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A few of the Hungarian Holiday Traditions celebrated in December

Like in other parts of the world, many of the Hungarian Holiday traditions are celebrated in December. Though these days Christmas is the major Hungarian holiday this time of the year, it is not the only one. And even this wide-celebrated Holiday has a few Hungarian-specific additions.

Though I am celebrating the Holidays in the desert now, and don’t follow all the traditions, growing up in a Hungarian household in Transylvania, we celebrated many of them. My family wasn’t overly traditional, and in communist Romania most traditions were theoretically illegal, but the last month of the year was still full of holiday cheer.

December was a month of celebrations, starting in on the 6th. Everyone celebrated different things during the month in one way or another. We even had an official Winter-Tree celebration On December 30th (it couldn’t coincide with Christmas, but they had to do something). It was actually fun, with games and story-telling in preschools and schools.

But every household I knew had a Christmas tree, set up and decorated on the night of the 24th. Before that, we had presents from Mikulás in our boots on the 6th, and we celebrated New Year’s Eve with a traditional meal, left on the festive table past midnight.

Hungarian Holiday Traditions in Contemporary Times

These days, Hungarian Holiday Traditions are a bigger deal again, in all regions, both in and outside Hungary.

Celebrations start during the first week of December, when on the night of the 5th to 6th Mikulás, the Hungarian version of St Nicholas visits the children and leaves little gifts in their polished shoes or boots.

Hungarians celebrate Christmas with the traditional decorated pine tree and gifts, on the night of the 24th, and a festive dinner on the 25th.

Then there is New Year’s Eve, with its night-long celebrations.

On the surface, it’s like every other European nation. Most of the differences are subtle, though we have a few unique holidays this month. And then there is the Hungarian cuisine, highlighting its best during the holiday season.

Mikulás: December 6th (St. Nicholas-Day)

As a child, I used to look forward to Mikulás-day every year, generally the first time in the year when we saw oranges – in our cleaned boots. We used to make a big deal of cleaning them, then we put them out by the door on the night of December 5th. When we woke up in the morning, on the 6th, we found them festive, with a silver or gold-colored branch sticking out of them and filled with oranges and chocolate.

The gold or silver colored branch was “virgács”, symbolically a tool for parents to punish naughty children when they misbehaved. Of course, since each child might be naughty at some point during the year, we all got one every year. It was all symbolic (at least in our household), no one actually got hit with the branch, but we couldn’t imagine our boots without them. We also had at least one orange in them every year – and oranges were hard to find in Communist times.

The Symbolism of the Orange

Why the orange? I heard a few different theories, though personally I always thought it was simply because in Communist Romania it was extremely hard to find oranges (since they don’t grow there, and the country didn’t import much of anything). So parents went out of their ways to find at least one for each child as a present. Yes, oranges were very special for us, if we were lucky, we got one for Christmas, too.

However, recently I realized that the orange from Mikulás is a thing for other Hungarian/speaking regions, too. So I figured there must be some symbolism there.

Orange. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay
Oranges are always present in the children’s boots on Mikulás-day.

According to some sources, the orange, with its slices, symbolizes a gift that we can share with others. I like this idea, since it’s how I always felt. In my childhood, when I got an orange as a gift, I always shared it with the rest of the family, but at least with my brothers, no matter what.

Other sources tell me that the orange symbolizes the gold St Nicholas (the bishop) gave a family the first time he started gifting.

I also read that the tradition – which is prevalent in countries where oranges don’t grow – stems from the fact that it was always hard to procure an orange in these places, therefore, when someone had one, instead of eating it, they shared it with their loved ones.

Mikulás in Hungary Today

In Hungary, St Miklós or Mikulás visits preschools and kindergartens. He takes part in a celebration in his honor. Children sing Mikulás songs and might recite poems as well. Mikulás talks to them and may stay in the classroom to watch a movie with the children.

