How Hungarians celebrate Holy Week

April 19, 2014


Established by the First Council of Nicea in 325, the holiday of Easter is referred to as a moveable feast in that it is not to a calendar date, instead taking place on the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox. It is for this reason that Easter takes place between 22 March and 25 April.

The Easter holiday period starts on Palm Sunday a week before Easter Sunday and is referred to as Holy Week. Easter Sunday is followed by Easter Monday, which is a public holiday in Hungary and other Roman Catholic countries.  The Easter holiday period ends the following Sunday which is known as White Sunday.

Fasting before Easter

Historically, the celebration of Easter was preceded by a forty day preparation known today in Hungarian as nagyböjt (Lent). By the 7th century, Catholic laity was widely practicing the forty day fasting ritual, but it didn’t actually become an official practice within the Church until Pope Urban II put it into canonical law in 1091.

Ash Wednesday had many different names in the Hungarian language reflecting the practices of the Catholic Church, the names of customs traditionally practiced by the laity, and also the names of customs relating to the fasting period. Known primarily as hamvazószerda in Hungarian, Ash Wednesday was also called böjtfogószerda (the start of the fast Wednesday), szárazszerda (Dry Wednesday), and aszalószerda (Parching Wednesday).

After mass on Ash Wednesday, the priest would draw a cross on the foreheads of the laity with his finger using sacred ash. It was believed that having the cross drawn on the forehead would prevent headaches.

The day after Ash Wednesday was known as csonkacsütörtök (Short Thursday) and symbolically marked the day on which any food remaining from the celebratory feasts of Farsang period were consumed.

The manner in which nagyböjt was actually celebrated around Hungary reflected official Church rules as well as the traditions and customs that had evolved over the centuries. Many of Hungary’s nagyböjt customs have their roots in the traditional customs of Hungarian peasant farmers living in the countryside.

One such custom as practiced in the Ipoly region of Hungary (in what is today Northern Hungary and Southern Slovakia) was a game played by teenage boys and girls called mancsozás. Mancsozás was played in teams and involved tossing a small ball high up in the air, then hitting the small ball with a stick. Those who missed the ball would fall out of the game. It’s important to note that the game’s participants didn’t use just any plain old stick. The young men would carve “flashy” sticks for the girls they had a crush on. If a young man had his eye on a girl, mancsozás presented him a prime opportunity to give her a flashy piece of wood to catch her attention. The youngsters also played games like hide-and-seek.

In Szeged and its surrounding villages, young men would play team games such as métázás, dólézás, and csülközés all of which involve hitting a ball with a stick. When the boys were together with the girls, they would play games involving singing and dancing.

In the settlement of Tura, the young men play a game called kutyasutu. The game was played by using large pieces of wood to make a T-shaped spinning contraption. One young man would sit on the T-shaped contraption while two other young men would run in circles spinning it. The game ended when the boys became so dizzy they fell over.

During the fasting period, girls would play with balls made of rolled-up rags or leather, and played games involving tossing balls into jugs. But there were other games too, such as asulicskázás, or hajujvárazás, which involved older girls playing with younger girls.

In Menyhe (now Mechenice, Slovakia), the older girl would call the younger girl her keresztgyerek (god-child), and the younger girl would call the older girl her lánytkeresztmamuska (girl-god-mother). The lánytkeresztmamuska would ask the keresztgyerek „van-e szeretője?” (“do you have a lover?”). The lánytkeresztmamuska would then throw a stone high up in the air and shout, „Ilyen magas ágya legyen, ilyen magas létrán járjon bele!” (May his bed be this high up, and may the ladder he uses to climb into be this high!). The girls would then sing a song about a young man looking for a wife.

Hajujvár mit keres hajujvári biró bálták!

Innét onnét amonnét az uj várnak mellőle

lányodat kéretjük!  


Szebbiket keskeny magasabbikat,

keskeny magasabbikat!

Pilikézés was a game in which three little girls would sit together while a group of girls walked around them and sang songs. Karikázás, also referred to as cickomozás and szinalázás, was a game that involved singing and dancing, a sort of variant to “ring-around-the-rosie”. While dancing was strictly forbidden during the forty days of fasting, this dancing game was an exception to the rule.

