Dec 25, 2008

Happy Holidays!

These quasi-religious holidays are a real mess if you really look at them. Christmas is a confusing stew of Baby Jesus, Santa Claus and pine trees. The beauty of it is that you can take one part out and it still works. You can have an all christian holiday without Santa, and you could probably leave out the tree, just throw up some decorations.

When I was growing up behind the good ole iron curtain we left the religion out, and it worked fine. By the time I was born the harsh days of communist era were already left behind. Religion was not persecuted, though not encouraged either, which coincidentally had us in sync with the very un-communist West.

At Christmas time we had a tree which we decorated not unlike it's done here. In December street vendors popped up all over Budapest selling Christmas ornaments. We also hang szaloncukor on the tree, a colorfully wrapped "parlour candy." The Idea was that you would slowly eat them off the tree, but they are not that good, so they became permanent ornaments to be reused year after year. Early on we also used to put actual Christmas candles on the tree. They had special clip-ons. Naturally it was a bit of a fire hazard. Then we upgraded to Russian made tree lights. They had big bulbs and if one went out, there went the whole string. They could also give you a mild electric shock. We also put sparklers on the tree.

It's funny how the same holiday develops different flavors and traditions in different places. For example, we always opened the gifts on Christmas Eve, never on the next morning. There was also a pre-Christmas holiday. Mikulás day is December 6. Traditionally the night before you would put your shoe or boot in the window, and the next morning you'd find goodies in them, mostly candy, nuts, tropical fruit. Eventually it turned into the custom of parents putting store bought red plastic boots, filled with said goodies, in the window. Part of the lore is the figure of Krumpusz, a goblin like creature, supposed to scare bad kids.

Ironically this extra holiday is the result of previously strong identification of Christmas with religion. December 24 was the day of baby Jesus, so St. Nick - Mikulás in this case - had to move to a different day. Then after the war, and the coming of the Communist era the bearded fat man developed a multiple personality disorder. On the night of December 6, unseen, he would leave small edible presents on your window sill, and then on the eve of the 24th in his full glory as "Télapó" (Father Christmas) he would deliver the real goods. A real mess, I know, but I never questioned any aspect of it growing up.

The traditional Hungarian Christmas meal is also completely different. It is usually fish soup, followed by fried carp filets, and finished off with beigli made with walnuts or poppy seeds. Around the holidays another popular dish is kocsonya, jellied pig feet, that actually is much better than it sounds.


altadenahiker said...

So, do you carry on any of those traditions today? I know I keep the main celebration on Christmas Eve, just as we always did. But I'm rather a failure at replicating any of the Norwegian food. Actually, fish soup sounds delicious, do you make it? Your illustrations are lovely -- is that a very young Vanda next to the tree?

Vanda said...

Yes indeed that's me. I keep Christmases low key these days. I don't have a tree. Fish soup intimidates me. I'm better at baking. I made a very tasty Hungarian cherry tart. Costco had wonderfully sweet cherries from Chile for sale.

Cafe Observer said...

V: xxcellent story!

You could be a writer.
I, a canine of numbers & food, am surrounded by a brunch of women of arts/letters, and pseudo-humor.

Happy Christmas 2 U!

Anonymous said...

I've never heard the expression the "Good Ole Iron Curtain". Where have I been? I've also never heard pigs feet described as pig trotters. Fantastic post Vanda. Beautiful post card as well.

Vanda said...

I make up my own expressions. If caught I feign ESL (English as Second Language). "Trotters" surprised me too. If I had a pet pig I would name it Trotters.

Petrea said...

Best post ever. I love the cards, but especially the photos. Is the man your father, or another relation perhaps?

-K- said...

The top card reminds me of a prehistoric cave painting. Or maybe I just haven't had my morning coffee yet.

My suburban upbringing had very little in the way of traditional meals. Certainly no jellied pigs's a little too early in the morning to give that too much thought.

Vanda said...

Yeah, he is my dad, circa 1960's, maybe early 70's.

K, Hungarian peasant food has a lot in common with Soul Food.

Gail Pryatel said...

hey whats up vanda :) those pics are pretty awsome :P

Vanda said...

Hey Gail, that's a blast from the past. How's life treating you?

Gail Pryatel said...

pretty good :) work, sleep, eat, etc haha. also busy being po'd at 1 to 4 computers, depending :)

can't wait for d3. i'm getting a new computer just for that :)