Fish heads? Devils? Corporal punishment? Tons of poppy seeds? These are all essential elements of the Hungarian Christmas season. Do you want to know how Hungarians spend Christmas? Look no further, this post is for you.
Santa Claus comes on December 5th sometime during the night. Kids spend the evening singing Santa Claus songs, probably the most famous of which is Hull a pelyhes fehér hó. I’ve embedded the link so you can listen to it.
Fluffy white snow is falling, come, dear Santa!
Every child is waiting, the sound of cheerful singing.
You have in your bag all the good red apples, hazelnuts,
Come to us, we are waiting for you, dear old Santa.
Big bearded Santa, the friend of good children.
Candy, walnuts, hazelnuts are hidden in your bag.
Where you go until morning, little shoes get filled up,
Santa fills them if he sees them empty!
In the meantime, they are polishing their shoes or boots, then put them on the windowsill (on the outside of course because the Hungarian Santa isn’t a domestic intruder, he doesn’t enter people’s homes during the night while everybody is sleeping. Almost half of the population lives in blocks of flats, so it would be pretty tricky to get in, and the other half lives in detached houses with huge fences and large, fierce dogs who would hunt him down anyway.
Santa doesn’t ride his sleigh alone, though. He travels with his Krampusz! Krampusz is a black devil-like creature who scares the living hell out of naughty kids.
Good kids get what I’ve already mentioned above, so they have enough candy supply until Easter. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? What about the naughty one? Well, they get something that’s called a virgács. A virgács is a bunch of branches from a bush of willow tree, sprayed with gold paint, tied with a red ribbon at the bottom. You guessed it. It’s a spanking tool. How much more humane the British Santa is who gives coal to the naughty ones… You can see a black version of the virgács in the Krampusz’s hand in the photo above but here’s a more contemporary one:
A lot of adults dress up as Santa Claus. When I was about 7, the mom (yes, the female parent) of a friend of mine dressed up as Santa, a friend of hers dressed up as a Snow Fairy or whoever it was, borrowed a horse-drawn carriage (it was easy in the village where I grew up) and went from house to house to have a chat with the kiddos. So they came to our place. My mom answered the door, I was standing behind her. She said, ‘Rita, look! Santa Claus is here!’. “Santa” said hi to me and although she tried to deepen her voice and walk like an old man, I immediately recognized her, so I replied, ‘But Mom! This isn’t Santa Claus! This is just Ági’s mom!’. Please, don’t judge me.
So Santa Claus Day is over, and we can now start preparing for Christmas. The traditional Hungarian Christmas tree is spruce. It has a wonderful scent and tolerated room temperature well, so it’s the perfect tree. Most Hungarians don’t have a huge tree and according to tradition, people usually buy it a few days before Christmas, never earlier. When I was a kid, I used to go with my dad to pick a tree on Christmas Eve while my mom was cleaning the house and cooking (she’s an obsessive cleaner, so it was better not to be around). We put all kinds of decorations on our trees and there is a must-have: the szaloncukor. Szaloncukor is chocolate-covered Christmas candy wrapped in shiny wrapping paper. You can buy small pieces of metal wires called szaloncukor hangers, so you can imagine how important it is to hang some on the tree. I never do it because the cats always steal them. When I was a child, I used to visit our tree quite often during the holidays, unwrap the szaloncukor, eat them, make the wrapping papers look as if something was still inside and leave them on the tree.
We have an early dinner on Christmas Eve. I guess it’s because kids are too impatient to spend the entire evening waiting for opening their presents but I’ll get back to it later. The traditional Christmas soup is fish soup which I loathe with a passion. It’s seasoned with paprika and has a very strong flavour. Hungarians are famous for their love of spicy food. But paprika overdose isn’t the worst thing about it. According to tradition, you cook in the head of the fish in one piece, so when you place the large soup bowl on the neat Christmas table, there’s a fish head floating in the soup, with the eyes still there. The main course is stuffed cabbage and for dessert, we have walnut and poppy seed bejgli. Bejgli is a roll cake made of yeast dough. And when I say poppy seed bejgli, I mean that there is about 100-150 grams of ground poppy seed in one roll. With this amount of poppy, a good mood is guaranteed. During dinner, Hungarians usually have a fight over the bejgli because the top cannot be cracked and if it, then it’s a domestic disaster.
After dinner, it’s time to open the presents. According to our tradition, the presents are brought by the baby Jesus – it’s the eve of his birthday anyway. How does he manage to sneak in to put the present under the tree while everybody is wide awake? It has been an unsolved mystery to me. That’s why I told my daughter that the angels bring the presents during the night of the 24th, so we open them in the morning on the 25th.
On December 25th and 26th we usually visit family and eat until we pass out.
What do you think about the Hungarian Christmas? Drop a comment to let me know.