Being Hungarian people, we usually don’t think about what special customs characterize us and our country. Although these customs are completely natural for us, many foreign people may find them strange or interesting.
Maybe the most conspicuous thing for a foreigner is that Hungarians write their names inversely. The family name goes to the first place, followed by the given name. It is called eastern name order. What very interesting is that besides Hungary, only four Asian nation, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Singaporean use this order officially in the following countries: China, Japan, North-Korea, South-Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the members of the Chinese community in Malaysia.
Hungarians have another custom in connection with names: we celebrate namedays. Every first name have its own day in the calendar, based on historical events or religious traditions. While namedays are considered less important events than birthdays, Hungarian people usually present their loved ones on namedays with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers. However, this custom is not only a Hungarian speciality, Czech, Polish, Russian, Romanian and Slovakian people also celebrate their namedays, as well as people in Scandinavian and Baltic countries.
“Egészségedre” is generally one of the first Hungarian words that foreigners learns. At the same time, probably not everyone knows that it’s not only used when people clink glasses, but also when someone sneezes. Thus we use this word for “cheers” as well as for “bless you”. The word “egészségedre” salutes the health of the person whom it is told to, hence the coincidence.
There are many unique Hungarian traditions in connection with celebrating holidays. At Easter, Hungarian girls paint eggs with different methods. The most common way is to put a leaf on the egg, wrap it into a piece of nylon stockings, and boil it in water mixed with egg paint. After removing the leaf, its pattern will appear on the surface of the egg. Another nice way to decorate an egg is to “write” it with wax. Women draw patterns on the egg with melted wax, wait until it solidifies, and then put it into paint. Then they scrape the wax off the egg, and the patterns will appear in white. These eggs will be later given as a gift, when boys come to the house to sprinkle the young girls with water or cologne. The origin of this tradition is that people believed water has a cleaning, healing and fertilizing effect. These customs are still common, mainly in rural areas of Hungary.
On the day of Saint Nicholas, Mikulás, who is a similar figure to Santa Claus, comes to the Hungarian children to reward them. Children clean their boots and put them out in the window. By the next morning they will get something in the boots, depending on whether they were good or bad. Mikulás gives chocolate to those children who behaved well during the year, but those who were naughty only get “virgács”. It is a pile of gold-colored birch twigs wrapped in a piece of red paper, and it is meant to symbolize punishment. “Virgács” is given by a “krampusz”, who is a fearful and devilish creature, mostly represented with horns and long fur.
When Christmas comes, it is the Infant Jesus (“Jézuska”) who gives presents to the members of the family. Little children mostly don’t take part in decorating the Christmas tree, because they are told that angels bring the tree into the house while they are visiting a relative, or taking a walk with other family members. The family decorates the tree on the 24th of December, and they give presents to each other on the same evening. In many places the tree is decorated with “szaloncukor”. It is a little piece of bonbon in wrapping paper, available in many flavors: chestnut, coconut, banana, cherry, orange jelly and so on, all of them covered with chocolate. It’s fairly similar to the French candy Papillote, both of them have the same origin, the fondant.
On the 25th of December, most people stay home with the family to have a calm, pleasant day, or they visit their close relatives to celebrate together. Christmas is a family holiday in Hungary, the holiday of peace and love.
Many Hungarian people eat lentil stew on the first day of New Year, or throw lentil seeds on each other because it is believed to make them wealthy. Other traditional New Year’s meal is pork – in old times, people believed that the pig grubs the family’s luck out of the ground.
Of course there are hundreds of other traditions, originating from old times, which are not mentioned here. Also, it is possible that we have customs and habits which we wouldn’t think special or unique, but they are easily recognizable for someone who came from another country with a different cultural background.
Written by Zsofia Luca Szemes