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Hungarian Christmas traditions

In Hungary, the Christmas season begins with Advent at either the end of November or the beginning of December, a time known for waiting for the Lord.  This time also marks the beginning of the Church year, a tradition originating from the 5-6. century. The Christmas season includes lighting up the candles on four consecutive Advent Sundays, setting up the Christmas tree and waiting for Santa for the little ones. Let’s see the most well-known Hungarian Christmas traditions. 

1st December – Advent  calendar and Christmas pageant tradition

The tradition of the Advent calendar arose from German Protestants in the 1800’s as a way for children to countdown to Christmas Day. It spread across the world during the 20th century to become the main secular observance of the season. The first commercially printed Advent calendar was created by Gerhard Lang in 1908, inspired by his mother, who sewed 24 cookies into the lid of a box and allowed him to eat one per day through December.

In Debrecen, you can also see a Giant Advent Calendar placed next to the main stage from 1st December. During this time the windows of Debrecen’s giant Advent Calendar are opened each day at 6 PM counting up each day to convey important messages throughout the Advent celebration period.  

Christmas pageant tradition

Nativity Play (Betlehemezés in Hungarian) is a very important Hungarian folk tradition associated with Christmas. A Nativity play or Christmas pageant is a play that recounts the story of the Nativity of Jesus. It is usually performed at Christmas. Nowadays this custom is mostly kept alive in villages and the church. Besides the little Jesus, the most important roles are the shepherds, the Holy family, the angels, and the three kings. 

From November 30, inside the inner courtyard of the Old Town Hall Debrecen, you can see figures of Bethlehem including Bethlehem Cribs, caresses of animals, shepherd traditions, and much more. Read more here >>> 

6th December: Night of Santa

In Hungary, Santa Claus doesn’t arrive during the night of December 24th but on the 5th of December. It is Jesus who delivers the presents on Christmas morning.

The tradition is for Mikulás, the Hungarian version of Saint Nicholas, to visit Hungarian children on the night of 5th December, on the eve of Saint Nicholas Feast Day, the 6th December. Children receive gifts from Santa for being good, Hungarian girls and boys must clean and polish their boots the night before, placing them on the windowsill. For those who’ve behaved well during the year, Mikulás brings a reward, small gifts that are placed within the shoes.

For those who’ve misbehaved during the year, Mikulás’ helper, Krampus (a scary little monster or devil) will instead punish the naughty, leaving a bundle of birch sticks (virgács) instead.

In Debrecen, you can meet Joulupukki the “real” Finnish Santa Claus at 4-4:20 PM on 5th December on Kossuth Square.

Joulupukki lives in “Korvatunturi” in Lapland, Northern Finland and his house is located in the Arctic Circle (Napapiiri) in Rovaniemi, Lapland, where he greets visiting children 365 days a year.

13th December – Lucázás

December 13, Luca’s day, is the longest nights of winter and is when St. Luca is transformed into a witch. To discourage witches, garlic was inserted into the keyhole, a knife was placed in the door, and a cross was drawn with garlic on the door, and the broom was crossed. On this day, nothing should be lent or given  On St. Luca’s day they began to make the Luca’s chair. The girls predicted their future partner on this day, and the boys began to “Luca” at dawn and received eggs as gifts.

24th December – Midnight Mass

For Catholics, the highlight of the Christmas holiday is the midnight Mass, held at churches on the night of December 24 – 25, and are attended by many believers and non-believers alike around the world. It was introduced in Rome in the 5th century and ever since has been celebrated by the Pope at the Roman Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. On Christmas Day, the Pope stands on the balcony of the Vatican palace and blesses humanity from there, which is not only heard by many believers but is also seen worldwide through the media.

In Debrecen, we can attend many Christmas services on Christmas Eve and the first day of Christmas.