In the English culture, especially nowadays, the image of Santa Claus is a fat jolly and old, but kind white-haired man in red clothes and a long beard. In most English-speaking countries and many other parts of the world where Christmas is celebrated, it is believed that Santa Claus delivers presents to people – especially children – on Christmas Eve. However, Hungarians celebrate Santa Claus a little different.
In Hungary, as in many European countries as well, Jézuska (Christkind) is the traditional gift-giver during Christmas and in Hungary it is usually celebrated on Christmas Eve, rather than in Christmas morning.
Santa Claus in Hungary is called Mikulás and is celebrated on the 6th of December. In many countries that follow stricter Christian traditions, just like in Hungary, the figure of the Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas.
While the transformation of the saint to Santa is quite interesting, in Hungarian tradition, the celebration of Mikulás is probably somewhat closer to the original Christian tradition mixed with Hungarian customs and folklore.
According to National Geographic, Saint Nicholas was a Greek man born in the late 3rd century. During his life, Nicholas became a bishop – this is probably where the imagery of the Hungarian Mikulás’s crook and mitre come from – of Myra, which is located in modern day Turkey. He became known as a defender of the Church.
He was a popular saint of many peoples but have evolved to be the patron saint of children for which he is mostly known now in Hungary. The story of gift-giving is connected to him because of the story of a poor father.
According to the legend, St. Nicholas, or Szent Miklós as he is called in Hungarian, saved three little girls from having to be sold to a brothel as prostitutes.
The father of the three girls had no money and he could not pay any dowry for her daughters. Since they could not marry, they were fated to be maidens and would need to be sold to the brothel. However, Miklós pitied the girls and secretly hid money (or gold) in their boots to pay for their dowry, Szeretlekmagyarország writes.
The Mikulás tradition has evolved quite a lot over the years and it is one of the youngest Hungarian traditions. In Hungary, children will leave their cleaned boots on the windowsills so that Mikulás could hide sweets and small presents in them for the children. This comes from the last part of the legend, where Mikulás hid the money in the girls’ boots.
However, kids are also kind of “punished” if Mikulás deemed them to have been bad children. In Hungary, instead of receiving coal (although some families in Hungary also do that), children usually get a virgácsfrom Mikulás’s helper, the Krampusz.
How the Krampusz evolved to become the helper of Mikulás is interesting. It was a pagan character who got mixed into Christian traditions in Europe. In a few depictions, he whips lazy people with a sheaf of branches, which is now called the virgács. There was a time in Hungary around the 18th century when celebrating Mikulás and Krampusz was banned as the latter scared children so much.
Since then, in tradition, the helper of Mikulás evolved to be less frightening and is often accompanying Mikulás even to events for children. Nonetheless, people like horror and the tradition of the scary Krampusz is revived in dedicated festivals around the world.
Nowadays Mikulás is often celebrated in kindergartens where people would dress up as the gift-giver and Krampusz and would give children small packages of gifts with tangerines, peanuts and szaloncukor. Children would be taught to sing jolly songs to Mikulás to receive the gifts.
You can also pay someone to come to your house dressed up as Mikulás and give the children their gifts. A few years back it was often done by university students to get a little extra pocket money.
Children are also encouraged to clean their boots to put on their windowsills so that the Mikulás could hide the presents there.
Source: nationalgeographic.com, szeretlekmagyarország.hu, Daily News Hungary