In most English speaking countries and many other parts of the world where Christmas is celebrated, Santa Claus is believed to give gifts to people – especially children – on Christmas Eve. However, Hungarians celebrate Christmas a little differently.
In Hungary, as in many European countries, Jezuska (Christkind) is the traditional gift on Christmas, and in Hungary it is usually celebrated on Christmas Eve, rather than on Christmas Day morning.
Most of you are probably somewhat familiar with some of the newer traditions of celebrating Christmas in Hungary, but some traditions have changed or disappeared altogether over the centuries.
It is important to note that when Christianity became popular it incorporated several pagan customs and traditions of the time.
For example, bringing branches or evergreen branches into someone’s house has long pagan roots, but the tradition of erecting a Christmas tree was not popularized in Hungary until around the 19th century.
According to some sources, the first person to own a Christmas tree in Hungary was Teréz Brunszvik, the founder of the first Hungarian kindergarten, who erected it in 1824.
The custom then began to spread among the wealthier people, and it did not really become a general tradition for everyone until around the 1930s.
This is when the typical tradition nowadays of decorating the tree with szaloncukor began, and now Hungarians spend billions of forints every year on these delicious sweets.
Also read: Why is Santa Claus arriving in Hungary so early? – History and traditions
Another important tradition that has pagan roots is the Nativity play. It was believed that the fur of animals and making a lot of noise – much like with the origins of the Busójárás – scared away evil spirits. However, it was predominantly Christianized, with the play being performed in or in front of churches.
A mixture of pagan and Christian traditions is still present in some places in Hungary, mainly in Transdanubia. It is called regölés, when a group of people roam the streets singing and bringing fertility and luck to households in exchange for gifts between December 27 and Epiphany (January 6). It could be a holdover from shamanic rituals from ancient Hungarian traditions.
While the exact Christmas traditions are unique to each family, and families can create their own traditions, most religious Hungarians would attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, after a heavy dinner.
Usually, Hungarians celebrate Christmas with their close family and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. They would then visit other family members on December 25 and 26.
December 27 is the day of Saint John and the consecration of wine. Many families brought wine to the church to be consecrated by the priest. It was believed that this wine would help cure illnesses.
Also read: What is szaloncukor and why do Hungarians spend so much there?
Today, food has a very central role in the celebration of Christmas in Hungary. Many families have their own typical Christmas menu which often includes staples well known in Hungarian gastronomy, such as gulyás or halászlé (fisherman’s soup) and main dishes like the legendary töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage) and the csirkepaprikás (chicken paprikash) or fried fish.
However, this was not always the case. When the religious aspects of the celebration were more focused, people fasted that day and did not eat meat, with the except fish.
This is probably why today’s Christmas feast also often includes halászlé (fishermen’s soup) or some type of fish-based main course.
Vegetables and fruits were the most important ingredients of fasting Christmas meals, with lentils, beans, cabbage, mushrooms, dried fruits, apples, chestnuts and pumpkins having consecrated the roles.
Mákosguba (bread and butter pudding with poppy seeds), briós (brioche) and zserbó (gerbaud) are all popular desserts during the Christmas period, but by far the best known is the bejgli.
Many Hungarians spend a lot of time decorating their homes, especially the Christmas tree and the dining table. Many families have a dedicated, ornamental or specially colored tablecloth for Christmas. It is often red because, according to older traditions, this color represents happiness.
Source: Hungary Daily News