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Submitted by JP on Fri, 12/22/2023 - 15:28
Karácsony in Hungary!

Hungarians celebrate Christmas similarly to Poles. However, there are some significant differences. Children do not receive presents from Santa Claus; instead, in contrast to Poles, Hungarians do not share the Christmas wafer before sitting down for the Christmas Eve supper.

The national Christmas tree in front of the parliament building in Budapest in 2023 is a spruce measuring approximately 24 meters in height, with a trunk diameter of 80 centimeters and a weight of around 5 tons. Photo by MTI/Szigetváry Zsolt

In Hungary, the anticipation of Christmas is accompanied by the presence of traditional Advent wreaths. These enchanting holiday centerpieces typically showcase four candles, each symbolizing a different theme: faith, hope, joy, and love.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in Hungary, much like in many countries around the world, holds special significance, with December 24th being the focal point of festive celebrations. Following a cherished Hungarian tradition, families adorn their Christmas trees exclusively on Christmas Eve, adding a touch of magic to the holiday atmosphere. On this day, they also place carefully wrapped presents beneath the glittering branches.

The tradition of Christmas trees in Hungary emerged in the 16th century, first taking root in Protestant homes and influenced by practices imported from Germany. Initially, the branches were adorned with apples, nuts, and symbolic elements like pieces of sausage or ham, representing life and prosperity. In contemporary times, Hungarian decorations mirror those found in Poland and other countries, featuring colorful baubles, twinkling lights, and ornaments. While the custom of handmade decorations is gradually waning, its essence still lingers.

Yet, Hungary brings its own unique flair to the Christmas celebration. Christmas in Hungary wouldn't be complete without the iconic "szaloncukor" candies. Initially, these exquisite pralines were filled with fondant, and only the most affluent Hungarian families could indulge in adorning their trees with these delicacies. The name "szaloncukor" is derived from the German-Austrian term "Salonzuckerl," giving rise to the original Hungarian name, "szalonczukkedli." This sweet tradition adds an extra layer of sweetness and nostalgia to the Hungarian Christmas experience.

In contemporary Hungary, almost everyone hangs szaloncukor on their Christmas trees. In stores, you can find pralines in various flavors, including hazelnut, coconut, marzipan, chocolate, vanilla, caramel, or lemon-filled. For those who enjoy culinary experiments, manufacturers produce over 150 different flavors each year. Traditional sweet treats are available with chestnut, pineapple, basil, mulled wine, black elderberry, or super spicy chili fillings.

In keeping with Hungarian tradition, the responsibility of decorating the Christmas tree falls to the adults, while the children eagerly await the magical unveiling of the fully adorned tree. As part of this customary practice, grandparents often take the children for a walk, providing an opportunity for the rest of the family to transform the tree into a festive spectacle. Upon the return of the children, the family reveals the beautifully decorated tree, attributing its transformation to a delightful "surprise" brought by angels.

However, a sweet Hungarian Christmas custom also states that, mainly thanks to children's involvement, only colorful wrappers remain after the sweets are consumed by the end of the holidays.

In Hungary, the Christmas Eve tables do not necessarily have to feature twelve dishes, and instead of straw under the tablecloth, Hungarian children place lentils. Many Hungarian families place lentils under the tablecloth, as per old beliefs, to ensure health and prosperity for the household in the upcoming year. According to old Hungarian beliefs, even crumbs from the Christmas Eve table had magical significance and possessed healing powers. Additionally, honey (sweetening life), garlic (protecting health), and poppy seeds symbolizing prosperity and well-being are important.

During the holidays, highly popular dishes on Hungarian tables include halászlé, a strongly spiced fish soup with renowned Hungarian paprika, as well as rice and breaded fried fish (usually carp). Hungarians indulge in a Hungarian version of cabbage rolls called töltött káposzta, stuffed cabbage with sour cream, as well as goose, turkey, or roasted pig (in wealthier families, a whole roasted pig may even grace the holiday table).

Among the pastries, walnut-filled diós (Hungarian royal walnut cake), mákos retes (strudel made from thin layers of special dough filled with poppy seeds, flavored with lemon zest and sugar), poppy seed roll (makowiec), and mákos bejgli are favorites. Another popular pastry is zserbo (layered cake made like yeast dough, topped with chocolate and nut filling). In addition to candies, gingerbread cookies (mézes kalács) coated with icing, and edible chestnuts are among the festive snacks.

Christmas Eve is called Szenteste, or Holy Evening. In Hungary, unlike in Poland, there is no tradition of sharing the Christmas wafer. Instead, before the start of the solemn supper, Hungarians share an apple, symbolizing love and harmony within the family. The apple is sliced into as many pieces as there are individuals at the Christmas Eve dinner table.

Silent Night in Hungarian. Source: YouTube

After the Christmas Eve dinner, it's time for singing traditional Christmas carols together, such as "Csendes éj" ("Silent Night") or "Pásztorok, Pásztorok" ("Shepherds, Shepherds").

An important and eagerly anticipated part of the evening, especially by children worldwide, is the unwrapping of presents placed under the Christmas tree. In Hungary, however, it is not Santa Claus, but rather the Angel or even little Jesus who brings gifts to the youngest members of the family.

Hungarian children experience the joy of receiving gifts twice during the holiday season. On the eve of St. Nicholas Feast Day, celebrated on December 6, they eagerly await the visit of Saint Nicholas, known as Mikulás. Children diligently polish their boots and place them on the windowsills, hoping to find them filled with small presents by Mikulás and his helpers. For those who have been well-behaved, waking up to discover boots brimming with oranges and mandarins is a delightful reward. However, for those who may have been a bit mischievous, Mikulás' sidekick Krampusz, a playful devil, might leave a bundle of birch sticks (virgács) instead.

At midnight, similar to Poland, in Hungary, there is a Midnight Mass called Éjféli mise. Similar to the North American tradition of caroling, regölés, or "singing good wishes," is a cherished Hungarian holiday custom. From December 26 until New Year's Day, groups of singers known as 'regősök' roam from house to house, spreading festive cheer by singing songs of good wishes to their neighbors.

The favorite Christmas carol of the patron of the Polish-Hungarian Cooperation Institute, Professor Wacław Felczak. Source: YouTube