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How Hungarians celebrate Christmas

Advent may have strayed from the norm this year but Hungarians are sure to celebrate Christmas as traditionally as ever. The fact that bars and restaurants are now closed during shutdown hardly affects local customs – people hurry to visit their families on Christmas Eve and stay indoors. For those unfamiliar with Magyar Yuletide rituals, such as giving presents on 24 December, here’s a little guide!

Although Christmas markets moved online this year, Hungarian families still will have decked out their homes with Advent candles and wreaths, pretty lights and a Christmas tree.

Hanging from the tree will be Hungarian gingerbread cookies, mézeskalács, fashioned into classic Christmas shapes like angels, bells and stars, even little houses criss-crossed with icing to show the door and windows.

Dangling alongside will be szaloncukor, chocolate-covered fondants in many flavours and shiny colours. Beware that some might be empty – every Hungarian learns from an early age how to extract the sugary chocolate and put the empty sweet back onto the branch as if nothing had happened and the wrapping was still full.

No mistaking bejgli, though – slices of this sweet yeast bread will be laid out on the table with poppy-seed or walnut filling. Roll after roll of this Christmas favourite is devoured at this time of year, and offered to any guest. There’s no mistletoe, though, as this amorous tradition didn't make it as far as Hungary.

24 December is reserved for the immediate family – even during the current pandemic, the curfew hours have been relaxed for this special occasion. Customarily, this is the night when the Christmas tree is decorated and presents are arranged by the grown-ups. The kids are kept waiting in another room under the pretence that Baby Jesus is taking time from his busy schedule to deliver the gifts and adorn the branches.

Here, Santa delivers presents on 6 December, leaving the hard work to Baby Jesus on the 24th.

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… before tearing into the gifts and comparing their booty like other kids the world over. Some families later attend Midnight Mass, which is also being allowed this year.

Before then, there is Christmas dinner to be had, typically fish soup, stuffed cabbage or perhaps turkey.

Christmas Day is generally a relaxed affair here in Hungary, as kids play with their new toys and another holiday feast is prepared. This is usually when in-laws or those just outside the immediate family see loved ones.

26 December is also a national holiday and in normal times, many who work in Budapest prepare to leave the countryside after two or three days of sedate feasting.   


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