Start Planning

Christmas 2017 and 2018

Christmas is celebrated for three days straight in Hungary, on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 26th).

201725 DecMonChristmas Day
26 DecTue2nd Day of Christmas
201825 DecTueChristmas Day
26 DecWed2nd Day of Christmas

However, festivities begin earlier, with the Advent season. A month before Christmas Day, families light up a candle per week on their “Advent wreaths,” while children follow the countdown to 25 December on their “Advent calendars,” receiving small gifts each day as the day approaches.

Saint Nicholas Day comes on December 6th. This is when “Mikulas,” the Hungarian term for Saint Nicholas, leaves treats into boots or shoes that children have left out for him to fill. “Krampusz,” a devilish assistant, travels with Mikulas and doles out punishments to kids who have been naughty during the previous year.

Mikulas is said to dress in a red coat and hat, carry a sack of presents over his shoulder, and hold a shepherd’s cane. Yet, he always comes in the pitch black night when no one can see him, and if children try to stay up and spot him, he will leave them a birch wood stick instead of a present.

Saint Nicholas Day is often called “Hungarian Christmas,” but December 24th through 26th are also part of the season. On Christmas Eve, homes are decorated, dinner is prepared, and the Christmas tree is put up and decorated. Adults will often decorate the tree and then tell children that it was brought down by an angel.

The big meal for the season also takes place on Christmas Eve. Some of the most popular dishes on the table include: Fisherman’s Soup, stuffed cabbage, “Beigli,” a kind of poppy-seed bread, rice, meats such as turkey, chicken, and pork, and gingerbread. The gingerbread can come in the form of cookies or cake, and it often bears coloured shapes that represent characters to do with Christmas. The gingerbread will also be typically presented in colourful wrappings and is a major element of the Yuletide feast. Some also will drink wine or beer for dinner, many times Palinka, a specifically Hungarian-style spirit.

Many also attend midnight church services on Christmas Eve right after dinner. Others go straight to opening the presents, which in Hungary, are not brought by Santa Claus but by “Jezuska” (Baby Jesus). The children are not allowed in the room when Jezuska arrives with the presents but are close enough to hear when the bell rings, which announces it is time to enter and open the gifts from under the tree. Many families also stand around the Christmas tree and sing carols before opening the presents.

On Christmas Day, most people either relax at home or spend the time visiting relatives, some of whom they may not see very often throughout the year.

Should you be in Hungary for Christmas, some ideas on what to do include:

  • Attend any or all of several major Christmas fairs in Budapest. There is the Winter Festival in Varoshaza Park, which offers free kids’ programs, the tallest Christmas tree in Budapest, a gigantic Advent wreath, and crafts for sale. Then there is the ice skating rink in front of Saint Stephen’s Basilica. And finally, the most well-known fair in town is downtown in Vorosmarty Square.
  • Go to a midnight mass or church service, where you will also be able to see a “Betlehem” (nativity play). In the country and small villages, it is common to see nativity plays in public squares as well as in church buildings. The actors will include children, and there will be music and singing accompanying the acting.
  • Buy and enjoy some “szaloncukor,” which is literally rendered “parlor candy” because it is often hung on the Christmas tree, which is traditionally put up in the parlour. It is a chocolate covered fondant candy that is wrapped in bright, colourful foil to enhance its ability to double as a tree ornament. The average Hungarian home will eat over three pounds of szaloncukor before Christmas is over.

Hungarian traditions are similar to those of other eastern and central European countries but very different at points from Christmas in more westerly lands. The tourist will find much to learn and enjoy during his or her first Hungarian Christmas.