Another interesting game played by girls during the forty days of fasting took place on Sundays. They would walk down the road in the village and play a game which involved the girls facing each other with their hands extended and touching to form a “gate”. Girls would crouch down and climb through the gate singing „Új vár, új vár fényes vár, borsos kapitánya, megyek bátor jó vitéz, megyek hidon által” (New castle, new shiny castle, I am the scruffy-faced captain, I am a brave knight, I’m am on my way by way of the bridge”).

One game which boys and girls played together was called szederindázás. Pairs of boys and girls held hands and walked in a line down the road. The pair at the front of the line would hold their clasped hands up high and the line of paired-up boys and girls would walk under their hands and sing songs.

Palm Sunday

The story of Palm Sunday has to do with when Jesus entered Jerusalem about a week before his resurrection. Priests in the Catholic Church had blessed palm leaves on Palm Sunday since about the 7th century. As Hungary has no palmtrees, the palm was replaced with catkin and Hungary has various customs that are tied to the gathering of catkin for the holiday.

In the hilly Göcsej region of Zala county in western Hungary, boys would go to school with a cap on their heads and with a wooden sword at their hips, and the girls would go to school wearing white wreath crowns. The teacher would pair up the boys and girls and march out into the wildness to collect catkin branches singing songs. On the way back to the schoolhouse, they would sing church songs or hymns. They would walk to the temple and walk around it three times while singing. Then, they would take the catkin branches inside the temple to be blessed by the priest.

In Hungarian folklore it was customary to find all kinds of uses for virtually anything that had been blessed by a priest. Catkin was no exception.  The villagers believed the blessed-catkin could heal, and even repel lightening and thunder.

In the countryside around Szeged, people didn’t take the catkin inside because they believed that it would attract many flies during the summer. People in Jászdózsa believed that bringing catkin inside the house would greatly increase the fertility of flies and ticks. There was even a saying In the Tápió region „Be ne vigyétek a házba, mert nem lesz fias a tyúk alatt a tojás” (“Don’t take it into the house because your chickens won’t be able to lay eggs with roosters”).

By contrast, the people who lived in the villages around Zemplén had no problem taking the blessed-catkin inside their homes. They would place it in front of a picture of the Holy Mary or under their ceiling beam, and they would keep the catkin until the following year and burn it then or have it burned at the temple. The catkin ash would then be used by the priest to draw a cross on the foreheads of his temple’s laity.

It was widely believed that the blessed catkin had magical powers that could protect against decay and that it could even be used to forecast the future. In the northern Hungarian settlement of Medvesalja and in Egyházasbást (now Nová Bašta, Slovakia), women believed that come springtime they could expect to have as many little geese as the number of pods on their catkin branch. In Péterfalva (now Petrești, Romania), the smoke created by burning catkin branches was used to disinfect pigpens, chicken coops, and other places where animals were kept. In Sándorfalva and Szeged, farmers would put the blessed-catkin under the doorstep to their pigpens because they believed it protected the pigs from hog cholera.

The blessed catkin was also believed to have powers on the land. In Tajta (now Tachty, Slovakia), farmers would place it in the soil of their gardens to ward off worms. In Tura, people would plant flowers in their gardens in the week preceding Palm Sunday because they believed that flowers planted then would be beautiful. In some parts of Hungary, the week preceding Palm Sunday was called virághét (Flower Week). Folklore commonly held that even the name of the week possessed magic and was therefore the best time to plant flowers.

It was generally believed the blessed catkin could protect a house from fires, from being struck by lightning, and that it would even prevent against hail from damaging a house. To protect against such hazard, people would tie the blessed catkin branch onto their gatepost. In Andrásfalva (now Măneuți, Romania), the catkin branch was called a pimpó. During huge storms villagers would burn the pimpó and fill their homes with its smoke because they believe lightning wouldn’t strike inside their homes („akkor nem csapott be a házba a menkő”).

During the 40 days of fasting, but especially on Palm Sunday, young ladies would walk along the roads of their village (often accompanied by a young man) holding out a freshly cut green branch. The green branch symbolized the spring’s coming harvest, and the act was thought to ensure a good harvest for the year. In Tiszahát, this custom was practiced up until the end of the 19th century and was called zöldágazás. Young ladies would later sell produce in the village and would walk along the road and sing „Zöüd ág, zöüd ág, zöüd levelecske, Nyisd ki uram kapudat, hadd bújjak át rajta” (Green branch, green branch, green little leaf, open your gate my lord, please allow me to enter”).

