Growing up with foreign parents, things have always been a little different. My parents immigrated from Hungary to Canada more than 20 years ago. They grew up, went to school, and met in Hungary, but they married and settled here in Canada. I experienced many cultural clashes growing up, especially regarding food, way of life, and tradition.
And since it’s the holiday season, talking about Christmas traditions in Hungary seems like an excellent place to start to learn a little bit more about my background.
Hungarian children get gifts twice during the holiday season. The first time children get gifts is on December 6th, which is the Day of St. Nicholas (Mikulas). This is when children get gifts like candies and small toys when they leave out their stockings, shoes, or boots by the fireplace or windowsill the night before.
Children will also get a piece of coal or a small tree branch alongside their gifts as a reminder to be good.
Now, you can’t have St. Nick without his companion Krampus. This figure is not just popular in Hungary, but I believe in most European countries. The best way to describe Krampus is that it’s the Christmas demon. This is mainly because Krampus looks like Satan.
My parents told me that it was common to see St. Nick (Santa) travel around Town or visit schools with Krampus, serving as another reminder for children to behave.
The second time children get gifts is on Christmas Eve (Szent-este). The Christmas tree is set up and decorated, and presents are placed underneath. Children are not allowed to enter the room to see the tree until their parents give permission, which is marked by the ringing of a bell (or they were just called into the room). Then, children are told that angels or Baby Jesus came to deliver the tree and gifts for them.
Since children get their gifts on Christmas Eve, when the tree is decorated, this night usually marks the first actual day of Christmas in Hungary. Therefore, it’s when most families would have their Christmas dinner. Some families serve a fish dish, often fish soup called “Halaszle,” made with carp or another freshwater fish, but chicken and pork are also commonly served as the entree.
Side dishes like stuffed cabbage are famous, and they finish the meal with unique desserts like poppy seed (or walnut) rolls (Beige). Hungarians also have this candy called “Szaloncukor,” which is also used to decorate the tree instead of candy canes. Then most families go to church after their Christmas dinner. Celebrations continue on Christmas Day with people visiting their families.
In Hungarian, Merry Christmas is “Boldog Karacsonyt” or “Kellemes Karacsonyi Unnepeket” (pleasant Christmas holidays).