Christmas in Hungary: A Month of Traditions

Are you interested in spending Christmas in Hungary? Or perhaps you’d like to learn more about Hungarian Christmas traditions.

Christmas in Hungary is a culturally rich, exciting time of year. Whether you’re traveling to Hungary or celebrating Hungarian Christmas traditions at home, you’ll be sure to discover aspects of this holiday that you would like to incorporate into your own annual celebrations.

Let’s discover how people celebrate Christmas in Hungary.

Christmas tree on skating rink in front of church
Photo 185739551 / Advent © István Csák | Dreamstime.com

Contents

The Period of Advent

The Advent season has traditionally been one abundant with ritual. Though many of these Hungarian traditions have fallen to the wayside, the weeks leading up to Christmas continue to be a beautiful, meaningful time of year.

Today, the Advent wreath is central to this season. Made of pine boughs and decorated with four candles – traditionally purple and pink, but today whatever color the purchaser fancies – the wreath aids in counting down the weeks till Christmas. Each Sunday prior to Christmas, one of the candles is lit. They symbolize faith, hope, joy, and love.

Large Advent wreath in front of palace
Photo 156705103 / Advent Hungary © Gletti | Dreamstime.com

Advent calendars are also popular. Though not Hungarian in origin, they have become so popular as to be ubiquitously available at outdoor holiday markets as well as supermarkets. The 24 small doors often open to reveal chocolate or candy.  

In the past, Advent was divided even further than the four Sundays.

St. Andrew’s Day

For example, St. Andrew’s Day, November 30, was a time for unmarried women to predict their weddings – but it was also the start of the pig-slaughtering season that lasted until Carnival in Hungary. These days, Hungary marks the day with a modern twist – Budapest gives its Szechenyi Bridge a blue glow.

St. Lucy’s Day

St. Lucy’s Day, December 13, was associated with evil spirits. One of many traditions on this day was the making of the Luca chair. Tradition held that the maker had from St. Lucy’s day until Christmas Even to complete the chair – if someone stood on the completed chair for Christmas mass, they would have the ability to see witches or into the future.

The Hungarian Santa Claus

The Day of St. Nicholas, December 6, is waited in anticipation by children in Hungary. Leaving their shoes by the window, they go to sleep knowing that the shoes will be filled with treats the next morning. Mikulás or Télapó, as Santa Claus is known in Hungary, sometimes visits schools during this time.

Krampusz

Santa also has a “helper.” Unfortunately, this helper is not a happy elf from the North Pole, a reindeer with a glowing nose, or even a snow maiden. No, the Hungarian Santa’s helper is called Krampusz, who sports horns, fangs, and a tail. Krampusz’s job is to punish bad children, sometimes by spiriting them away from their parents forever. Krampusz doesn’t mess around.

Black hairy devil for Christmas in Hungary
Photo 183644053 / Hungary © Valiantsina Mironava | Dreamstime.com

Baby Jesus

Less frightening, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it’s Baby Jesus or an Angel who leaves presents for children. This tradition is similar to that of Christmas in the Czech Republic, wherein Baby Jesus must be given privacy to do his work – children are sent to another room or otherwise occupied by parents until the ringing of a bell signifies Baby Jesus has completed his job moved on to other houses with children waiting presents.

Christmas Eve in Hungary

Christmas Eve, December 24, is called Holy Night (Szenteste). It’s when Hungarians have their large family feast. This day heavily centers around traditional Hungarian Christmas foods, some with symbolic meaning.

Due to the trend of fasting during this day, in times past, people didn’t eat meat for December 31. Instead – and this tradition carries over today – they would serve fish. For a first course, fish soup is often served – a spicy paprika halászlé whets the appetite for the dishes to come. A non-fish soup starter may be Christmas wine soup, a soup made with wine, egg, and spices.

The main dish for Christmas Eve in Hungary is often fried and breaded fish or a whole roasted fish. Hungarians traditionally eat potato salad as a side dish for Christmas Eve.

Christmas Desserts

Sweet Christmas dishes are plentiful in Hungarian cuisine.

Perhaps the most important for the holiday season is the bejgli, a poppyseed roll. Synonymous with Christmas, the poppyseeds symbolize prosperity and abundance, two things all people want on Christmas and for the coming year.

Hungarian Christmas poppyseed and walnut rolls
Photo 168123071 / Hungary © Accept001 | Dreamstime.com

Szaloncukor, foil-wrapped filled candies, are also popular and sold in bulk from both vendors at markets and specialty shops. These are often hung on the Christmas tree for decoration.

Snow crescents, crescent-shaped filled cookies dusted with powdered sugar, are another beloved Christmas favorite. Fillings range from poppyseeds to walnuts to jam.

Mézeskalács is the name Hungarians use for gingerbread – sweetened with honey, its is cut into festive shapes and decorated with icing.

The Hungarian Christmas Tree

Hungarians don’t typically decorate their tree until Christmas Eve. Children also don’t get to see the tree until the decoration is complete – they’re told that, along with presents, Baby Jesus also brings the tree to the house for Christmas in Hungary!

