Zoltán Fehér, a young Catholic priest from Budapest’s largest church, St. Stephen’s Basilica, which every year welcomes thousands of believers for Midnight Mass, talked about the origins, traditions and the gift of the Christmas holidays with Hungary Today. Father Zoltán also talked about the preparations during a peculiar Advent season, celebrating the birth of the Savior in the shadow of a pandemic and strict restrictions in the country, and compared this year’s celebration of the most popular Christian holiday with the most important one, Easter, which was also affected by the coronavirus.
Billions of people around the world celebrate Christmas. For many, Christmas seems to be a bigger holiday than Easter, though the latter is even more important to Christianity.
Had Christ not died and redeemed us, his mission would not have been complete, his earthly incarnation would not have had an effect. Christmas is therefore the second largest holiday in the church, even though it is often a much bigger, much more beloved holiday for people because of its exterior. This may be partly because with the tradition of presents, we continue giving gifts, just as we have received the greatest gift from Christ.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, or more precisely his incarnation, his birth on earth. Theological opinions differ as to whether Christ would have been born or embodied, even if we had not committed sin. Probably yes, but it would have happened in a different form than in the present situation, Father Zoltán explains. Thus, Christ was given a mission to redeem fallen people, to bring them deliverance from their sins.
Can gift-giving also be interpreted as a kind of religious tradition, a religious symbol?
Yes. With gift-giving, people are actually trying to imitate Christ, who gave us the greatest gift: eternal life. And we gift each other with different material gifts or time spent with our loved ones during this period.
Do other things that can be associated with Christmas have such a religious basis as well? For example the Christmas tree, as far as I know, also has a Christian origin, although it is not a Catholic but a Protestant tradition.
Absolutely. Every custom of Christmas has some religious basis. Unfortunately, we are increasingly forgetting these, so it is good to revive them sometimes. Both the Christmas tree and the Advent wreath have a Protestant base. Pine trees were first decorated in Germany in the 16th century for Christmas. If all is true, the first decorations were apples and wafers. The apples, from which the ornaments later formed, symbolize the apple from the tree in Paradise. They probably chose an evergreen to show the relationship of the holiday to eternity.
Cardinal Péter Erdő lights the first candle of the Advent wreath in St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest. (photo: Zoltán Máthé/MTI)
The Advent wreath also originated in Germany and appeared in the 18th century. Initially, it was 40 candles pinned to a wheel of a chariot. According to the fasting tradition, they counted back 40 days from Christmas, during which they waited for the holiday. Catholics later counted back 4 weeks from Christmas and started to use 4 candles, one for each week. Although these symbols are of Protestant origin, both have become an essential part of Christmas in the Catholic religion as well.
An important element of Christmas is the Advent period, the anticipation of someone coming from the world of God, who redeems people from their sins. The anticipation of the Messiah has already appeared in the Jewish religion and can be found in the Old Testament. In the Christian religion, this is fulfilled with the celebration of Christmas. Another message of Advent is that we look forward to the second coming of Christ, things that have not been fulfilled since his life – and also to bring salvation to those who have lived and are living after Christ.
Due to the American and English traditions appearing in Hungary, more and more people are decorating their trees long before Christmas, even at the beginning of the Advent period.
Yes, unfortunately in many places people already decorate the Christmas tree in mid-November and early December. As you said, it stems mostly from foreign traditions, but I also see in the change that people have a desire to prolong the holiday, to linger by it, as it moves their feelings. However, it is important to prepare for the celebration in a bit of a spiritual way. Maybe the pandemic will have a positive impact on the preparation part. After all, the point of the holiday is not to try to make up for everything in a few days or to prepare for it when it is already on the doorstep… everything has its own time. Now that our whole lives have changed, perhaps there are more opportunities to prepare in silence for the Advent period, for everyone to look inward, without the need to artificially extend the holiday. This year also has enough place and time for preparation and celebration. It is a nice sentence in my opinion, “there is no hangover in a real holiday.” That is, one experiences something exceptional during the celebration so they can immediately return to everyday life and make it somehow brighter and more beautiful as well.
photo: Balázs Mohai/MTI
As far as I know, it is also too early to celebrate on the 24th, as Christmas officially starts on the 25th.
Exactly. The whole holiday circle is built around Christmas Day, that is the central element of celebrations. It is December 25 when we celebrate the birth of our Lord Savior. The day before, December 24 is very special as well, and many people think, especially the kids, that it is the real holiday day, though it is not.
No wonder! We usually decorate the Christmas tree, give gifts, have a nice dinner with our family on the 24th…
Yes, and it is kind of rooted in church services as well. The celebration of Christmas, like Easter, has an eve, like every greater celebration in the church. There are two nights when the church invites believers to a vigil: one is the Good Saturday vigil at Easter, and the other is Christmas Eve, the Christmas vigil. At Christmas we hold four Masses: the feast officially begins with the Midnight Mass on the 24th, but the earlier part of the day is still belongs to the Advent period.
