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From ice skating at Christmas Fairs to drinking special hot chocolates in toasty cafés, everyone has their favourite ways of enjoying themselves in the winter. Hungarians don’t let the creeping cold hold back their love of celebrations, meaning there are just as many fascinating festivals to find in Budapest – and even Hungary as a whole – throughout the season.
Running from the end of November throughout the whole of December, the Gastro Fair–in Hungarian, Kézműves Magyar Ízek Vására and meaning literally ‘handcrafted Hungarian taste fair’–is a perfect choice for those who really want to get a sense of Hungarian food and its typical ingredients.
With over 150 vendors across the country, there’s an exceptional range of choices here. From typical choices like honey and jams to more magyar-exclusive flavours, there’s so much to enjoy, like the national sausage kolbász, or a selection of wines and the local brandy, pálinka.
As one of the newer and lesser-known events taking place at the end of the year, the New Wine and Cheese Festival will require a modicum of Hungarian knowledge if you’re to experience it fully.
While the country isn’t especially well-known for its cheese production, Hungarians will still use any opportunity to demonstrate their wide array of wines.
The difference here is that some of the lesser known names make an appearance, giving an opportunity for smaller wineries to make a name for themselves. There’s even a procession of the members of the Hungarian Wine Order dressed in their full garb.
As is typical across Europe, the Christmas fairs set up around mid-November, but aren’t in full swing until December. Budapest is a little different in that its markets are spread throughout the city, with the main two located at Vörösmarty Square and outside the gorgeous St Stephen’s Basilica.
The selection ranges from typical German wursts to more traditional Hungarian items, such as the exclusively magyar treats of fried dough lángos or kürtőskalács, a strip of sweet bread wrapped around a spit and slowly cooked over a fire.
There are numerous handcrafted goods available too, from jewelry and clothing to neat souvenirs and ornaments. With plenty of musical events, craft workshops, and the biggest ice skating rink in Europe, there’s more than enough to indulge in at Budapest’s Christmas festivities.
Another Christmas-themed festival is organised by the Budapest Opera House with the Ecumenical Organisation to help families and children living in poverty. It celebrates the start of the annual season with the Nutcracker–A Diótörő, in Hungarian. Smaller events and productions are hosted outside the opera house along Andrássy Avenue.
This ranges from a number of choirs performing concerts outside the opera house, installations built into the cylindrical advertisement spaces displaying props and characters from previous years and even a cutesy Christmas hut selling mulled wine–the earnings of which go to charity.
Literally meaning ‘carnival’ in English, Farsang signals the end of the Christmas period for the Hungarian people. Starting on January 6th, the traditional day to throw out the Christmas tree, Farsang is a period of colourful masquerades and fine food feasts.
There’s a number of aspects to this month-long stretch, with celebrations of varying types throughout the months of January and February. One popular recurring festival is in the city of Miskolc and it has everything to do with meat jelly.
Yet while Farsang has less of the cultural significance than it once had for families–where typically the winter months meant farming, families could afford a little more time for festivity–there are two key things to consider when taking part in Farsang:
The first is Torkos Csütörtök–or ‘Fat Thursday’–where everyone stuffs their face ahead of lent. Admittedly the idea of fasting has taken a backseat nowadays, especially for the younger generation, but a number of restaurants in Budapest take part in the celebration by offering 50% off all dishes.
The second is the Busójárás in the town of Mohács. This is located in the far south of Hungary, and so will require some effort if you’re hoping to see it. However, this UNESCO-recognised event is something quite unique, where men covered in sheep’s wool and wearing quaintly creepy wooden masks, run around making noise and chasing women, in a playful manner, mind. It’s certainly something worth travelling to see.
Mangalica (pronounced mahn-gah-leet-sah) is a breed of pig unique to Hungary and is, in fact, endangered. As such, its breeding is heavily protected by the government, ensuring the finest quality meat is produced from these animals.
This means that for a week in February, when the snow is likely to be falling in Budapest, Szabadság Square becomes filled with stalls selling a range of mangalica products, from spit roasted pig to popular sausages.
There are, of course, the usual additional extras, including mulled wine and pálinka (both Hungarian favourites to stave off the cold), and open-air concerts performed live at the venue. It’s a very specific Hungarian delicacy, though, so certainly one to look out for.
On the other end of the scale–pun-intended–is the Budapest Fish Festival. While it might seem like a strange thing to celebrate, Hungarians need no excuse to head outside in the colder months if it means they can get hold of some delicious food to warm them up.
This is perhaps the last festival of the season before things start to heat up, but it’s certainly one that tourists and locals enjoy. This festival is possible due to the availability of halászlé–or Fisherman’s Soup–a popular Hungarian dish that mixes fish and paprika into a deliciously spicy and warming winter treat.
Elsewhere there are cooking competitions and folklore shows, as well as displays of varying ways of preparing and eating fish.