How Hungarians celebrate Christmas, Part I

December 24, 2013


Hungarians celebrate Christmas

Christmas in Hungary is a joyous occasion marked by festive dining, caroling, and plays recounting the story of Bethlehem.

The singing of Christmas carols and recitation of Christmas poems are customary during the holiday. Caroling is still performed in the countryside. Depending on the region, caroling can also be referred to as kántálás, kóringgyálás, pászilás, mendikálás, and angyali vigasság.

Traditionally, a group performing Christmas carols would walk around the village singing songs to the various households kind enough to welcome them inside. Once permission was granted by the head of the household, the performers would either sing under a windowsill or would be invited inside to perform in front of the family. Upon the conclusion of the performance the head of the house would bestow the performers with gifts . The performers would then thank the family and continue on by visiting other homes in the area.

Long ago, Christmas caroling would start as early as noon. This would allow the young children to take part in the performances. Later in the afternoon teenagers and young adults would continue the performances. Finally, adults and married couples would take over in the evening.

The traditional has continued to evolve over the years. Many villages and towns perform carols in different ways. In some areas Christmas caroling is performed by the poor and needy who are compensated with food, mulled wine, even pálinka.

A widely-known Christmas carol known as Csordapásztorok dates back to 1651. It was then that Hungary’s Catholic Church released a collection of song in a volume entitled Cantus Catholici. Also published in this collection were songs such as Mennyből jövök tihozzátok and Bethlehem, Bethlehem a te határidban. The famous Mennyből az angyal and Pásztorok keljünk fel Christmas tunes appeared in song collections published in the 18th century.

Perhaps the most well-known Hungarian Christmas tradition is the theatrical performance of the story of Jesus’ birth. In Hungarian, this play is known as Bethlehemezés. The play is performed in various ways depending on the region. The underlying themes remain the same everywhere.

The play consists of the following three acts:

1) Seeking lodging Joseph and Mary search for a suitable place to sleep for the night. Turned away by the king, the rich man, Joseph and Mary eventually found refuge in a barn belonging to an innkeeper.

2) Shepherds are awakened from their sleep by angels and told to visit the “newborn king” in Bethlehem and shower him with gifts;

3) Jesus is born in the manger.

Out of gratitude members of the audience would give performers money, food, even pálinka. The actors would then pack up and move on to the next household. Typically, receiving a group of actors or carolers was limited to those families who were financially well-off. Compensating these actors and singers provided a way for the wealthier members of the community to “give back” to those less fortunate.