For Hungarians and Christians across the globe, Christmas is the most sacred holiday event of the year. Families spend the “holy evening” (Szenteste) making final preparations for the Christmas tree to be decorated with carefully placed candles, then place the nicely wrapped presents under the tree prior to “lighting” the candles and the sparklers.
I remember those Christmas preparations so vividly. My father dropped me at my grandparents’ apartment on Karinthy F. út at about 4 in the afternoon. Grandpa Jenő let me watch some television on his Videoton set (especially if there was a Fradi soccer game on) and then he and I took tram No. 61 to the small chapel at Karolina út where he played the church organ and sang traditional Christmas songs. I proudly stood next to him and sang along. Father Vidor who celebrated the mass then wished us Merry Christmas and we either took the tram again to my parents’ apartment or my father came to pick us up by automobile (or more accurately with his Trabant).
By the time we got back to Baka Street, the doors to the inner room were closed and my younger brother and I were not allowed in until all grandparents arrived and my Dad rang a special bell to allow us into the room where the beautifully decorated Christmas tree was placed. Of course, we had to sing along with the parents and the grandparents those special songs “The Angel from Heaven” (Mennyből az Angyal), “Oh Tannenbaum” and “Shepherds, Shepherds, rejoicing” (pásztorok, pásztorok örvendezve), etc.
Christmas in Hungary has traditionally been about the birth of Jesus, the majestic songs (mostly German-inspired), grandma’s beigli, the Christmas tree, the candles and the sparklers. Hungarian tradition holds that it is Baby Jesus (Jézuska) who delivers the presents and not Santa, like most Americans believe. In most European countries Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) actually visits the homes on December 6, which is a separate and unique, although smaller holiday.
While few of the kids actually believe these myths to be true, they play along, since expectation, harmony and tranquility are all important part of the holy celebration. The music, the decorations, the church sermons, the food and the spirits are all carefully prepared and tailored for this holiday.
The Christmas dinner usually consists of Hungarian fish soup (made of carp or some other freshwater fish) or stuffed cabbage. Afterwards and for the forthcoming days, of course, there is always plenty of home-made beigli with poppy-seed or walnut filling.
For religious families, the midnight mass is another integral part of the Christmas celebration. Of course, younger children do not stay up for that. Hungarians traditionally used to wish each other Áldott Karácsonyt (Blessed Christmas) or Boldog Karácsonyt (Merry Christmas), however, during the Kádár era they were encouraged to use another toned down version: Kellemes ünnepeket (Pleasant Holidays)! In response to this more politically correct version one of our elder friends (CF) used to say: “kellemes” can typically be a foot bath, but not Christmas… Christmas can only be holy, blessed, majestic and/or magical.
The way Hungarians celebrate Christmas is largely similar to the way most Europeans celebrate this holy day. However, of the more than 2 billion Christians worldwide, various countries celebrate Christmas using some of these common features cited in the above.
Christmas in the United States
Christmas in America begins around the end of November with a major kickoff on Black Friday as most Americans focus on buying presents rather than focusing on the religious aspects of this holiday. However, the Christmas spirit is tremendous among Americans as they are overtaken by the spirit of the holiday and decorate their homes with special lighting and practically compete in most neighborhoods as to who has the most extravagant lighting effects and decor. There are some debates going on as to how we should wish each other Merry Christmas in America as multicultural influences now demand that people scale back from the Christmas spirit and focus on the non-denominational aspect of the holiday, wishing each other just Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. This was especially true under the Obama years, the current president Donald Trump is attempting to reverse all that. Americans hold that presents are delivered not by Jesus, but by St. Nicholas or better known as Santa Claus. Santa climbs through the chimneys and the presents will be opened the morning of the 25th rather than the evening of the 24th.
The traditional Christmas meal in America is either roasted turkey with stuffing, ham or roast beef. A replay of the Thanksgiving meal in many ways. There is also some special egg nog served besides the meal. Of course, Christmas in New York is mesmerizing with the music, the decorated storefronts, the ice rink at Rockefeller Center and the mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Christmas in America is a joyful holiday season.
Christmas celebrated in other Christian populated areas of the world
There is no space for us to outline how various countries celebrate Christmas, but it should be noted that practically all nations have some type of a Christmas celebration other than, of course, the Muslim nations. Even some African and most Asian nations celebrate Christmas, although the Christian populations there are in a minority. For central and south Americans Christmas has special significance as they are committed Catholics even more so than North Americans are.
On the other hand, Christmas is totally banned in North Korea. South Koreans, of course, are allowed to celebrate Christmas just like other nations do.
Whatever your religious affiliation and/or nationality, people all over the world hold this time of the year to be very special and wish each other Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, God Jul, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Wesolych Swiat or Buon Natale. Jewish people might say “Happy Hannukah” or the Back to Africa movement now impresses upon their followers to say “Happy Kwanzaa”. All of that is fine as long as we do not demolish each others’ churches and do not persecute people for their religious beliefs. Peace on Earth and goodwill towards Men! And yes, “men” in this case (old English) infers that women are naturally included.