Christmas 2002 Celebrations in Hungary

In Hungary, Christmas Eve is very important and is called ‘Szent-este’ which means Holy Evening. People spend the evening with their family and decorate the Christmas Tree. Sometimes only the adults decorate the tree (without the children there), so when children come in and see the tree, it’s a great surprise and they are told that angels brought the tree for them!

The main Christmas meal, which is also eaten on Christmas Eve, consists of fish (often fish soup called ‘Halászlé’ which is made with carp or other freshwater fish), stuffed cabbage (the leaves are stuffed with rice, mince pork, onion, garlic and other herbs) and a special kind of poppy bread/cake called ‘Beigli’ is a popular dessert. Gingerbread is also a traditionally eaten at Christmas in Hungary. The gingerbread is often wrapped in very bright colors and decorated with Christmas figures.

The Midnight Mass service is very popular in Hungary. Most people go to Church after their Christmas meal.

On Christmas Eve children also hope that they will be left some presents under the Christmas Tree. They’re told that the presents are brought by Jesus, he’s often called “Jézuska”, a nickname or cuter version for “Jézus”. Children wait outside the room where the tree is and when they hear bells ringing, they can enter and the presents await them under the Christmas tree.

On Christmas Day people visit their families.

St. Nicholas also visits Hungary on the 6th December. In Hungary he is known as ‘Mikulás’. Children leave out shoes or boots on a windowsill to be filled with goodies! Presents might also be brought by Télapó (Old Man Winter).

In Hungarian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Boldog karácsonyt’ (Happy Christmas) or ‘Kellemes karácsonyi ünnepeket’ (pleasant Christmas holidays). Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.

Regardless of whether you consider it a religious holiday or just an excuse to give (and receive) gifts, there’s no denying the power of Christmas and its global ability to bring people together. But the real beauty lies in the eclectic and varied traditions, from personal inter-family festivities, to broader cultural differences between nations. Hungary is no different, and has a number of traditions unique to it.

Seasons Greetings in Hungarian

First things first: if you’re to celebrate the holidays with a Hungarian then you ought to know the correct greeting. In this regard you’ll want to practice ‘boldog karácsonyt’—pronounced bohl-dohg kah-raa-choh-neet—which means ‘Happy Christmas’. If you really want to impress, take a stab at ‘kellemes karácsonyi ünnepeket’, or ‘pleasant Christmas holidays’; but no Hungarian would judge you for failing on this one.

Mikulás

While the modern youth of Hungary will enjoy tiny chocolates on a daily basis from December 1 thanks to their advent calendars, there is already something else to look forward to early on in December. Mikulás—the Hungarian equivalent of St Nicholas—arrives to Hungary on December 6, and in preparation Hungarian girls and boys must clean and polish their shoes the night before, placing them on the windowsill.

If they’ve been good in the year then those same shoes will be stuffed with chocolates and treats, and perhaps even small toys or books. But if they’ve been bad then, rather than coal in the stockings, these poor kids will receive a virgács, a small bundle of twigs that has been painted gold. Naturally it’s also become a tongue-in-cheek gift to give to colleagues and friends on the same day to warn of a bad work ethic or debts to be repaid.

The Santa Run in Budapest Balázs Mohai

Old Man Winter

While most Western cultures pin all the hard work in December on Santa Claus, Hungary is weirdly varied in its depictions of gift-giving, and it’s important to know the difference. Mikulás is St Nicholas in every way, the red-robed, bishop-looking figure of Holland’s Sinterklaas origin. Then there’s Télapó, or Old Man Winter, who is essentially the Americanized form of Santa.

He’s also likely to appear during December to hand out gifts, and is even the subject of the popular children’s Christmas rhyme ‘Télapó itt van’, or ‘Old Man Winter is here’. But on the big day it’s not actually Santa Klaus that sneaks in and gives out gifts but, instead, Jézuska—or yay-zoosh-kah—the baby Jesus. A tough challenge for the young Messiah…

The Christmas Tree

For the most part the idea of the Christmas Tree is the same in Hungary as it is in any other country, but with one unique twist. While the Christmas markets of the country will all put up their grand, fantastically-ornate trees at the start of December, traditionally the tree isn’t actually decorated until Christmas Eve.

This tradition is fading a little, admittedly, but there are still households that stick to ensuring the tree isn’t glittering until December 24. As a quaint tale for the kids, some families decorate the tree before the kids get home and claim that it was brought there by angels.

The decorations are familiar, for the most part: tinsel, fairy lights and bright, colorful baubles. But one thing that is common throughout most households is the addition of szaloncukor scattered across the tree. These typical festive chocolates, commonly filled with flavored fondant, are pervasive throughout the Christmas period, stuck to trees, offered for free at cafés and restaurants, and even boxes of them given as gifts.

