Magyar Christmas: Hungary’s customary Yuletide rituals
Photo : Krisztian Bodis/We Love Budapest
22/12/2014, 12:27 PM●6-minute article
While strolling around Budapest during the most wonderful time of the year, we can admire many globally iconic symbols of Christmastime as they brighten the city sidewalks dressed in holiday style, from long strands of flashing bulbs to open-air markets fragrant with mulled wine to classic carols filling the crisp air. However, several longtime Hungarian Christmas traditions are quite unique to this region, and while not all of them are common anymore, they each bear fascinating reflections of regional culture.
The celebrations of Yuletide advance in waves of growing holiday spirit here, officially beginning a full month before December 25 with the onset of Advent. Like in numerous European countries, many families gather on the fourth Sunday before Christmas here to create and decorate a horizontal Advent wreath adorned with four candles, lighting a fresh one on every Sabbath leading up to Christmas Day. Here in Hungary, many oversized Advent wreaths are found at Christmas markets and other public spaces.
The next major celebration of Christmas in Hungary is “Mikulás Day” on December 6, the feast day of Saint Nicholas (“Mikulás” in Hungarian), which is when little Magyar boys and girls traditionally expect a visit from the Hungarian version of Santa Claus – along with his beastly buddy Krampusz. (For more details about this custom, check out our earlier article all about Mikulás Day.) Variants on the Mikulás story are common throughout Central Europe, but the next old-time Christmas-season tradition is quite unique to Hungary, and most likely dates back to pagan times – the building of the “Luca Chair”.
December 13 is the feast day of Saint Lucy (“Luca” in Hungarian), and while this occasion is celebrated as part of Advent with brilliant candlelit processions in Scandinavian nations and beyond, here this date is a call of duty for one of the world’s most slow-paced DIY projects. According to Magyar tradition, on this day the man of the house should begin gradually building a small stool by using a different type of wood for every piece of lumber needed. This stool should not be completed until just before it’s time for Midnight Mass on Christmas, at which point the unhurried handyman would bring the freshly-finished stool to the local church and stand on top of it – when he’d suddenly gain the power to recognize horns on the heads of women who are witches in hiding among the congregation. When these wicked women would realize that their cover was blown, they’d chase the man back to his home, and the only way he could survive their wrath was to toss the new stool into his fiery hearth.
Considering how much effort goes into this inherently dangerous and ultimately futile Magyar Yuletide tradition, we understand why it is hardly ever observed here anymore, although Luca Chairs are still built by some villagers (but presumably not with intentions of burning them to cinders while witches try banging down the door). However, another old-fashioned Hungarian Christmastime tradition of mid-December is still practiced to some extent in villages nationwide – the Bethlehem Play, which is basically a regional version of caroling with children dressing up in folk costumes before traveling door-to-door to perform Nativity plays, puppet shows, or recitals of Magyar poetry, all in hopes of receiving delicious sweets (or even alcohol).
Speaking of Christmas treats, these are just as popular here as anywhere else, with several iconic Magyar-made delights holding considerable local flavor. Similar to gingerbread, mézeskalács cookies are often formed into classic Christmastime shapes like angels, bells, and stars, and are even constructed into houses – but here the decoration of these beautiful biscuits is especially elaborate, with white icing often applied in fine patterns evocative of lace.
Instead of candy canes, the typical Christmastime confection that doubles as a decoration here is szaloncukor (“parlor candy” in Hungarian), a chocolate-covered fondant available in many flavors and wrapped in colorful shiny paper – however, be warned: unless you are certain that a particular piece of szaloncukor is of high quality, it’s usually best left as a holiday bauble or to treat someone suffering from a hypoglycemic fit. Another classic Yuletide specialty adored by sweet-toothed celebrants is beigli, a rolled pastry of sweet yeast bread stuffed with poppy seeds or minced walnuts; bring one of these to any Hungarian Christmas party, and your warm reception is all but assured.
Hungarian friends and colleagues often gather to celebrate the holiday season in the days before Christmas, but December 24 is a special day reserved for family gatherings – in fact, Christmas Eve here is widely regarded as a more momentous occasion than Christmas Day. Customarily, it is on this night when the Christmas tree is decorated and presents are arranged by each family’s adults while the kids are kept waiting in another room (under the pretense that Baby Jesus is taking time from his busy schedule to deliver the gifts and adorn the branches; see our aforementioned Mikulás article). When the ornaments are all hung and the presents are ready, the parents ring a bell and the kids come running out to admire the glory of Noel… well, at least for a few nanoseconds, before tearing into the gifts and comparing their loot like other kids the world over. (Devout families will then attend Midnight Mass, but they usually leave any magical chairs at home.)
Christmas Day is generally a relaxed affair here in Hungary, as kids play with their new toys and a holiday feast is prepared; traditional dishes for the Christmas meal include spicy fish soup, roasted turkey, and stuffed cabbage, along with all of the sweets described above. And happily enough, even though there is no “Boxing Day” here, December 26 is also a national holiday in Hungary, meaning that many people go out to party on the evening of Christmas – but if you join the Nativity nightlife scene, don’t attempt to bring mistletoe to score a Christmastime kiss; the amorous Western tradition surrounding this parasitic plant is absolutely unknown to the vast majority of Magyars.