On Palm Sunday the young people of Kalotaszeg (now Ţara Călatei, Romania) would go out and pick flowers together. This is still practiced today.

One interesting custom was practiced exclusively by women living in ethnic Hungarian settlements around Nyitra, Hont, Nógrád, Pest, and Heves counties. The practice was known as kiszejárás or kiszehajtást. How it was practiced differed according to region.

A kisze is giant doll made of hay decorated to look as though it was wearing a wedding gown. The kisze was sometimes called a kici, kiszőce, kicevice, or banya. Young ladies would sing and carry the kisze around the village. When they finally arrived at the end of the village, they would either throw the kisze in a pond or creek, or burn it. There are different theories as to  what the kisze actually symbolized.

Some maintain that the kisze symbolized winter, the fasting process, and even the curing of diseases. The word kiszi actually refers to a sour soup made of bran that was commonly eaten during the fasting period.

Before making a kisze, the young ladies first gathered whatever was needed to make the doll’s wedding gown. The girls of Deménd (now Demandice, Slovakia) dressed the doll in a wedding dress used by a young lady who had gotten married during the Farsag festival season. In Menyhe (now Mechenice, Slovakia), they would use the wedding dress of a young lady who had been married earlier that year. However, in the northern Hungarian settlements of Őrhalom, Hugyag, and Ipolyvarbó (now Vrbovka, Slovakia), the kisze was dressed in especially ugly and worn-out clothes covered in dirt. In Drégelypalánk, it was believed that whoever would dress the kisze would be married that year.

There was a profound significance to the act of marching the kisze through the village. In Ipolyszécsénke (now Sečianky, Hungary), they believed that the first girl to pick up the kisze would also be the first to get married, whereas those living in Ipolybalog (now Balog and Ipľom, Slovakia) believed that the next young lady to be married would come from the part of the village where the kisze started. In Horváti (now Chorvatice, Slovakia) and in Tompa, the people believed that if the kisze so much as turned around and faced the direction from whence it came, sickness would return to the village. Similarly, villagers in Kelenye (now Kleňany, Slovakia) believed that a kisze facing the wrong direction could result in hail.

The kisze was destroyed once the procession arrived at its final location. The young ladies would undress it, take it apart, and throw its pieces into water or burn it. In places where the kisze was thrown into water, every girl peasant threw a fistful of hay into the water. In places like Menyhe (now Mechenice, Slovakia), the superstitious folklore held that predictions about which of the village’s girls would be the next to get married could be based on which direction the fistfuls of hay thrown in the water had drifted.

In Felsőszemeréd (now Horné Semerovce, Slovakia), Hont, Horváti (now Chorvatice, Slovakia), and Tompa, the young ladies would rub the handfuls of the destroyed kisze’s hay on their faces to prevent ever having freckles.

Holy Week

Holy Week marked the beginning of spring, a time of renewal when both man and the environment prepare for cleansing. Aside from the practical customs performed by Hungarians during Holy Week, there were also rituals thought to invoke magic which were also carried out by the people.

The significant days of Holy Week were nagycsütörtök (Holy Thursday), nagypéntek (Holy Friday), and nagyszombat (Holy Saturday). While there were numerous customs for each day of Holy Week, this article concerns those which apply to the week’s most significant days.

Nagycsütörtököt (Holy Thursday)

On nagycsütörtök, or Holy Thursday, the temple’s bell stopped ringing. People would say “the bells are going to Rome” („a harangok Rómába mennek”). Ringing of the temple’s bells would start again on nagyszombat (Holy Saturday).

One ritual involved the village children walking around the village ringing little bells and making rattling sounds. The ritual was known as kereplés, and it gave the children an opportunity to ask for donations. In the village of Vitnyéd located in Győr-Sopron county it was practiced up until 1953. The children continued rattling through nagypéntek (Holy Friday) and nagypéntek (Holy Saturday). The rattling took place at dawn, noon, and at night, and was done with rattlers made of wood. The boys did not sleep at home on these days.  Instead, they slept together in the stable of whichever boy lived closest to the temple. On húsvétvasárnap (Easter Sunday), the boys would wake up very early and walk around the entire village singing „Segillék ezeket a csörgető gyerekeket, egy pár tojással, Békaszemű garassal, vagy pedig egy százassal!” (“Help these rattling children with a few eggs, Frog-eyed copper, or with a hundred…!”). Villagers would open their windows and give the children money and red painted eggs.

