March means the start of spring, International Women’s Day (Nők Napja), the end of hibernation, but also monsters dancing around a campfire. Wait what? Yes, that’s right, March is the month that Hungarians celebrate the so-called Busójárás, the Carnival of Mohács.
Mohács is a small city next to the Danube, about 30 minutes east from Pécs. It is the only city in Hungary that celebrates the Busójárás, an event that has such a historical and cultural significance that the Carnival of Mohács is considered an UNESCO Cultural Heritages Event, as well as a true Hungarikum.
So what is this event all about? The Busó Carnival is a six-day folk tradition bidding farewell to winter, welcoming spring and increasing fertility. The celebration starts at the end of February with the so-called Little Carnival, and ends on the beginning of March on Shrove Tuesday. The winter farewell involves a huge bonfire, lots of noise and terrifying masks in order to scare away the cold winter days, and embrace spring.
The origins of this old folk custom can be explained with the legend of how the citizens of Mohács expelled the Ottomans, who invaded Hungary in 1552 until 1693. According to the story, the citizens of Mohács were outmanned, without weapons or help. But if you can’t out-fight them, then out-think them! They came up with a plan to use the superstition of the Ottomans to their own advantage. In the dead of night they dressed up as monsters and invaded the Ottoman camp by crossing the Danube by boat. In pitch black darkness with only a glimpse of the moon lighting the terrifying appearance of the Mohács monsters, their act was so convincing that the superstitious Ottomans were scared to death, and fled.
This folk legend is still the driving power behind the Busójárás, but whether this legend is actually based upon a true story remains the question until this day. Others claim that the roots of the busójárás actually lay with the folklore traditions of the native Croatians, who migrated to the Danube region in the 17th century.
Whatever the true meaning is behind the traditions of the Carnival of Mohács, the citizens of Hungary still enthusiastically join this age-old national tradition. The honor falls upon the inhabitants of Mohács to re-enact this fascinating phenomenon, which they do passionately, year in year out (except for 2020 and 2021, when the event was sadly cancelled due to COVID). It’s part of their inheritance in which young and old proudly participate alike. The role as busó monster is only played by Mohács men, using the same costumes as hundreds of years ago.
Wearing big white furry coats make them seem bigger and more monster-like. The wooden carved masks, traditionally painted with animal blood give them the most scary facial expressions. And top it off, the busó carry rattles and cowbells to make as much noise as possible. During the days of the Carnival, they dance around the city, frighten the visitors and fool around by stealing hats from the men and kisses from the ladies.
Busó monsters are accompanied by Mohács women dressed up in traditional Hungarian folklore clothing as well, wearing a black mask or veil to cover their faces, or are disguised as witches. The highlight of the Carnival is Sunday, when the big parade takes place. All the masquerades team up and participate in the colourful procession through the city, showing their self-decorated wagon and entertaining the audience with their acts.
And as true for all Hungarian folklore and national traditions, food is a big part of the celebration. The streets of Mohács are filled with streetfood trucks and little wooden houses celebrating Hungarian cuisine. This is the ultimate time to try lángos, a fried savory pancake with sourcream and cheese, or kürtöskalács, a sweet chimney cake with cinnamon or nuts. To complete the Hungarian cultural experience, you can find lots of handcrafts shops with embroidery, woodcraft or other typical items. My advice? Wander through the streets of Mohács, get a taste of the culture and lángos, and finish the day near the big bonfire, joining the busó by scaring away the winter.
The photos of this article date back to 2019, as for the past two years the festival was cancelled due to COVID.