Every country has its own special way to celebrate the merriest month of the year, and whereas this joyous season is mostly all kinds of folk traditions from across the globe blended into one mix of celebrations, each country still upholds its own unique customs when it comes to festive occasions. Over the years, I enjoyed getting to know the intricate parts of the Hungarian culture, which is as rich and colorful as the December season, that I gladly share with you today!
The Hungarian December traditions are an interesting combination of religious Christian celebrations and folk tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. It all starts on the first Sunday after Saint Andrew day and the beginning of the Advent period. During this time, we count down the four Sundays until Christmas, and use this period to prepare and remember the meaning of Christmas. Many Hungarians have made it their habit to make a handmade Advent wreath, lighting a candle on every Sunday.
On “Silver Sunday” (ezüstvasárnap), the third Advent Sunday, the Hungarians celebrate Luca day according to age-old folk customs. There are many different folk myths around this day, but it is believed that on the 13th of December, due to the long and dark winter nights, Saint Luca was transformed into a witch. To deter the witches, garlic was inserted into the keyhole, a knife was placed in the door jamb, a cross with garlic was drawn on the door, or a broom was placed crosswise. Nothing was allowed to be borrowed or given on this day to prevent it from falling into the hands of witches. The girls predicted their future in Luca’s day. Tradition has it that women could not work because if they spun or sewed on Luca’s day, the hens would not lay eggs. Also on this day, the boys would set off to visit friends and family and waited for donations in exchange for their good wishes. If they didn’t do this, in turn, curses were sprinkled on the house.
Other tales tell us that in the 13 days of December, we should carve a chair from 9 different trees, the so-called Luca chair (Luca széke). The superstition says the witches can be seen standing on this chair, which then should be thrown into the fire, destroying the witches. Allegedly, anyone who does all this correctly can hear the witches crying while destroying the chair…
After banishing the evil of the dark days, the spirits would be lifted by the Nativity scene (Betlehemezés), traditionally played during the days around Christmas. It is a shepherds play telling the story of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and the visit of the three kings. It is custom to go watch the play every year in the nearest town or city, and it is seen as a true honor to play a part in the Nativity scene.
Connected to this tradition, in the countryside people used to play hay and straw under the dinner table during the festive meal that refers back to the manger in the Bethlehem barn. It is even customary for people to make their own manger where little Jesus can be placed after his birth.
Also the food on the table during the Christmas celebration is full of hidden folk wisdom, and literally every festive dish has its own significance. According to folklore, poppy seeds brings wealth, honey sweetens everyday life, while walnuts destroys the malicious intent. Fish soup is an integral part of the menu to this day, as the scales of the fish bring money to the house, whereas the stuffed cabbage fence off next year’s hardship.
In the countryside, “regalia” (regölés) is still the norm today, which is a kind of fertility spell. The elders wished the people of the house a good harvest, abundance and wealth next year with loud singing and an even louder noise – a flute, a bastard drum and a rattle chain. Usually, the boys also had a ulterior motive, as they mostly went to houses where there was still a single girl.
In Hungary, it is tradition to decorate the Christmas tree (karácsony fa) at Christmas Eve (szenteste). It was believed that the green, fragrant tree would drive away the evil spirits and in return bring health and luck to the occupants of the house. As to who delivers the Christmas presents, opinions around the world may differ, but in Hungary the presents are brought on Christmas Eve by Little Jesus (Jézuska). After decorating the tree and singing Christmas songs, the family would change into their fancy Christmas dresses, after which the presents magically appeared underneath the Christmas tree.
Among Christians, attending the Midnight Mass on December 24 is one of the most important traditions in connection with Christmas. However, the folktale goes that as long as the people are attending the mass, their animals would gather and gossip about their owners.
According to the Hungarian customs, the 6th of January, also referred to as Epiphany or Little Christmas, is the time to take down your Christmas tree and pack away your decorations again, and therefore the end of the Hungarian Christmas celebrations. As you can see, the month December is full of an interesting mix of folk traditions, myths and Christian customs. Every household has their own way of celebrating, and you will also notice that the people living in the cities possibly tend to follow the international Christmas traditions while the villagers are more likely to stick to traditons by carving Luca chairs and preparing their own manger. The most important thing is that wherever you are and whichever traditions you call your own, December is the month of lights, love and laughter. Therefore I wish you all a merry Hungarian Christmas! Boldog Karácsonyt!