The Origins of Mikulás

Mikulás is a nickname for Miklós, the Hungarian version of Nicholas. The holiday has its origins in Greece, or rather a territory that used to be Greece, though it is part of Turkey now. It started in the honor of Saint Nicholas, a holy man, a bishop of Myra, who lived sometime in the third century AD.

He was born in the village of Patara, in a wealthy family. His parents raised him to be a devout Christian, but they died when Nicholas was still very young. Though orphan, they left Nicholas extremely wealthy, and already a follower of Christian values.

Although one might argue that the main values he followed were not exclusively Christian, but rather humanitarian. All his life he was giving to the needy and to the less fortunate. He used up his inheritance by giving it away to those in need, especially to children. By the time he became the Bishop of Myra, he was known for helping those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors.

St. Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD in Myra. The anniversary of his death became the occasion for celebrating the Day of St Nick.

Luca-Nap: December 13th

Though I never celebrated this holiday, and didn’t know about its existence until recently, I would’ve loved it. Theoretically, the day commemorates Santa Lucia from Sicily, one of the early martyrs of Christianity. However, the Hungarian version of this holiday is mixed with older, pagan celebrations, and because of this, it’s more Halloween-like.

That’s because the date coincides with older, pagan traditions relating to this time of the year. Before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar we use today, Hungarians followed an old calendar, according to which December 13th was the shortest day of the year. Which also meant the longest night, associated with the forces of darkness.

Because of this combination, Luca for Hungarians has two faces: she’s a good, sweet girl, but during the night – the longest night of the year – she turns into a witch. Most of the Hungarian Luca-Day traditions concentrate around the witch.

Luca-Day Traditions

According to the Luca-day traditions, this is the day when witches and other magical creatures appear among us. People, and animals (since they are not immune either) need to hide from them. And they use all sorts of creative ways to do this.

Since it is a known fact that witches (and all these magical creatures) don’t like the smell of garlic (or tobacco), people in the countryside rub it on their animals, before locking them in their pen. They also eat garlic bread and sprinkle tobacco in front of their homes to chase away the evil spirits with the smell. Besides this, they hide the brooms, so witches could not use them to fly away on them.

The Luca-chair is probably one of the best-known tradition. People start carving a stool (chair) on this day, December 13th. They need to pace the work, so they finish it exactly on Christmas Eve. Taken to church, during Christmas mass, whoever stands on it, can spot the witches of the village.

Girls and Women on Luca-Day

Other traditions use the power of the witches to predict the future. Girls would make 12 dumplings, and hide boy-names in them. When cooking them, the name in the dumpling that comes up first to the surface of the water would be their future husband. Alternately, unmarried girls would dream about their future husband on the night of Luca.

It is the day Hungarian women should not do any housework, and should not work at all (yes, this is one of the main reason I would’ve like to celebrate it).

Halloween-Like Traditions of Luca-Day

On the night of Luca-nap, in some places of Hungary, it was the tradition to carve pumpkins as faces (much like the Halloween jack-o-lanterns), and set a candle in them to scare away evil spirits and ghosts (or each other). They also used to wear a white sheet over their clothes, and even cover their faces with a white cheesecloth.

Luca-Day Calendar

According to the Luca-Day Calendar, the weather on this day (December 13th) predicts the weather in January. For example, if it snows on Luca-Day, January will have plenty of snow. The next eleven days, culminating with Christmas, predict the weather patterns for the rest of the moths of the year, with Christmas predicting the following December.

In Transylvania, the Szeklers had their own weather predicting pattern, using onions on Luca-Day. They peeled twelve layers of an onion (or cut an onion in twelve pieces, depending on the region), representing the twelve months of the year. They salted each piece, and predicted the weather according to how much the salt melted on each piece. The month represented by a piece where the salt melted would promise to be a wet month, while the one where the salt didn’t melt, would be dry.