Present giving

When it comes to present giving, however, Hungarians use Christmas Eve to share the presents. Businesses close at noon, and even the public transport closes by 3pm, giving everyone the chance to make it home in time for festivities.

While this is still traditionally the day that gifts are given, since many are still working in the morning there isn’t always time for a grand meal to be prepared. In these cases the Christmas dinner is saved until the next day, Christmas Day.

With that said, Hungarians still make time for Midnight Mass—as is the case for so many countries around the world—and most will find themselves at church on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day

With the presents handed out already, Christmas Day is a full day of celebrations. This typically means a lot of food, drink, and laughter. The most typical Hungarian dish for Christmas is halaszlé, a fish soup spiced with paprika paste or powder. Others may serve a magyar favorite, stuffed cabbage, but it’s increasingly common to serve up a mix of fish, chicken, and pork with a variety of sauces, vegetables, and rice.

For dessert it’s not uncommon to see the ubiquitous chocolate log or gingerbread cakes and biscuits, but a more Hungarian speciality is bejgli (bay-glee), a rolled sweetbread filled with poppy seeds (mákos), walnuts (diós), or both.

All this is combined with a lot of drinking, from strong homemade pálinka—or fruit brandy—to a variety of Hungarian wines and beers. If there’s one thing that remains true of Christmas in any culture, it’s the love of excessive eating and drinking.

It seems Hungary isn’t too different about how it spends December 26, either, repeating the overload of food and alcohol with tertiary family members and close friends. It’s back to work on December 27, so it’s really about cramming in the festivities until New Year’s.

The sure way to tell Christmas is approaching in Hungary is when the cukrászdas begin stockpiling bejglis. The bejgli—made of yeast-raised dough, which is stretched thin, filled with either poppyseed or ground walnut filling, and rolled into cylinder shapes—is the essence of Hungarian Christmas. Grandmothers bake dozens of them every year, and if you are lucky you’ll receive several as gifts from loved ones, relatives, friends, or colleagues. Luckily the glistening cakes hold well for weeks (which comes in handy when you receive more than you can possibly eat). In Hungary, bejgli is the essence of Christmas, a taste memory which is anticipated all year long.

Around the time when bakers start selling bejgli nearly as fast as it comes out of the oven, many of Budapest’s squares are filling up with Christmas markets. The Christmas Market at Vörösmarty tér is no longer the only one to visit. Budapest’s Christmas markets have been growing every year (in size, number, and variety), and have become part of the winter-time experience in the city. Add vendors selling hot roasted chestnuts and the scent of mulled wine (forralt bor) wafting through the street, and it makes this season one of the best times of the year to visit (if you can handle the cold).

The Christmas season kicks off in Hungary with Mikulás-nap (St. Nicholas Day) on December 6th when children polish their shoes and set them on window sills in the hope that Miklós will fill them with small goodies during the night. For those who’ve misbehaved during the year, Mikulás’ helper, krampusz (a scary character who looks like a cross between a demon, a monster, and an elf) will instead leave switches. Often, krampusz will also leave switches for the well-behaved children—as a warning.

In Hungary Santa Claus doesn’t arrive during the night of December 24th. Rather, Jézuska (baby Jesus) and his helpers (the angels) come on the evening of the 24th. Jézuska does more than just drop off presents for good children. He also brings (and decorates) the Christmas tree (with some help from the parents). Typically, children are banished from the living room (or taken out of the house for some Christmas visiting or fun) while the angels and Jézuska do their work. When they return, many families will eat their Christmas dinner—letting the excitement level slowly rise— until the angels ring a bell. Then the children run in to check out the spectacle of the fully-decorated and lit tree. Sparklers are lit and the traditional Christmas tune to sing together is Mennyböl az angyal.

No Hungarian Christmas tree is complete without a generous selection of szaloncukor, pieces of fondant or chocolate filled with marzipan or other ingredients and wrapped in colorful foil wrappers. In the weeks running up to Christmas it’s sold everywhere, by the kilogram from street vendors and at fancier shops and bakeries.

It’s customary to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve, so Christmas Eve dinner revolves around fish. While every family has its own traditions and favorites, the meal most often starts with halászlé (fisherman’s soup), followed by whole roasted fish or breaded carp and potato salad. A Christmas day dinner is often stuffed cabbage with sour cream, but it could be anything from roasted duck to turkey. If you’ve had enough beigli at this point, dessert could be mákos guba (bread pudding flavored with honey and poppy seeds). Whatever the meal, there should be plenty of sparkling wine for toasting and celebrating.


Want to learn more about the Christmas holiday traditions in Hungary? Join our Christmas Market & Food Tour to taste holiday foods and learn about the traditions, while visiting some of Europe’s best Christmas markets.

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