I left Ukraine for the U.S. with these words ringing in my ears, and even though I was giddy at the thought of seeing my family and friends again, there remained some regret at missing out on the festivities here. So I made up for my physical absence by asking as many questions as possible about how Hungarians celebrate Christmas. I worked it into my lessons, displaying pictures and talking about how Christmas is celebrated in my family and around the U.S. in general. And then I would ask them questions. “See, here’s a gingerbread house my siblings made… What kind of special foods do you eat at Christmastime? … Yes, the house really is edible.” My knowledge is primarily limited to how Reformed Christians here celebrate the holiday, but I believe some of it is general Hungarian custom as well.
Christmas does not start directly after Thanksgiving here, primarily because Thanksgiving only exists in the USA. Even so, no one is talking about Christmas December 1st; they’re all talking about Advent and Saint Nicholas. I did see a tiny Christmas tree or two in shop windows, but not much else. The school rooms displayed wreaths for Advent and stockings for St. Nicholas day, but the enormous Christmas tree in downtown Beregszasz was still a work in progress when I left for the States.
Christmas trees are reserved for the festival of Christmas itself. When I told the students how early we often set up our Christmas tree, their mouths were quite literally agape. Most Hungarian families put their trees up the 23rd or 24th of December. In Ildiko’s family, she sets up the tree while the Children are away so as to surprise them. In other families, everyone helps to decorate.
December 24th is Szent Este – Holy Night – and on this evening families go to church and have a special meal together. (My questions stemming from the gingerbread house revealed that many families eat fish at Christmas.) Some people open presents (brought by an Angel or just themselves) this day, some the next.
The 25th is Christmas Day, but the 26th is Christmas the second, a day for visiting friends and family around the town or village.
Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, and while I attempted to get to a Christmas Eve service, some glitch in the space-time continuum rendered all the church gates locked on Christmas Eve. I still haven’t figured out what happened.
Here are some Christmas-y pictures….
I recognize that this is not circular, and therefore probably not technically a wreath, but it was my advent wreath and it was made for me by a student.
From my window.