When it comes to celebrating Christmas, most people have some kind of ritual in mind. In the UK, this usually features the opening of presents on Christmas Day morning, sending and receiving glossy cards, singing and listening to festive carols. Some listen to the Queen’s Speech, or so I’ve heard. And, of course, there is the compulsory mammoth meal of turkey, stuffing, the odd boiled vegetables few seem to like, and a surfeit of dried fruity goodness (read: calories) under the names of Christmas pudding and mince pies. For my family, however, we have another tradition to accommodate into our celebrations – the Hungarian Christmas ritual.
Christmas in Hungary kicks off on the 6th December. Children place their shoes out on the windowsill for Mikulás (Father Christmas) to leave packages of chocolate and peanuts for the well-behaved. Schools and work-places also put on Mikulâs-courts, often as part of their annual Christmas parties. These events can be anything between fantastic (if you’re under six years old), to awkward and risible (for everyone else).
There is also always the small chance that Mikulás decides that you have been naughty. The impending judgment is all the more threatening when you fail to note the similarities in appearance between Mikulás and your mum’s weird old colleague, who has been unknowingly absent from the room since Mikulás’ entrance. However, the fear of being beaten and taken away by Krampusz, Mikulas’ devil-like companion, is, of course, never realised. No child is ever found to be naughty. Nor should any child ever try, as I did, to later make sense of Krampusz’s symbolism; terrifying Google image searches ruin over-sentimentalised memories, period.
‘Holy Eve’ on the 24th December is the main event. Gifts are exchanged before dinner, a tradition that my family has maintained since moving to England. After all, who wants to wait when you can justify opening presents a day earlier? Present opening occurs alongside copious sugar consumption, as ‘little Jesus’, who we believe delivers the presents (not Santa Claus), is also credited with decorating the Christmas tree with szaloncukor (a fondant and chocolate-based nibble) and other sweet treats.
Christmas dinner contains notably less meat, due to the influence of the Catholic fast. And, about ninety-eight per cent of food contains compulsory red paprika. Even more importantly, what is dried fruit or minced meat in the UK is replaced with sweetened poppy seed. Flavoured with honey, sugar, rum or cognac (because everything tastes better with sugar and alcohol), it is used to fill everything from strudels, known as mákos beigli, to shortbread croissants, called pozsonyi kifli. Christmas is a sorry time for those who dislike poppy seed.
Whilst some parents nowadays insist on spending Holy Eve alone with their children, mass family gatherings are unavoidable. No excuses are accepted, especially not by love-hungry grandparents who demand a full three to four day access pass to their descendants. For my family, this results in a rapid succession of meals after which one’s sole desire is to crawl up on a sofa, hoping not to burst after the consumption of unquantifiable amounts of ‘lovingly prepared Christmas goodness’. Food, of course, cannot be refused without mortally offending our hostesses.
To keep ourselves entertained throughout dinner, quite a few families, including mine, find time to get into colossal arguments. “You do realise that you are a Nazi?” has previously featured, and no, I don’t think alcohol was involved. In fact, at least in my family, drinking does not usually extend beyond the odd glass of mulled wine or some sickeningly sweet cream liqueur. Serious inebriation is reserved for New Year’s Eve, or ‘Szilveszter’ as it is known in the region.
And, if you were wondering how the above incident ended. Well, my grandmother, well-accustomed to such theatrics, responded by offering said relative another piece of poppy seed strudel, and then ushered him into the living room where he could peacefully drift into a nap whilst watching either Home Alone or one of the Sissi films on the TV.