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State Foundation Day: History of the Ceremonial Fireworks in Budapest

Hungary Today 2021.08.19.

The festive fireworks displayed in Budapest over the Danube have a tradition of almost 200 years: there is a record of the first fireworks display on the occasion of St. Stephen’s Day in 1829. Since then, the attraction has been renewed year after year and supplemented with various programs.

The original article was written by our sister site, Ungarn Heute.

After fireworks were used for the first time in 1829 on the occasion of St. Stephen’s Day, this celebration could not be held for decades after the revolution of 1848/49. After the Compromise with Austria in 1867, the Hungarian Parliament debated for years whether St. Stephen’s Day should be declared a national holiday. The discussion was about whether a feast of Catholic origin was suitable for the whole nation. Finally, in 1891, an agreement was reached on August 20th as the date, although no spectacular celebrations were held in the early years.

Fireworks in Budapest 1937. Photo: Fortepan/Sándor Bojár

Fireworks in Budapest, 1938 with the map of Great Hungary. Photo: Fortepan/Béla Heinzely

In the period after the First World War, the National Day was celebrated again only at the end of the twenties; besides the hoisting of the national flag and the procession, fireworks were also launched from Gellért Hill in Budapest. From the second half of the thirties the spectacle was further developed, in which it was also accompanied by a musical background, and the map of Hungary in the pre-1920 form could be seen on Gellért Hill by lamps.

Fireworks in Budapest 1955 with the Elizabeth Bridge destroyed during the Second World War. Photo: Fortepan/János Keveházi

Fireworks in Budapest, 1967. Photo: Fortepan/FŐFOTÓ

After World War II, the tradition was revived in 1946, but as a result of the 1956 uprising against communism and the Soviet occupation, it was banned for ten years and was not organized again until 1966. In the following decades, the celebrations began every year in the morning with a ship and air parade, followed by fireworks in the evening.

Aerial parade in Budapest 1978. Photo: Fortepan/MHSZ

In 1991, Saint Stephen’s Day was declared an official state holiday by the Hungarian Parliament. On August 20, 2006, a great disaster happened during the fireworks: As a result of a violent storm, five people died and 500 others were injured.

This time, Hungary is preparing for its biggest celebration weekend ever on the occasion of the founding of the state, with a 34-minute fireworks display, a big folk art festival, and a feast of Hungarian cuisine. Hundreds of festive programs will take place at 17 different venues over the course of three and a half days.

Featured photo by Péter Lakatos/MTI