Hungarian carnival

Farsang, The Hungarian Carnival, The Holiday Where Everything Is Possible

If you visit a Hungarian-inhabited area anywhere in the world in the beginning of February, you are most likely to see some form of Farsang celebration. Farsang is basically the Hungarian Carnival, a time of parties, get-togethers, culminating in a masked ball or parade.

The origins of Farsang go back to the Hungarian pagan days, when people celebrated the end of winter, beginning of spring, rebirth of nature. Hungarians also used this time to make fun of authorities, play tricks on those they didn’t like, but mostly for courtship and love.

The Essence of Farsang

Farsang a time for parties, but it was also the time for love, engagements and weddings. In villages, bachelors organized the balls through the season. Girls sent (through relatives or friends) a small bouquet of flowers to their chosen man, who would pin it to his hat on the last day of the celebration as a public announcement of their relationship. The holiday culminated with the engagement.

But this was only one face of the holiday. Besides the courtship, the holiday celebrated the fun part of life.

The whole idea of this holiday was to turn things upside down; ignore proper etiquette, party without worrying about consequences. Wearing masks made this possible. During this holiday you could be anything or anyone, you could hide from the world or from yourself, in a costume of your choice.

For example, one day was dedicated to women’s farsang, when they could party like men without worrying about being judged. Men also dressed and acted like women, and animal costumes were also popular.

The culmination of Farsang, the holiday’s last three days, was the real Carnival. Traditionally called the tail of Farsang (farsang farka), was really meant to be a farewell to winter. These three days were filled with parties, lots of food and drink. Finally, and after a procession through the town, people symbolically burned winter, symbolized by a straw person in most villages, to make room for spring. Or, instead of burning it, in many villages they hold a mock burial of winter.

With a few minor differences, Farsang is still celebrated in a similar manner through Hungarian-speaking regions. But it wasn’t always the same. The holiday was banned twice in relatively recent history.

The History of Farsang – Origins

HungarianFarsangdates back at least as far as the thirteenth century, if not earlier. We have written evidence of this holiday dating from 1283, making it one of the oldest known Hungarian traditions. However, it is not specific to Hungarians; the Romans celebrated it, and so did the Bavarians. In fact, the wordfarsanghas its origins in the Bavarian-Austrianvaschang. Hungarians made it their own, adjusting it to their specific cultural needs.

Over time, the holiday went through several changes.

The Christian Church Banned Farsang for Being Immoral

Around the 16th and 17th centuries, the church prohibited the celebration of Farsang, not so much because of its origins, but because they considered it too immoral.

However, this didn’t last long; you can’t take away such a popular holiday. Farsang survived, but it changed. By the 18th century, it was more of a masquerade ball, and took on a slightly religious tint, by connecting its dates to Christian holidays. So now it starts on January 6th, on All Saint’s Day and lasts til Fat Tuesday.

The Communist Regime Banned Farsang for Being a Religious Holiday

When the socialist/communist regime took over Eastern Europe, being an atheist culture, it theoretically banned Christian holidays. By that time Farsang belonged in that category, so it had to go. Besides, traditional Christians and Communists had one major thing in common: neither liked fun and parties, they both considered life a very serious matter.

Besides this, during the Communist years, in Transylvania Farsang had another sin: it was a holiday of a group of minorities. The same period also meant changing borders, and Hungarian-majority areas of Transylvania changed from being within Hungary’s borders to being in Romania.

Just like everywhere in the world, when an ethnic group changes its status from majority to minority in the same place, their rights change, too. They might loose schools in their native language, or rights to celebrate their culture and follow their traditions openly.

So, by the 1960s the fun Farsang holiday in Transylvania fell prey to these two circumstances, and it pretty much disappeared. I grew up without ever experiencing it – in my birth country. Since I left Romania in 1991, I wasn’t there to see the revival of the holiday once again.

So my first Farsang celebration was in the Hungarian community of Arizona.

Celebrating Farsang Today

Since the beginning of the 1990s Farsang is celebrated once again, not only in Hungary, but in all Hungarian-inhabited areas of the world.

In Hungary

Busó costume. photo by Benjamin Sz-J. on Pixabay.

The most famous celebration of Farsang, called Busójárás, theBusófestivities, is included in theUNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage since 2009. Held in Mohács, in a small town in Southern Hungary, it is a six-day celebration, with the main protagonists the Busó men, wearing scary wooden masks and large wool cloaks.

The major celebration starts with their arrival by boat on the Danube. As they disembark, they chase bystanders, and make loud noises to banish winter. They follow a coffin symbolizing winter in a procession through town, culminating with the burning it in an enormous bonfire in the main square.

In Transylvania

Torockó, a traditional Székely-Hungarian village in Transylvania, is one of the few places where locals celebrated farsang uninterrupted for thousands of years. Here, they call winter Döme, and at the end of its funeral, they drown it. As the coffin ofDöme, in a cart pulled by a donkey, walks down the main street, it is followed by more and more locals, and often visitors from out-of-town who came to take part in the celebrations. At the end of the funeral procession locals drownDömein the center of the village, in thecsorgókut,a well flowing through an enclosed area where women used to wash the clothes.

Traditions Keep National and Cultural Identities Alive and Give Visitors a Glimpse Into Them

Hungarians still celebrate farsang, no matter where they live. One of the winter Hungarian holiday traditions, farsang keeps our national identity alive. Just like holiday traditions around the world do it for other nations.

By preserving traditions for millennia, nations preserve their identity, and ensure their culture’s survival. Visitors who watch or take part of these celebrations gain a new perspective, a deeper understanding of locals.

And, by watching or participating in different traditions from around the world, we all notice not only unique traditions, but also similarities between those from different cultures. Which gives us a better perspective in understanding each other.

We might have some different customs, but overall, we express the same ideas, same feelings through them. And, we borrow ideas from each other, adapting them to our specific needs. Learning about traditions around the world show us that people have done this for millennia. Also, every nation adapted their traditions over time, to reflect the place and time they live in.

The essence of Farsang and similar holidays is to make change possible. After all, this has always been the holiday when everything was possible, when proper etiquette was thrown out the window, when new ideas could show up without judgement.

Change is inevitable. Celebrations like Farsang might make them easier. These days, I hope to see all traditions go towards celebrating with the least impact on the environment, while still allowing everyone to have fun.

The Farsang period in 2023 is between January 6th and February 21st. The Tail of Farsang, the actual Carnival is between February 19th to 21st.

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