Christmas traditions in Hungary

Hungarians take Christmas traditions seriously and although originally a religious holiday, customs and rituals at this time of year have an interesting blend of Christian and pagan origins. Here's an overview of the festive traditions in Hungary so you can also take part in the events and celebrations!

Advent
The festive season begins four Sundays before Christmas, when the first candle on Advent wreaths is lit. The wreaths have four different coloured candles (that are lit one a week, in order) and are decorated with red and gold ribbons, colours that symbolize life and brightness. For children, every day from 1st December has a surprise in store for them as they get to open a new little flap on their Advent calendar until Christmas Eve. Candles and Advent calendars make great gifts and can be found at the Christmas markets (the largest ones are at St.Stephen's Basilica and at Vörösmarty Square)

Mikulás (St. Nicholas Day) – 6th December
St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children and students. He arrives on 6th December bearing gifts for children, who have been good throughout the year. Children await his arrival by polishing their boots the previous evening and Mikulás stuffs it with chocolate, nuts, fruits or maybe even some small toys or books. He usually also leaves a „virgács", a switch made of dry twigs to warn children to refrain from being naughty. Sometimes, the Mikulás may arrive in the form of an old man wearing the red robes of a bishop. He offers a present to every brave boy and girl, who can recite a rhyme or sing him a song.

Luca nap (St. Lucia's day) – 13th December
Being one of the darkest days of the year, Luca day (pronounced Lutza) is traditionally ideal for witch-hunting, or rather: taking witch-avoidance measures. December 13th was the day to begin carving a „Luca stool" to be finished by Christmas Eve. Standing on the stool at Midnight Mass, witches could easily be spotted as they would be wearing horns for the occasion. However, the Luca chair had to be thrown in the fire immediately after, or else the owner had to face being torn apart by the witches.

Another tradition is sowing Luca wheat to find out how next year's crop will do. The grains of wheat would sprout by Christmas and rich green buds would supposedly be a sign of a fruitful harvest to come.

Christmas Eve
Also called Szenteste (Holy Eve), this means the peak of Christmas preparations for Hungarians, culminating in dinner and presents. Businesses and shops close at noon, even public transportation stops around 3 o'clock, after which only night-time services are running. Hungarians decorate the tree on the 24th and arrange the presents underneath. The magic is revealed to the family when they hear the bells ring, because tradition has it, that the tree, the decortations and the presents are brought by angels and the Baby Jesus.

Christmas dinner begins once the evening star appears in the sky. The menu usually entails halászlé (fish soup with paprika), fried fish, stuffed cabbage, roast turkey stuffed with prunes and a special dessert called beigli: rolled pastry stuffed with walnuts, poppy seeds or chestnut puree. 

Midnight Mass is popular throughout the country and so are nativity plays („Betlehemezés"). In the countryside, people gather in churches or in the main square to watch these plays performed by groups of children or adults and accompanied by songs and musical instruments.

December 25th and 26th are spent visiting family and friends for further eating, drinking and presents.

For a full list of when museums, attractions, thermal baths and infromation offices are open and closed over the Christmas and New Year Period, please see our article on festive opening hours.

Merry Christmas! Boldog Karácsonyt!