Hungarians celebrate their version of Christmas, or Karácsony, on the night of December 24th. All day long, children are sequestered from their families and sent upstairs while the rest of the family prepares the Christmas tree and presents downstairs in secret. Come evening, all of the parents come upstairs and tell the children that they have spent the whole day preparing the Christmas feast, and that it is time to wait for the tree and presents to arrive. The parents often would use strings to set up a bell contraption which they would ring after a certain amount of time to signal that the tree and gifts arrived. In Hungary, Jesus and the angels were supposed to bring all of the gifts and decorations on Christmas, and the disembodied bell signified when they had arrived. After the bell rang, the whole family would go downstairs where the food and gifts were waiting for them. Then, they would then gather around the tree and sing hymns for 15 minutes before opening presents and having the feast.
The informant participated in this tradition when he was living in Hungary as a child. He noted how Christmas in Hungary was more centered around religion, specifically in that Santa Claus was not part of the holiday (and had his own separate holiday earlier in the month) and instead it was Jesus and the angels who brought the presents.
Many Western countries, especially the United States, celebrate Christmas in a more secular way. However, Christmas celebrations in Hungary are more closely aligned with the biblical tradition. In Hungarian Christmas traditions, there is an emphasis on the “miracle,” the spontaneous and magical appearance of gifts and Christmas decorations. Jesus and his angels themselves come down and bring all of the presents, food, and decorations instead of Santa Claus, who is a fictitious, secularized version of St. Nicholas. The purpose of this holiday is reflected in its form: to celebrate the quintessential “Christmas miracle,” or the immaculate conception where Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin. Hungarians do not lose sight of the central Christian focus of Christmas: to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the immaculate conception. And in Hungarian tradition, the central miracle which Christmas represents is mirrored by the simulation of a miracle in how it is celebrated. In other words, the miracle of Jesus’ birth is celebrated by the fabrication of another miracle, where the parents try to make their children believe that Jesus and the angels magically came down to give them presents. In addition, Hungarians celebrate Christmas on the night Jesus was actually born (Christmas Eve), not the morning after like many Western traditions. So clearly, Hungarian Christmas celebrations more accurately reflect canonical Christian tradition, adhering more strictly to Christian values. This stands in contrast to Western society which remains more impartial towards religion and how it is practiced. Christmas has become such a widespread holiday in America that much of its religious significance has been forgotten. However, in Hungary, I firmly believe that Christianity still has a very strong influence over the politics and customs of the nation.