Regardless of whether you consider it a religious holiday or just an excuse to give (and receive) gifts, there’s no denying the power of Christmas and its global ability to bring people together. But the real beauty lies in the eclectic and varied traditions, from personal inter-family festivities, to broader cultural differences between nations. Hungary is no different, and has a number of traditions unique to it.
First things first: if you’re to celebrate the holidays with a Hungarian then you ought to know the correct greeting. In this regard you’ll want to practice ‘boldog karácsonyt’—pronounced bohl-dohg kah-raa-choh-neet—which means ‘Happy Christmas’. If you really want to impress, take a stab at ‘kellemes karácsonyi ünnepeket’, or ‘pleasant Christmas holidays’; but no Hungarian would judge you for failing on this one.
While the modern youth of Hungary will enjoy tiny chocolates on a daily basis from December 1 thanks to their advent calendars, there is already something else to look forward to early on in December. Mikulás—the Hungarian equivalent of St Nicholas—arrives to Hungary on December 6, and in preparation Hungarian girls and boys must clean and polish their shoes the night before, placing them on the windowsill.
If they’ve been good in the year then those same shoes will be stuffed with chocolates and treats, and perhaps even small toys or books. But if they’ve been bad then, rather than coal in the stockings, these poor kids will receive a virgács, a small bundle of twigs that has been painted gold. Naturally it’s also become a tongue-in-cheek gift to give to colleagues and friends on the same day to warn of a bad work ethic or debts to be repaid.
While most Western cultures pin all the hard work in December on Santa Claus, Hungary is weirdly varied in its depictions of gift-giving, and it’s important to know the difference. Mikulás is St Nicholas in every way, the red-robed, bishop-looking figure of Holland’s Sinterklaas origin. Then there’s Télapó, or Old Man Winter, who is essentially the Americanized form of Santa.
He’s also likely to appear during December to hand out gifts, and is even the subject of the popular children’s Christmas rhyme ‘Télapó itt van’, or ‘Old Man Winter is here’. But on the big day it’s not actually Santa Klaus that sneaks in and gives out gifts but, instead, Jézuska—or yay-zoosh-kah—the baby Jesus. A tough challenge for the young Messiah…
For the most part the idea of the Christmas Tree is the same in Hungary as it is in any other country, but with one unique twist. While the Christmas markets of the country will all put up their grand, fantastically-ornate trees at the start of December, traditionally the tree isn’t actually decorated until Christmas Eve.
This tradition is fading a little, admittedly, but there are still households that stick to ensuring the tree isn’t glittering until December 24. As a quaint tale for the kids, some families decorate the tree before the kids get home and claim that it was brought there by angels.
The decorations are familiar, for the most part: tinsel, fairy lights and bright, colorful baubles. But one thing that is common throughout most households is the addition of szaloncukor scattered across the tree. These typical festive chocolates, commonly filled with flavored fondant, are pervasive throughout the Christmas period, stuck to trees, offered for free at cafés and restaurants, and even boxes of them given as gifts.
When it comes to present giving, however, Hungarians use Christmas Eve to share the presents. Businesses close at noon, and even the public transport closes by 3pm, giving everyone the chance to make it home in time for festivities.
While this is still traditionally the day that gifts are given, since many are still working in the morning there isn’t always time for a grand meal to be prepared. In these cases the Christmas dinner is saved until the next day, Christmas Day.
With that said, Hungarians still make time for Midnight Mass—as is the case for so many countries around the world—and most will find themselves at church on Christmas Eve.
With the presents handed out already, Christmas Day is a full day of celebrations. This typically means a lot of food, drink, and laughter. The most typical Hungarian dish for Christmas is halaszlé, a fish soup spiced with paprika paste or powder. Others may serve a magyar favorite, stuffed cabbage, but it’s increasingly common to serve up a mix of fish, chicken, and pork with a variety of sauces, vegetables, and rice.
For dessert it’s not uncommon to see the ubiquitous chocolate log or gingerbread cakes and biscuits, but a more Hungarian speciality is bejgli (bay-glee), a rolled sweetbread filled with poppy seeds (mákos), walnuts (diós), or both.
All this is combined with a lot of drinking, from strong homemade pálinka—or fruit brandy—to a variety of Hungarian wines and beers. If there’s one thing that remains true of Christmas in any culture, it’s the love of excessive eating and drinking.
It seems Hungary isn’t too different about how it spends December 26, either, repeating the overload of food and alcohol with tertiary family members and close friends. It’s back to work on December 27, so it’s really about cramming in the festivities until New Year’s.