Traditions concerning different celebrations have always varied throughout the world. There are even differences in several regions of a country. Hungary is not an exception with its colourful range of traditions and folkways. Christmas is many people’s favourite time of the year so let’s see some Hungarian traditions connected to this intimate celebration.
Christmas is not the only wintertime tradition, a whole series of celebrations gathered around it. These traditions weren’t always the same, they varied throughout the centuries. Today, the Christmas-tree and gift-giving are in the spotlight, which are the habits of the modern times. The tradition of Christmas-trees spread in the 17th century, in Germany. Legend has it that it was Martin Luther who first decorated a Christmas-tree for his children. Opinions differ about the appearance of the habit in Hungary.
Baron Frigyes Podmaniczky writes in his memoir that one of his female acquaintances (according to other sources, his mother) decorated a Christmas-tree when he was a child (around 1825) and this is where the habit comes from. Other sources say that Teréz Brunszvik, the founder of the first Hungarian nursery school, was the first to have a Christmas-tree in 1824. One thing is certain: the custom only really spread in the second half of the 19th century, mainly in noble families after the encouragement of the royal court in Vienna. Then wealthier citizens, who wanted to follow the noblemen’s habits, took over this tradition. It only became general in all social classes in the 1930s.
Gift-giving wasn’t the part of Christmas for a long time. According to the popular belief, gifts are given by an unworldly creature. In a lot of countries it is Santa Claus but we celebrate the day of Saint Nicholas on the 6th of December. The figure of Little Jesus as a gift-giver became popular in the 17th century and he is the one, to whom Hungarians kids write a list or letter about their wishes for Christmas.
Hungarian traditions concerning Christmas start on the 13th of December, which is Luca Day. At the same time we make Advent wreaths with four candles that symbolise the four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas. Families light one more candle every Sunday. Family members used to gather around the wreath and sing Christmas songs.
The most famous Christmas tradition is probably the Bethlehem game. This dramatic game has been part of the celebration for a long time and it was originally performed in churches or in front of churches. It shows the birth of Jesus. In some regions, the aim of the game is to dismiss ghosts by making a lot of noise. It is called regölés.
The festive dinner is the highlight of Christmas Eve. After dinner, Catholic families go to the midnight mass on the 24th of December. Calvinists also go to church service during the day. On the 25th and 26th of December, families usually visit their acquaintances and spend quality time together.
The 27th of December is the day of Saint John and the consecrations of wine. Families used to bring wine to the churches which were then blessed by the priest since it was believed that blessed wine had magic powers. They cured sick people and animals with it, and poured it into wine-casks to preserve it.
Attila József: The three kings of Bethlehem
Translation by Egon F. Kunz
Jesus, Jesus, God greet you, God greet you!
Three kings are we well and true.
Flaming star stood round our place,
so we came on foot in haste.
Little lamb said: never fear,
Jesus Christ is dwelling here.
I am Melchior, you see.
God be gracious unto me!
Son of God, good afternoon, afternoon!
No, we are not priests of doom,
but we heard that you were born,
you the king of poor, forlorn.
So we thought we would look in,
heaven’s child, salvation’s kin.
My name, Casper represents
a king in some earthly sense.
Lord Saviour, God bless you, God bless you!
Far and warm lands crossed we through.
All our bread and cheese is gone,
all our shining boots are worn,
but we brought you gold a lot,
incense in an iron pot.
I am Balthazar, this means
the king of the Saracens.
Blushes, blushes Mary red, Mary red,
happy mother bends her head.
Through the tears which fill her eyes
scarcely sees her Jesus Christ.
All around the shepherds sing. –
Time to feed the little thing.
Dearest Three Kings, kind and true,
now good night, good night to you!
Source: Daily News Hungary