My name is Leo Frincu, and I was born in Communist Romania. Christmas at my parents’ house behind the Iron Curtain was very different from most people’s typical holiday. One thing I remember was the green bananas. We used to get bananas only at Christmastime. My father was a member of the Communist Party, and periodically, was given some special privileges. One of those came during the Winter holidays when my father would bring home oranges and bananas. I still don’t know where he got them. All I knew was that the bananas were green and were supposed to sit on top of the high dresser to let them ripen for at least a week. Oranges were good to eat, and they would last only minutes after my dad had put them on the living room table for display. Not the bananas, though. My parents used to save boxes of western soaps, cigarettes, and deodorants and put them for display on specially designed shelves called “vitrina.” Perishable items, such as foreign chocolate, oranges, and ripe bananas were displayed like trophies on the living room table located in the middle of the room. They used to last a very short time – not because they went bad, but because we devoured them.

One year, my dad put the green bananas in with the oranges. My brother and I were like two little hungry puppies waiting for my dad to step out of the room so that we could steal them. We had no idea that green bananas were not ready to be eaten. We were just happy to taste something other than the same three dishes every family in Romania would cook for the Winter holidays: pig feet in fat jelly, known as “piftie”; polenta, called “mamaliga”; and stuffed cabbage, called “sarmale” – all these were our Romanian national dishes.

Once my father had caught on to us, the next year, he took the green bananas and again put them on top of the high dresser so that we couldn’t get to them. Every morning, we would wake up and sit on the floor, looking at them and hoping that they would turn yellow right in front of our eyes. That didn’t happen, so after a few days, we went to our dad and asked him if they were ready to be eaten. “They need to turn yellow before you can eat them.” My dad’s answer came like a guilty verdict. It seemed forever for a seven-year-old boy with the patience of a mouse. I thought the green bananas would never turn yellow! We didn’t give up, though. I went back to my dad and asked him if there was anything I could do to help the bananas turn yellow faster. Of course, there was nothing we could do to speed up the process.

It wasn’t about Santa Claus for me during Christmastime. It was all about the green bananas turning yellow. For me, that was Christmas.

We didn’t have any exotic fruits like bananas, pineapples, oranges, or even lemons during the year. No one knew why. They were like “forbidden fruit.” During those years, we were considered a middle-class family because my father was a Communist Party member. The only privileges we had were those bananas and oranges during Christmastime, and Pepsi Cola in the Summertime when dad used to take our family to a public pool used only for Party members. Drinking Pepsi Cola was a real treat! First, I would smell it, and then I would slowly take small sips, hoping that the magic liquid would never end. If these were Party member’s privileges, I can’t even imagine what a lower-class family Christmas looked like in Communist Romania.

The bananas finally turned yellow, and we were given the green light to eat them. Pealing them felt like unwrapping our Christmas gifts. “One at the time,” my dad used to say to us, as if we could shove more than one into our tiny little mouths. I guess we probably could have, now that I look back on it and remember the excitement of that day. At Christmas, we spent almost two weeks waiting and dreaming of something sweet and soft. The bananas were our Christmas present. They were the symbol of a better life.

Eating those bananas filled our little tummies, and just eating them was an event in itself. Growing up in a culture where showing emotions was considered a sign of weakness – and drinking Pepsi Cola was a privilege – our Christmas bananas were our little escape from the rigid lifestyle. It was like a love story. Even though you, yourself, might not have a green banana story, we all have something that reminds us of something soft and sweet. Everyone has dreams and hopes.

We often take the bananas or the oranges or our comfortable lifestyles for granted. Most of us forget to express our gratitude for the little things we have and are able to do. We dream about what we don’t have and what we can’t do. I think it’s time, especially this Christmas, to appreciate our lives – just because we live them, our skills and talents – just because we have them, and all our freedoms – because those are our real privilege.

Next time you see green bananas, please remember that once, somewhere far away, these small green things brought hope and love to a little boy. Let my story inspire you to enjoy this holiday season more than ever.

Merry Christmas and God Bless.

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Leo Frincu is a world wrestling champion, author, speaker and performance coach for business leaders and athletes worldwide. To learn more about his training philosophy, check out his latest book, “WELCOME HOME, 3 Simple Steps On How To Reach Your Highest Potential,” available on Amazon and iBooks.