There is no better time to honor our Hungarian roots than during the holidays. A time of celebration, the holiday season features family traditions that have been shared for generations. Here are ten Hungarian holiday traditions that we pass from our family to yours this holiday season.
1. Advent Wreaths
In Hungary, the countdown to Christmas is marked by traditional advent wreaths. These beautiful holiday centerpieces feature four candles, representing faith, hope, joy and love, nestled in a bed of pine branches and ribbon. A candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas, with the final candle lit on szent-este, or Christmas Eve.
Hungarian children receive gifts twice during the holiday season. On the eve of St. Nicholas Feast Day, which is celebrated on December 6, they are visited by Saint Nicholas, or Mikulás. That night, children place newly polished boots on their windowsills to be filled with small presents by Mikulás and his helpers. If you’ve been good, you will wake to find a boot filled with oranges and mandarins. If you’ve been naughty, Mikulás’ sidekick Krampusz (a mischievous devil), will have left a bundle of birch sticks (virgács) instead.
3. Luca Day
Celebrated on December 13, Luca Day marks Hungary’s annual Winter Solstice. As the shortest day and longest night of the year, it was also the darkest, and has traditionally been associated with witches and spirits. The Luca calendar marks the twelve days between Winter Solstice and Christmas, which were spent practicing a variety of folk traditions to ward off evil.
One of Hungary’s most famous holiday folk traditions is the carving of the Luca Chair. Made of nine different types of wood, the Luca chair was to be carved by Christmas Eve. The hitch: Only one carving was permitted per day. Once the chair was complete, its maker would carry it to midnight mass, where it would give him a high enough vantage point to spot witches in the crowd. A Hungarian saying that lives on from this tradition is “Készül, mint a Luca széke” or “You are preparing it as slowly as a Luca Chair!”
4. Love Spells
The Luca calendar was also a time for love spells. To forecast the name of her future husband, an unmarried woman would write twelve names on small scraps of paper and burn one a day until Christmas. The name on the last piece of paper was believed to be her future husband’s name. Alternatively, the scraps of paper could be put into dumplings and then cooked; the first dumpling to rise to the surface of the boiling water would contain the name of the woman’s husband-to-be.
5. Christmas Tree
In Hungary, holiday trees are decorated on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, children are not allowed to see the tree until they have been given permission by their parents, marked by the ringing of a bell. It is common practice for grandparents to take the children for a walk while the rest of the family decorates the tree. Upon their return, the family unveils the “surprise,” claiming that it was brought there by angels.
Hungarian Christmas trees are decorated with unique and beautiful ornaments. Since the 19th century, it has been Hungarian custom to decorate the holiday tree with szaloncukor, a sweet fondant often covered in chocolate and wrapped in shiny colored foil. Other decorations include shiny glass ornaments and handmade decorations embroidered with traditional Hungarian designs.
6. Holiday Feast
Decorating the tree is typically followed by a big family dinner. Traditional Hungarian holiday meals contain a spicy fish soup called halászlé, which translates to ‘Fishermens’ soup.’ This bright red soup was originally prepared over an open fire by fishermen along the Danube and Tisza, and is made with hot paprika and carp. Stuffed cabbage, or töltött káposzta is another holiday delicacy. The cabbage leaves are filled with savory rice, minced pork meat, herbs and – of course – paprika. These delicious rolls are served with a generous helping of sour cream.
7. Poppy Seed Desserts
In Hungary, poppy seeds (mákos) are believed to bring good luck and fortune in the new year. This is why poppy seed desserts are a common feature of the holiday season. One of the most famous poppy seed desserts is mákos retes, a rich poppy seed strudel. These poppy seed rolls have two traditional filling varieties: poppy seeds, symbolizing richness and good health and walnuts, which were believed to protect against bad luck. Another delicious poppy seed dessert is mákos guba. This bread pudding sprinkled with poppy seeds and drizzled with sweet honey is a traditional treat used to reward children for good behavior.
8. Holiday Markets
Christmas markets are a highlight of the holiday season in Budapest – and the most celebrated is at Vörösmarty Square. Named one of the best Christmas markets in Europe by Conde Nast Traveler, this world-renowned holiday market features over 100 wooden stalls selling traditional Hungarian handicrafts. Folk music and the scent of mulled wine fill the air, while open kitchens serve holiday comfort food like nokedli dumplings, lángos and chimney cakes. It’s no surprise that the Vörösmarty Square Christmas Fair attracts thousands of visitors every holiday season.
Much like North American caroling, regölés or “singing good wishes” is a Hungarian holiday tradition. From December 26 until New Year’s Day, singers called ‘regősök’ travel from house to house singing songs of good wishes to their neighbors. Historically, this was “a custom of singing about the magic of nature, greetings, wishing for abundance, drawing couples together and collecting donations.” These Hungarian carols can still be heard throughout the holiday season.
Mezeskalacs (pronounced may-zesh-koh-lotch) are beautifully-made Hungarian gingerbread cookies. Unlike traditional gingerbread, these sweet treats are infused with honey, giving them a mild flavor and light texture. Once out of the oven, each cookie is meticulously decorated with royal icing “piped into floral patterns (mezossegi) as well as cross-hatched lace, animal designs and Hungarian aphorisms.” You can watch an example of mezeskalacs being decorated here:
Do you have any special family traditions that you celebrate over the holidays? We’d love to hear them! Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.