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Our main day of celebrating Christmas is the evening of the 24th that we call The Holy Evening, Szent-este.
We decorate the Christmas tree, together with the children, a few days before Christmas which we all love.
On Christmas Eve we dress up and, when everyone is ready, we play or we read Christmas stories together. We always sing songs while walking around the Christmas tree.
From this point in time, everyone’s priorities are different– I can’t wait for the supper while the children can’t wait to open their presents. Of course they win! So after opening every present, we sit around the table for the supper.
Our main Christmas meal is usually duck which might not be very traditional in Hungary as it is normally fish soup and fish.
Dessert – above all – is Bejgli. If I want to describe what bejgli is, I would say it’s a traditional pastry roll filled with poppy seeds or walnuts. But if I want you to fully understand what bejgli actually is, I have to say that it’s the essence of Christmas!
A little fun fact about our Hungarian traditional Christmas menu: according to tradition fish is believed to bring money, poppy seeds bring good luck and walnuts bring wisdom.
After dinner we spend the rest of the night playing, talking, enjoying nice wine and of course snacking on gingerbreads and bejgli.
Hungarians start the countdown four weeks before Christmas which is marked by Advent wreaths. They feature four candles, representing Faith, Hope, Joy and Love, nestled in a bed of pine branches with ribbons. A candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas.
We usually start to decorate our homes at the beginning of Advent. Our decoration probably looks familiar to anyone. One special addition is common throughout most households: scattering szaloncukor around, even across the Christmas tree. Szaloncukor is a typical festive sweet which is flavoured fondant dipped in chocolate. In our country it is a true art to eat these chocolates from the tree, and then fold the packaging back in a way that no one can notice that it’s empty afterwards. I can proudly say that I have elevated this art to a masterful level.
In Hungary angels (or maybe baby Jesus) bring the gifts and the tree, not Santa. We don’t pin all the hard work on an elderly man! For us, Santa is a red-robed, bishop-looking figure who we call Saint Nicholas and he visits our homes on the 6th of December. On this evening children put their newly polished shoes or boots on their windowsill to be filled with small presents or sweets. So it is a separate, but smaller, holiday.
As I said, the main celebratory day of Christmas is the evening of the 24th. The parents only decorate the tree the night before, when children are already in bed so that the end result is a surprise for them on the Holy Evening. For religious families, Midnight Mass is an integral part of the celebration, but most people go to church after the Christmas supper.
On the 25th and 26th everyone gathers with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends to celebrate to repeat the overload of food…
Other than this, Hungarians spend this holiday just like any other: eating good foods, drinking good wines and having good laughs with their loved ones.
My favourite tradition is actually not Hungarian, but one from my Danish wife. When its dessert time at the Christmas supper, we put small present in the centre of the table. We prepare a rice pudding-like dessert, Ris a l’Amande, and we hide whole blanched almonds in it. Whoever finds an almond while eating, can open a present.
My other favourite is the morning of the 25th. It is when we finally don’t have to worry about anything – like whether we closed the year well in business, whether we forgot to arrange something in the office before the break, whether we bought a gift for every family member, whether we sent greeting cards for every distant aunt and uncle, whether we’ve got everything for the Christmas menu, whether we would find a big enough tree, whether we would burn that tray of cookies that we wanted to make for our guests… All of these, all the stress and excitement is already behind us.
On that morning we don’t have to go anywhere, no phone rings, no hurry. – it is just us.
We cozy up, prepare a brunch together, have long talks about life, or maybe watch a Christmas movie. For me it is maybe the most special, most genuine, part of the Holiday.