How We Celebrate Christmas In Hungary
Oh, those old Christmas Eves when I used to stand by the window, hoping to get a glance of the angels as they bring our Christmas tree. Those old, old times when I used to write letters to Christ Child with detailed descriptions and pictures of the toys I was dreaming about. Yes, it’s Christ Child and his angels who come to Hungarian kids on Christmas Eve. And this post is about how we celebrate Christmas – in Hungary and in our family.
Our Santa Claus arrives on the 6th of December and he’s long gone by Christmas. He usually brings sweets to good kids, but the time for opening the big presents – well, and getting some more sweets, too – is Christmas Eve. Like I told you, they are brought by Christ Child and his angels on whom I usually tried to spy on as a kid – without success.
However, as one Christmas followed another, I couldn’t help noticing something strange. Our Daddy always had to go to work on Christmas Eve. We had lunch together, then he went to work, and we, kids went into our room with Mum. We played board games or sang Christmas songs. There was one thing we were not allowed to do: enter the living room. Because angels are extremely timid, and we would scare them away. But then Dad got home from work, he came into our room, and cheerfully announced that angels had visited our house and left something for us in the living room. And tadam! – there it was: the Christmas tree with the presents underneath.
Later we decorated the Christmas tree together – me, my siblings, Mum and Dad. We put the gifts under the tree, and opened them after the Christmas meal. Even though large, shiny Christmas trees stand proud on the streets and squares of Hungry from the beginning of December, families decorate their trees on the 24th.
24th of December: the highlight of the Christmas celebrations
Even though the 24th of December is not even a public holiday in Hungary, it’s the most important day in our Christmas celebrations. Its evening is called Holy Evening. People either take a day off or leave early from work on the 24th if they can. Because it’s the day that’s spent with close family – the closest possible. It usually means the couple and their kids. When kids grow up, they often spend Christmas Eve with their partners. Csaba and I have spent Christmas Eves together since we got married seven years ago. And this year we have Tomi, our four months old son with us, too.
We decorate the Christmas tree on the 24th. Several kinds of ornaments and ribbons are used, but the most important thing – and the child in me enthusiastically agrees – is parlor candy. It’s called szaloncukor in Hungarian. No Christmas tree is complete without it. This candy is meant for Christmas. It’s made of fondant, covered by chocolate and wrapped in shiny coloured foil. We hang it on the Christmas tree. As kids we used to sneak the candy out of the shiny foil, but we arranged it so that it looked like there’s still something inside. As a matured person I wouldn’t do anything like that. So I usually put a bowl full of parlor candy under the Christmas tree and then eat as much as I want, openly and shamelessly. Hah, the perks of being an adult.
Presents are opened after the Christmas meal. Though Csaba and I don’t give presents to each other. As much as it was all about the presents as a kid, the magic of Christmas Eve is the good talks and laughs for me for a while. We decorate the Christmas tree together, we make the dinner and bake cookies together. Finally, we turn all the lights but the tiny colorful lights on our Christmas tree off, and curl up on the couch, talking, watching a cheerful movie or eating some parlor candy. Your tummy can never be so full that you can’t eat another parlor candy.
25th and 26th of December: Christmas holiday
Then comes the 25th and 26th of December that are public holiday in Hungary. These are the days that are usually spent with the extended family. Who visits who can be different in each family. In some families they all meet at Grandma. In others, there are different visits on the 25th and the 26th. Some continue those visits on the 27th or 28th of December, too. Even though they’re not public holiday, a lot of people are on holiday. And because you’re not allowed to roll your vacation days over to the next year in Hungary, people all take their remaining days off at Christmas. (Well, this usually doesn’t affect us since we often use all of our vacation days by September… Anyway, it’s a possibility.)
Csaba and I spend one day with my family and the other with his. Parents, siblings, grandparents. It’s time for The Big Family Meals. Though I’m not that fond of eating and eating and eating for hours (unless it’s chocolate that we eat), that seems to be an essential part of any Hungarian family get-together. Okay, our family hikes together, as well, sometimes. Bot not at Christmas. At Christmas it’s eating. And board games.
The Christmas menu
So what do we eat? The traditional Hungarian Christmas meal is fish soup and poppy-seed bread pudding (mákos guba in Hungarian). It’s an old tradition to have a bite of garlic and a slice of apple with some honey before the meal. Garlic is meant to protect your health, honey is meant to sweeten your life. Slicing and eating an apple is a symbol of the unity of the family.
After the main courses there are a selection of sweets. Beigli – a sweet pastry filled with walnut or poppy seeds. Zserbó cake – one of the most famous Hungarian desserts that my Grandma usually baked at family get-togethers. Strudel – another sweet pastry flavored with walnut, poppy seeds, apple, sweet cottage cheese or sour cherry. Flódni – a sweet pastry with a Jewish origin, made with apple, walnut, poppy seeds and plum jam. Gingerbread cookies. You can taste them yourself at Hungarian Christmas markets. The largest one is, of course, Budapest Christmas Markets.
Have you noticed that poppy seed is an important ingredient of Christmas meals and sweets? It’s the symbol of wealth. There’s lots of poppy seeds in these meals, after all. Lots of them.
And what do we eat in our family? There were times when we strictly followed the traditional meal. However, we need to confess that neither me nor Csaba really likes these courses. Since we started spending Christmas Eves together, we created our own menu: chestnut soup, salmon and cheesecake. Salmon is a fish, so even if we don’t eat fish soup, we can say we eat fish. And cheesecake has nothing to do with Hungarian traditions, but it’s our favorite kind of cake. And it’s our Christmas dinner, after all. But we’d never ever in life would miss eating some parlor candy – just to feel the Hungarian Christmas spirit. 😛
How it ends
So all those pretty Christmas trees are there until Epiphany. It’s roughly two weeks after Christmas. Epiphany is the time to tear the Christmas trees down. Again, I need to confess that we refuse to follow this tradition. Our Christmas tree is so nice that we don’t want to tear it down so soon. We want to enjoy it in January, too. What else is there to enjoy in our often snowless, grey, muddy winter after Christmas, anyway? I tell you, it’s the nice memories of Christmas. And parlor candy. 😛
Do you celebrate Christmas? Tell us about your traditions!