Christmas Eve: December 24th

For Hungarians, Christmas Eve is the bigger celebration. This was the night when the angels brought the already decorated Christmas tree and presents for the children.

Growing up, we used to have grandparents visit (when possible), and take us, kids, out for a walk on Christmas Eve. By the time we got back to the house, a fully decorated Christmas Tree was set up in the living room, with presents underneath. In the years our grandparents couldn’t visit, one of our parents took us out during angyal-járás (angel-visits), so the angels could come without being seen. Or we would close up the living room and stay away from it (on years the weather was too bad to be outside). When we heard a bell, we knew the angels finished and left. So, a few moments later we could go see what they brought.

As we got older, we helped set up the tree, but always on Christmas Eve. In the past twenty years or so, they started setting up the tree earlier, and no one thinks the angels bring it. Although, the Christmas presents are still from the angels, as opposed to the presents from Mikulás or Télapó (the Santa-like character bringing them on December 6th).

The Christmas Tree

One of the major Hungarian Holiday traditions is a decorated live Christmas tree, set up on the night of December 24th
One of the Hungarian Holiday traditions is a decorated live Christmas tree, set up on the night of December 24th

The Christmas tree tradition is relatively new for Hungarians. According to most stories, the first Christmas in a Hungarian household dates from 1824, set up by the countess Teréz Brunswick. She most likely brought in the tradition from Austria and the German-speaking regions. However, it took another century for it to become a tradition in most Hungarian households.

The decorated Christmas-tree didn’t become a wide-used tradition until after 1945. In the beginning the decorations included walnuts, gingerbread, apples, dried fruit and popcorn.

Image by Nicky from Pixabay
Walnuts are part of the holiday decorations and food for Hungarians

Before the angels and the Christmas tree tradition, it was a magical golden pony who brought presents to the children on this day.

However, people brought pine tree branches into their homes since about the 1500s. They believed that the fresh scented pine would chase away evil spirits and bring health and good luck into the house.

Christmas Eve Dinner

A tradition older than the Christmas tree centered around the Christmas Eve dinner table. Even when I was a child, this was the main Christmas meal, featuring traditional food items.

A traditional Hungarian Christmas dinner usually includes stuffed cabbage and beigli (a traditional winter sweet bread with poppy seeds or walnut filling), among other things. In most places in Hungary, it also includes fish soup and/or fried fish.

Of course, there is symbolism behind these meals. The poppy seeds bring wealth, while the walnuts destroy malicious thoughts agains the members of the household. The scales of the fish bring money, while the stuffed cabbage assures that we won’t go hungry in the following year.

The Hungarian poppy seed roll - mákos bejgli - is always present on the Christmas Holiday table.
“Mákos bejgli” – poppy seed beigli – always present on the Hungarian Christmas Holiday table.

This Holiday Meal Has Its Roots In The Pagan Days

The festive Holiday meal was even more important in the pagan days, and in the early days of Christianity. When the old and new traditions still mixed, everything centered around this meal, including many beliefs about the new year.

The objects on and around the Christmas table had magical properties on this day. People only used the festive Christmas tablecloth once a year on the table. The rest of the year they used it as a baking cloth to cover the bread dough while it was raising, to make sure the bread always came out good.

A large, whole home-made bread was always on the Christmas table, to make sure the family would have bread all year long.

People who owned livestock would put hay and straw under the Christmas table to ensure the health of their animals. Sometimes they would place their most important household items around the table, to make sure they would bring luck and good work the year ahead.

While these old superstitions were long gone by the time I was growing up, some things about the Christmas dinner still lingered. However, most of them ended up transposed to the New Year’s Eve dinner table, like the belief that you need to have the table full at midnight to have plenty of food the whole year ahead.

Kántálás – Caroling

Caroling, or as we called it, kántálás, was also popular on Christmas Eve. Young kids started early afternoons, walking together in groups to people’s homes, singing Christmas songs. They either sang in the doorway, or in people’s homes. Family friends and acquaintances alway invited them in and offered them candy, cookies or other Christmas pastries.

