Hungarian Winter Traditions

Did you know that on December 6th, Hungarian children are visited by St. Nicholas, “Mikulás Bácsi”, who leaves treats for children in their shoes or boots? One had to be obedient and helpful throughout the year.

December 13th is St. Lucy’s day. In Hungarian folk life, this day, called “Luca Napja”, has many unique customs associated with the day. The customs are varied, and include making a chair which is designed to ward off the witches that cause chaos in life. The chair is built over 13 days starting on the 13th, and each day a specific part of the chair is completed. The “Lucaszék” is just one of many village customs that mark St. Lucy’s Day in Hungary.

In Hungarian households, the celebration of Christmas occurs on Christmas Eve. Children “know” that the Angel brings the tree and the Christ Child brings the gifts. The tree has real candles (today the electric candles are more popular), and a decorative candy called “szaloncukor” hangs from the many branches lending the tree a festive look. The word for Christmas tree in Hungarian is “Karácsonyfa”.

Did you know that in the villages before and at Christmas, the men and boys go from house-to-house reenacting the story of Christ’s birth? The main characters are the shepherds who visit the Christ Child  and lay down their humble gifts beside the manger. Sometimes these nativity plays have some humorous lines, and at the end of the performance, the “actors” are treated to food and spirits! This custom is known as “Betlehemezés”.

New Years’s Day (Új Év Napja) has a myriad of folk customs that make the day special in the life of the people. The day has many do’s and don’ts, including not leaving one’s house, to washing your hands and face at the well outside. These customs may include dietary restrictions, such as not eating poultry because chickens have the bad habit of scratching in the dirt, and they will scratch away your good luck. However, pork is a good thing to eat on New Years Day, because pigs push good luck in front of them with their snouts! And in some areas, the families want only men to be the first to step into their home on New Year’s Day, because their greeting would bring the household good luck, as would  boys who come to greet and visit. And so on go all the different customs that make the first day of the year so special!

The girls in some of the regions in Hungary are not to be left out either! On the Feast of the Three Kings (January 6) they will go house to house and reenact the visit of the Three Kings. In other areas young men and boys do the honors. This custom is called “Háromkirály- Járás”.

There are many more customs associated with the winter time, including the visits of minstrels going house to house wishing the folks good luck and health in the new year as they sing ancient songs with verses dating back centuries (Regölés). Celebrating the carnival season before the start of Lent (“Farsang”) is also very popular. The rich tapestry of Hungarian folk culture weaves its way through the calendar year, seasoning everyday life with all its customs and practices, and in the winter, livening up the darker, colder days. In some form these customs belong to the village life but have developed to fit city life. Many of them have survived and are a part of the vibrant traditions in Hungary today, as well as belonging to the Hungarians living in our own Northeast Ohio community!

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