Christmas to me has always been a private, family holiday. Despite attempts to undermine religious holidays during the communist era, which saw its last phase in the 80s, Hungary thankfully managed to keep its Christmas traditions.
In Hungary, Santa Claus doesn’t come for Christmas, instead he visits families earlier, on December 6th and is known as ‘Mikulas’ (St Nicholas). Well-behaved children would get candies, chocolates and fruits in their well polished boots that are put in front of the door. His servant known as the ‘Krampusz’ (red horned little devil) give golden birches to the mischievous ones. I remember my brother getting plenty of them every year.
When I was a child and Hungary was still part of the communist bloc, tropical fruits were very hard to come by and prices reflected on same. I never forget peeling a banana and taking tiny bites so it will last longer knowing I will probably have to wait until next Christmas to get another one.
Christmas Eve called ‘Szenteste’, meaning holy evening, was special in every way. Our family – and I think most people – followed the old tradition to make the children believe that the Christmas tree is brought by angels. The parents would put up the tree in a room and the children weren’t allowed to enter until they heard the bell ringing. We would either play outdoors in the snow or in a different room but the room where the tree stood was a taboo!
The Hungarian Christmas candy ‘Szaloncukor‘ was a must on every tree. The candies were made of fondant covered with chocolate and wrapped in silver or golden paper tied in a bow on each side. I never forget tying them on strings; the room where we prepared them was covered by candies. What a mess, though so much fun!
After the bell rang, we all entered the room, stood around the tree and sang many Christmas carols. No one was allowed to touch the gifts until we were finished. We then opened each present and spent the night together. What did we get? Again we got some oranges and bananas, new clothes and maybe one or two small toys or books. Our uncle who lived in Germany used to visit us every Christmas. What a special day that was! I will never forget receiving my first talking doll from him, not to mention those delicious white chocolate bars.
As to the Christmas meal, we usually ate cabbage and the special bread roll called ‘beigli’ which is either filled with poppy seeds or walnut. Tropical fruits were just introduced to this part of the world and were considered as luxurious items. We got most of our clothes and shoes from the ‘Saturday Market’ or second hand shops.
As to toys and books? Well, I have to mention the ‘Rubik Cube, one of the most famous Hungarian inventions which was reasonably new to the market and was an ever popular Christmas gift.