Older children, and teens started later at night. The process was similar, though young adults were also offered a glass of wine with the baked goods at the homes of friends and relatives. As a teen, my friends and I would do it, too, starting as early as nine, and caroling, or partying most of the night.


An older version of this was the so-called regölés, a type of fertility magic. This custom, dating back to ancient times, is still very much alive in some Hungarian-speaking villages.

Groups of young men walk from house to house, wishing good luck, abundance, and good crops to the houshold. They do this by singing regös songs and making a lot of noise. These nature-centered regös songs are thought to have their origins in the ancient Hungarian shaman’s magic spell, bringing good will and abundance.

Regölés starts on December 26th and lasts til January 6th.

New Year’s Eve – Szilveszter and New Year’s Day

Hungarians have many New Year’s Eve and new Year’s Day traditions, basically all stemming from the idea that whatever you do on the first day of the year will determine the rest of the year. So it is always important to end the old year and start the new in great spirits, with lots of food and drink, and surrounded by family and friends.

Traditionally, in old Hungarian communities, they say goodbye to the Old Year – Óév – with lots of noise. The origins of this tradition might be to keep away harmful and evil forces, or chase away the old year.

According to some legends, the noise-making goes back to the time of the wars with the Turkish Empire. The women banged their pots and pans together, the villagers would ring the church bell, to chase the enemy Turks away. Since then, they still chase the Old Year away with the noise-making. It is still a custom to ring the bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Hungarian areas.

New Year’s Eve Dinner

The dinner table needs to be set and full of food at midnight, to make sure you never go hungry in the New Year. It also matters what food is on the table. For example, you shouldn’t eat chicken on New Year’s Eve, since it might dig out your good luck, fish might swim away with it. Instead, the meat of choice is pork because it can bring (dig) luck into the house.

A roast piglet is the luckiest meal for this time, since piglets dig out and push the luck into your house. The piglet tail, ears, nails, and knuckles are especially lucky, when roasted to a crunch.

Another lucky meal as the first meal of the year is humane and more palatable – for me, at least: lentils. Lentils eaten as the first meal in the New Year ensures that your purse will never be empty. (this goes back to the times of coins as money, lentils representing coins.)

Lentils and piglets are not the only meals that ensure good luck and wealth during the new year. The Hungarian rétes, a strudel-like pastry, is made by stretching the dough, folding it and stretching it over and over. We all knew that the more you stretched the rétes, the longer your luck will hold during the new year. You can lengthen your life and your happiness with the rétes, and the more filling you put in it, the more happiness your new year will bring.

It is also customary to leave some of the meal made for the New Year’s Eve dinner unfinished, so you would never run out of food in the New Year.

Things You Shouldn’t Do On New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day According to Tradition

You should not borrow or lend anything to anyone on the last and first day of the year. Those who borrowed something during the year, need to return it on New Year’s Eve the latest.

You shouldn’t go to a doctor or call a doctor to the house, or you’ll spend the year being sick. (so you better be healthy on New Year’s Eve).

More important though – and something that regardless of superstitions, we should all follow: do not argue with anyone on the first day of the year. No arguments, no fights, or you’ll spend the year arguing with everyone.

Good Wishes for the New Year

BÚÉK is short for Bold Új Évet Kívánok. – wishing you a happy New Year.

Besides that, part of the traditional Hungarian New Year’s greeting is “Bort, Búzát, Békességet” which translates what traditionally is most important for Hungarians: wine, wheat, and peace.

The good wishes count nine days after the first of the year. Meaning, if you didn’t see someone for the first time in the year during the first nine days of January, you still wish them a happy New Year and the 3 B’s.

Celebrations don’t stop in December. In late January, until early February, Hungarians celebrate Farsang, our version of carnival.

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