that took root and grew in this Texas Panhandle town.
The lessons we learned as a community—to pray for peace, to show good will toward all men—have survived the years, as well, in those of us who watched that train roll into the station, who watched that weary family step down onto Texas soil, and who, in that single moment of embrace and welcome, shed our fear of strangers, of refugees, and opened our hearts and homes to them.
This is my Christmas story—the story of refugees. It is one that taught me the plight of those who hope only for a better life for their families—free of oppression and fear—and who willingly face great danger and uncertainty to follow a dream that we in this country today are too rarely grateful for having already been granted.