Hungary during Christmastime is practically dripping with holiday spirit, hosting markets aplenty serving up potato cakes and honey cookies and Mikulás—the Hungarian version of Santa Claus—wandering about. In fact, the holiday traditions in Hungary start long before the big event.
If you'll be traveling to Budapest, Hungary's tourist-friendly capital, during December, you certainly won't want to skip the Christmas Fair and Winter Festival, which kicks off early in the month. Here, you'll be able to pick up unique and cultural gifts for everyone in your extended family and, while you're at it, sample the seasonal Hungarian foods: cabbage rolls, beigli (a poppy seed roll), chimney cake, mulled wine, and more. Wherever you end up in this small-yet-charismatic country during the holiday season, you'll want to be familiar with the local traditions. Learn what to expect on your Christmas vacation in Hungary.
December 13 marks Luca Day, a celebration of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year). This holiday, only 12 days before Christmas, acts as the real starting point of holiday celebrations throughout Hungary. Locals will spend the remainder of those 12 days practicing folky traditions that are meant to ward off evil.
In the U.S., kids leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Hungarian children, on the other hand, leave their shoes and boots on the windowsill for Mikulás to fill them with goodies on December 6. Jesus, or Jézuska, is the gift giver on Christmas Eve. The day before Christmas is when Hungarians decorate their Christmas tree, have their feasts, and attend midnight mass. Christmas Day is for visiting family and Boxing Day, the day following Christmas, is also a public holiday that calls for more family time and relaxation. Expect most restaurants, shops, and museums to be closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (and New Year's Day, for that matter). If you're planning a holiday meal out, it would be wise to make reservations through your hotel.
A traditional entree at a Hungarian Christmas meal is typically either fish soup, chicken, or pork. Side dishes often include stuffed cabbage, poppy seed rolls, and other pastries that finish off the meal. For dessert, Hungarians' favorite candy, szaloncukor (fondant dipped in chocolate—you'll probably see it decorating their Christmas trees, too), is in plentiful supply.
On December 6, children receive small presents like candy or small toys from Mikulás in shoes that have been placed on the windowsill. As a reminder to be good, some will receive switches or branches from trees in their shoes alongside the other small gifts. Mikulas sometimes appears in the flesh to groups of children, and he may be wearing the more traditional bishop's clothing, or be accompanied by helpers representing good and mischief, but ultimately he serves a similar purpose as the Western Santa Claus in that he keeps track of the good and bad deeds of children all over the world.
On Christmas Eve, gifts are placed underneath the Christmas tree (after it's been decorated), but children are not allowed to enter the room until given permission by their parents, which is sometimes marked by the ringing of a bell (meaning that angels or Baby Jesus has brought the tree and gifts for them).
If you're looking for Christmas gifts from Hungary, consider wine or spirits, dolls dressed in Hungarian folk costumes, embroidered linens, or even paprika, the Hungarian national spice. Besides the Christmas market, the Great Market Hall is an excellent source for gifts for friends and family.