2 weeks ago
Dec 25, 2008
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.