How exactly are the rest of the holidays structured?
The next morning when the shepherds received the news of the birth of Jesus, we hold Mass again- this is the Shepherds’ Mass. The holiday will be full with the Christmas Mass on the night of the 25th. The fourth Mass will be held on the 26th, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity. After that, the feast continues with the unfolding of the mystery of Christmas, the feasts of those faithful to Christ: on the 27th, we celebrate the Apostle St. John, and on the 28th we celebrate the Holy Innocents. They suffered martyrdom for Jesus when King Herod executed all children under the age of two in fear for his power from a new king propheted to come. Yet, little did he know that Christ would not bring an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one. Finally, on January 1, the feast culminates with the feast of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and then ends on the 6th, on the Epiphany. This is kind of a summary celebration of Christmas. We celebrate that God has appeared on earth, but already anticipating the death of Christ on the cross, and his mission is confirmed. And before Christmas, as we’ve already said, is the four-week Advent period. At such times the church exhorts good deeds and repentance. We also invite believers to confess, and, of course, to find peace in silence and to face ourselves and our sins.
Maybe now, at the time of the coronavirus, we have a little more opportunity to do so. How do you see this Advent as different and how will Christmas be different than before? Due to restrictions, it is more difficult to celebrate now.
There was a great deal of uncertainty throughout the Advent period, and it was difficult for us to find out only on December 21 whether Midnight Mass could be held at the original time and whether believers could attend church at all. The government has exempted Christmas Eve of the curfew restrictions, but almost every parish prepared for Christmas with at least two possible scenarios. We thought about many possibilities, but it was important to be prepared for the fact that in times pre-coronavirus, about 4-6,000 people would attend the Midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica. At such times, the church is always so crowded you cannot even move. It had happened before that an hour earlier it was impossible to get in and you could not get out until quarter to two, there were so many people. One time, a priest sat for confessions and could not get out of the confessional because the church was so full.
This year, we definitely wanted to avoid this tumult because of the dangers of the coronavirus. Therefore, similar to previous church practices, we will designate places where believers can sit — every second row of benches, keeping a distance of one and a half feet. We also maximized the number of believers who can participate on sight in 500 people. As these places become full, we will project the Mass to everyone interested in the square in front of the Basilica, where it is easier to keep the required distance and of course, everyone can follow the Midnight Mass from the safety of their own houses online. In addition, we will pay much stricter attention to the rules that have been followed so far: mask wearing, frequent disinfection, and the Holy Communion given in hand. There are however cities, where the catholic churches will not held the Midnight Mass for the safety of the believers, such as Székesfehérvár, Debrecen or Esztergom.
This, along with the whole coronavirus situation, also puts an extra burden on the priests, plus they had quite a short time to prepare for the new situation after the 21st of December.
That’s why we prepared with different scenarios. The whole situation has given us extra work, mainly because in this way, the holiday is less communal, the community of believers are torn apart a bit. But on the other hand, it is also very motivating to try and make the holiday accessible to everyone, even in this special situation, so that the coronavirus does not detract from the value of Christmas.
How much can you feel the lack of believers in the current situation, compared to last year’s Advent period?
There is a general decline in the number of people due to the virus, but fortunately the trends are the same as in a completely average year. The holiday seems to have the appeal to move people’s faith despite the epidemic. This is also evident at the confessions- now usually two priests are waiting for believers to confess, sometimes people are still queuing after the Mass.
Father Zoltán Fehér was ordained last summer by Cardinal Péter Erdő in Esztergom. Since then, the young 25-year-old priest found his place at the famous St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, where his duties also include leading and teaching the catechumen group – those adults who have decided to get baptized at a later stage in […]Continue reading
In the spring at Easter, churches could not be opened due to restrictions imposed against the spread of the epidemic. Now, however, we know more about the coronavirus, and we have introduced a lot of precautions. I have noticed that even if the risk is greater in attending community liturgies, people are more willing to take it than to be disconnected from faith and community once again during a holiday.
Since church holidays are built on communities, it is important to have this sense of community.
Absolutely. Ecclesiastical feasts, Masses, and even the Holy Communion are all explicitly built on this communality, even if we are separated in space… and when we can be physically together, it is a strengthening factor, a pulling force, just as in sports or language learning. If I feel that I am not alone, not fighting alone, and I do not have to hold on alone, and those around me share the same values as I do, it also contributes to the celebration. In the church, we receive the graces of God as a community, and each person benefits from those graces just as much as the community benefits from it.