The ritual of kereplés has its roots in another ritual called pilátusverés (the beating of Pontius Pilate) or pilátuségetés (the burning of Pontius Pilate), which was performed to wake up the villagers. Pilátusverés took place on either nagycsütörtök, nagypéntek, or nagyszombat, and involved all the children going inside the temple and making a loud racket. The children would bang on the pews, stomp their feet, and in some places the children would haul benches, crates, and scrap wood over to the entrance of the temple. The discarded wood would be burned on nagyszombat and its smoke was believed to contain magical powers. The entire ritual symbolized a beating of Pontius Pilate.

In places like Tolna county, children would designate a piece of wood to represent Pontius Pilate and would start punching and kicking it.

During the 19th century in the village of Szőreg, children would engage is what was known as pancilusoztak. The children had bats of bundled reeds and would go out into the high grass of the fields and start swinging! They would yell „Pancilus Pilátus mért verted mög a Jézust?” (“Pontius Pilate, why did you beat Jesus?”). This ritual is probably at the root of today’s commonly used saying „Verik, mint a Pilátust!” (“They’re beating him like Pilate!”).

Nagycsütörtököt, or Holy Thursday, was also known as zöldcsütörtök, or Green Thursday. The Hungarians of Yugoslavia would cook nettles and eat spinach on this day because they believed it ensured a promising harvest. They even gave their chickens some of the nettle.

Nagypéntek (Good Friday)

Nagypéntek, or Holy Friday (Good Friday), was a day on which even the Protestant Hungarians abstained from eating meat. In the Tapio region’s villages, the Catholic laity ate fried soup with cooked noodles, and had milk, curd, and cottage cheese for dinner. The Calvinist believers would prepare egg and milk-based foods for lunch. The list of the fasting period’s restricted foods did not, however, include any restrictions on the consumption of pálinka. Consuming palinka throughout the morning of nagypéntek was believed to be of utter importance in the Tapio region’s villages.

People in the villages around Zemplén ate bean salad on nagypéntek. For dinner they had coffee with milk, cottage cheese noodles, and egg soup. The people of Tura would eat a clove of garlic because they believed it would ward off a snake bite! They would also eat one or two pieces of popcorn just to make sure they wouldn’t feel sick. For lunch, they ate the same food eaten at Christmas: bean soup and noodles with poppy seeds.

All around the country people did not bake bread on this day because they believed it would turn to stone. Not did they set fires on nagypéntek.

Around Szeged, the people would knead dough to the size of a goose egg. They would then dry the dough and put it away, bringing it out only when someone was thought to have died of drowning. They would put a candle that had been blessed by the local priest in the middle of it and toss it into the water. The dough would float in the water with the candle side below the waterline, When the dough turned up and the candlestick could be seen pointing upward, the people believed that that was where the body was.

People around Hungary widely believed in the superstition that nagypéntek was an unlucky day because the Christian church taught that Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross on this day. Taking care of livestock was forbidden on this day, as was gardening. The Moldovan Hungarians did not touch their horses on this day because they believed it would cause the horse to become sick.

But there were some livestock-related customs that were performed on this day, including the removal of an animal’s tail, castration, and the branding of cattle.

In Bori (now Bory, Slovakia) nagypéntek was the day on which pig herds were driven out to pasture. The swineherd’s shepherd would receive eggs, beans and bread from the village women, and he would offer everyone pálinka in return.

As with the customs associated with livestock, agricultural work also had its restrictions and exemptions. In Sarkadkeresztúr, for example, there was the saying, “the best time to plant potatoes is during Holy Week” („Krumplit legjobb húsvét nagyhetén vetni”). The people in Zagyvarékas refrained from doing certain kinds of work in the fields because they believed it would bring bad luck and destroy the roots of the wheat.

