When you look at “national day” celebrations held in other countries, the best example of which is probably Independence Day in the United States, they are mostly characterized by booze, fireworks, other fun events, and of course the obligatory speeches by politicians. While August 20th in Hungary is a tad more reserved due to it being a religious holiday, with the mass at the Saint Stephen’s Basilica being the center point, it is still important to ask ourselves, what exactly are we celebrating?
At the core of everything is, of course, St. Stephen’s canonization on 20th August, 1083. Our modern celebration is derived from his “feast day”, but every saint has a feast day, why is this one so special? This article should give you a pretty good understanding about why King Saint Stephen is so important to Hungary and Hungarians, but this holiday has evolved into something much bigger than him.
It was originally made a national holiday in 1771 by Maria Theresia but was later banned after the defeat of the 1848 revolution. It was once again made a holiday by Franz Joseph in 1891 and was made an official national holiday in 1938. After the communist takeover, the date remained the same, except it was changed from a religious holiday to a celebration of the people’s republic and the constitution. After the fall of communism, in 1991 Parliament once again voted to make Saint Stephen’s day the Hungarian national day of celebration.
So, it is a national celebration rooted in the founding of Christian Hungarian statehood, but it is still so much more than that. The Fidesz government, as well as many other right-leaning Hungarian intellectuals, often emphasize our 1000-year history. Despite the millennium anniversary being held in 1896 to commemorate the entry of the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin in 896,
we could have easily become a footnote in history without the reforms of King Saint Stephen who was crowned at the turn of the millennium.
Just like the Huns or Avars who lived here before us, the original Hungarians had a very low chance of surviving in a largely feudal Christian continent as pagan nomads.
And that is what this day is truly about. This day is about remembering all of the times that Hungarians could have been thrown in the dustbin of history forever.
Saint Stephen was only one of many Hungarians who made the right decisions at the right time to make sure his people survived.
Our history is full of individuals and moments like this, and other moments where things did not work out so well. In fact, it is a common theme in Hungarian history, as well as in our national consciousness, that we have been “losers” for most of the last half millennium who have constantly been robbed of greatness. I’m sure that some Hungarians are shaking their heads right now, but I guarantee that I am not the only one who has had someone tell them that everything would have worked out fine if we had just won at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, while at a doctor’s appointment.
Defeat at Mohács, more than 150 years of Ottoman occupation, followed by Habsburg occupation for even longer, Trianon, Soviet Hungary, and the failure of every single fight for freedom in 1703, 1848, and 1956. Looking at our history, and listening to an average Hungarian talk about it, it is difficult not to think that we are the perennial losers of history. But this is absolutely not true. István Széchenyi had something important to say about this: “Many believe: Hungary – was; I wish to believe – it will be!”.
And that’s exactly what we have to do, believe in the future and not get caught up on the supposed greatness of our past. Hungarians have spent the last half millennium fighting for freedom against powers that have sought to control and exploit us. Whether it was the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, or the Soviet Union, we were almost always outnumbered and outgunned, but we are still here while those empires are not.
Our greatness lies not in whatever borders we had hundreds of years ago, or how many wars we won in foreign lands, it can be found in our refusal to succumb to tyranny, our will to survive, and our constant fight to live in an independent and free country.
This is what we celebrate on August 20th, what King Saint Stephen foresaw over a thousand years ago: that it will never be easy, but by God we’re not going anywhere.
Featured photo illustration by Zoltán Balogh/MTI