Public Christmas trees are commonly found at Christmas markets. The national Christmas tree can be seen in front of the Parliament building in Budapest.

Aerial view of Christmas tree and Hungarian Parliament
Photo 207090350 / Hungary © Zoltan Gabor | Dreamstime.com

December 25 and 26 in Hungary

Meals featuring hearty main dishes appear in the days following Christmas Eve – December 25 and 26 are also national holidays, so people spend time eating, resting, and visiting with friends and relatives for Christmas in Hungary.

Many Hungarians traditionally serve roast turkey, cabbage rolls, and other delicious and filling foods on these days.

Hungarian Christmas Beliefs and Superstitions

Superstitions surrounding the Christmas season do not hold much sway in Hungarian households today, but folk beliefs are indicative of how powerful and magical this holiday was traditionally considered to be.

For example:

  • The mother of the family was supposed to stay seated during Christmas dinner to ensure wealth for the coming year.
  • Crumbs and leftovers should be fed to the barnyard animals to promote their continued good health
  • Bad luck would befall those who did laundry on Christmas.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Hungary

Szilveszter (December 31) and Újév (January 1) are steeped in tradition in Hungary.

Due to their connection with wealth and good fortune, pork and lentils are the customary dish for the New Year. Poultry and fish should be avoided because eating these dishes is thought to encourage luck being scratched (as in the case of a hen) or swimming (as in the case of fish) away.

Washing clothes, taking out the trash, or going to the doctor were also traditionally avoided on this day. Taking something from the house could mean taking your luck with it, and seeing a doctor might make the illness stick around the whole year.

To scare away the winter, people would make noise, and the function of New Year’s parties, where noisemakers and revelry serve the purpose of “scaring away” evil.

In the past, people would also symbolically “bury” winter by digging a hole and placing a doll made of straw into it.

Aerial view of fireworks at night with bridge
Photo 203225067 / Hungary © Dnaveh | Dreamstime.com

Epiphany

January 6, or Epiphany, marks the end of the Christmas season in Hungary. Called Vízkereszt, it’s associated with water, cleansing, and christening. In some cases, families would save the holy water from Epiphany to use it for blessings throughout the year.

January 6 is also the day Hungarian families traditionally dismantle the Christmas tree.

Where to Celebrate Christmas in Hungary as a Visitor

Hungary’s Christmas markets are the best place to experience Christmas in Hungary. Many run throughout the Advent season, making the entire month of December an opportunity to celebrate.

Of course, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, has the most extensive Christmas markets. They appear throughout the city, the most famous being the one that pops up in front of St. Stephan’s Basilica on Vorosmarty Square.

Ferris wheel aglow with orange lights
Photo 165858907 / Advent Hungary © | Dreamstime.com

You’ll find Christmas ornaments, handmade items and gifts, gingerbread and other Christmas foods, souvenirs, and stocking stuffers at these markets.

They’re also an excellent place to stop for a snack. Indulge in mulled wine or plate of hot street food. If you’re feeling really cold, opt for a shot of palinka, Hungary’s favorite spirit.

Enjoy concerts and other entertainment, such as a Christmas train, a skating rink, or even a Ferris wheel. Hungary’s Christmas markets, whether in Debrecen, Miskolc, or Pecs, have slightly different vibes that will nevertheless get you into the holiday spirit in no time.

Christmas Museum in Szentendre

If you can’t get to Hungary during the Christmas season and instead visit during another time of year, consider a visit to the Hubay House, the Christmas museum in Szentendre.  

Located in a renovated house, the atmosphere is intended to be homey, with Christmas ornaments for sale hanging off trees – those reflecting traditional Hungarian Christmas themes are the most popular. Visitors can also take photos in the corners set up especially for this purpose.

Concerts

Check out performances of The Nutcracker, classical music, choir music, and other genres in Budapest and beyond. Ticket websites and online theater, opera, and ballet programs are some of the best places to start your research.

If you’d like to enjoy dinner and a concert on the water, Danube River cruises work over the Christmas holidays.

Christmas Mass

Interested in attending Christmas Mass while in Budapest? Midnight Mass takes place on Christmas Eve at many churches, but the following may be the most popular:

  • St. Stephan’s Basilica
  • Matthias Church
  • Rock Church/Cave Church

Be sure to arrive early because these popular churches fill up fast with worshipers!

Tips for Enjoying Christmas in Hungary

  • Dress appropriately for the colder winter months to enjoy Christmas market browsing comfortably. The same goes for if you’re attending a Christmas Mass – the interiors of large, old churches can be cold, especially when you’re sitting still.
  • Check events calendars for Christmas in Hungary in advance so you know which concerts or performances you’d like to attend – advance planning helps you secure tickets and pack the right clothing, whether your event is outdoors or in a concert hall.
  • If you’ll be in Hungary during Christmas proper, secure your restaurant booking in advance. While shops and services may be closed December 24, 25, and 26, some restaurants will still be working.
  • Be sure to leave room in your suitcase for gifts. Furthermore, if you’d like to stock up on Christmas ornaments or other fragile items from Hungary, you won’t regret including some packing materials in your luggage to cushion them.

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