There were also customs that were believed to make predictions about the weather. The Hungarians in Bukovina believed that rain on nagypéntek would bring good weather for the spring’s harvest. Conversely, the people of Galgamácsa believed that good weather on this day would bring poor and rotten harvest. The people of Zagyvarékas had the saying, “If it rains on Good Friday, each raindrop will be a drop of poison. We will have a bad harvest” („Nagypénteki eső, annyi méreg, amennyi szem lehull. Rossz termés lesz”).

Water has magical powers according to Hungarian folklore. It can cure diseases, clean, and magically induce fertility. What’s more, Hungarians believed that water was especially magical on nagypéntek!

They believed that sickness would not come to those who bathed on nagypéntek. The Hungarians in Bukovina had a saying, “Dunk yourself in the river’s water three times before the sun rises on nagypéntek, and you will catch no sickness from others” („Nagypénteken napfeljött előtt a folyóvízbe háromszor belémártózott, az semmiféle betegséget nem kapott el mástól”). In some places, simply washing your body with a rag would bring the same magical protection. Even in the 20th century, people of Zagyvaréka would fetch water from the river to wash themselves with at home.

Not only did the magical powers of water protect those who used it from sickness, its magic would also enhance one’s beauty, and could even prevent freckles! The people of Csépa believed that one could only access the magical powers of water if they remained absolutely quiet on the way to the water, while washing, and on the return home.

In Tura, girls would take jars of water home from the river in absolute silence, because they believed that if they washed their faces in the jarred-water they would be beautiful. Those who really knew what they were doing would dip ham and bacon in such water to prevent maggots from getting on the meat.

Parents in Menyhe (now Mechenice, Slovakia) would send their children down to the creek to bathe so that they wouldn’t be lazy. People in Mohi (now Mochovce, Slovakia) washed themselves on this day so that their eyes wouldn’t hurt. The girls in Bori believed that washing themselves before sunrise would make them pretty.

In the villages around Tapi, young and old women bathed together before sunrise in hopes of becoming beautiful. They didn’t speak one word on the way to the creek because they really believed in the magical folklore. The water used for magical purposes on nagypéntek is called aranyos víz, or aranyvíz.

Women in Szeged use this day to bathe in the Tisza River. They believed that after the bathing in the river they must comb their hair under the branches of the willow trees lining the shore because their hair would be nice and long. Conversely, the Hungarians of Bukovina strictly forbade the combing of hair on nagypéntek.

Many people believed that the especially powerful magic of water on nagypéntek could just as easily be used for livestock. People in the Hortobagy region would wash their horses on this day. The farmers of Jászdózsa would give their cows water from the Tarna River. The livestock owners of Medvesalja believed that bathing their animals in water of the nearby creek would bring the animals good health. The practice of driving the cattle down to the local creek in Medvesalja died out between WWI and WWII, and the owners of livestock instead chose to bring buckets of water up from the creek for the animals to drink. In Tura, the men would ride their horses down to the Galgára creek for a swim so that the horses would be itchy.

Nagyszombat (Holy Saturday)

Cleanliness was directly tied to the doing away with maggots, and nagyszombat, or Holy Saturday, was the day for that. In Jászdózsa, church bells would start ringing again on nagyszombat morning. As the bells started ringing women would start sweeping around the house and would shout, “Snakes, frogs, out with you!” („Kígyók, békák távozzatok!”). The woman would symbolically bang pots and hit iron cauldrons to make noise that would drive away maggots. Children also took part in the ritual by running around the house with bells tied to their necks, yelling, “Snake, frog, depart from the house, snake, frog, leave the house!” (Kígyó, béka, távozz el a háztú, kígyó, béka, távozz el a háztú!).

In Csépa, women believed that sweeping around the house on nagyszombat would keep witches away.

“Spring cleaning” as it is practiced today is probably tied to the customs tied to nagyszombat. Girls would patch holes in walls – they would paint, disinfect, and clean everything in the house on this day.

In Hungarian folklore, the night between nagypéntek and nagyszombat was widely known to have magical powers as well. After fasting all day on Friday, young ladies would washbut not dry themselves. They took their dry towel and placed it under their pillow. The believed that in their dream a young man would use the dry towel to wipe their wet face, and that whoever that young man was, he would become their husband.