During the holiday season in Hungary, gifts are delivered not once, but twice: first from Szent Mikulás and then again by Baby Jesus. Christmas figures in Hungary are similar to the American legend of Santa Claus, but with some Eastern European influences and uniquely Hungarian twists. Other holiday characters who may make an appearance in Hungary include the mean-spirited Krampus and communist-era Télapó.
Mikulás, the Hungarian Santa Claus, is Hungary's version of St. Nicholas. On the Eve of St. Nicholas, December 5, children leave their newly polished shoes on the windowsill. Mikulás visits Hungary's children and fills their boots with items that indicate how good the child has been. Good children get sweets or chocolate and small gifts, while traditionally, bad children got onions, switches, a lump of coal, or other undesirable items. However, the shoes are often filled with both desirable and undesirable gifts because Hungarians believe that no child is all good or all bad. One typical treat is a chocolate Santa made cheerful with a colorful foil wrapping. Children may also get the traditional Hungarian candy szaloncukor.
Sometimes Szent Mikulás is accompanied by a devil figure, called the Krampus. He acts as a counterpoint to Mikulás' goodness. This custom is similar to the Czech Santa Claus tradition: St. Nicholas arrives to distribute gifts with the help of an angel and a devil in the Czech Republic. On St. Nicholas Day, Mikulás visits children in schools and daycare centers. He also makes sure to appear at the Budapest Christmas market.
Mikulás lives in Nagykarácsony, a small village whose name means "Great Christmas," though when the tradition first began, it was thought he came down from heaven on December 5 to reward good children for their behavior. Hungarian children can write to Mikulás in hopes of getting their holiday wishes granted. Santa's workshop is also located here and can be visited by families who want to visit Santa on his own territory, where they are entertained by various performances and activities especially for children.
Baby Jesus and Old Man Winter
On Christmas Eve, it is not Mikulás who visits children, but Baby Jesus (Jézuska or Kis Jézus) or angels who decorate the Christmas tree and magically leave gifts for the children of the family. Children must wait outside of the room with the presents on Christmas morning until they hear a ringing bell, which they are told is baby Jesus signaling that he has left the presents. The gifts left on Christmas day are usually larger or more expensive gifts than are given by Mikulás.
Télapó, or the Hungarian version of Old Man Winter, is another character who may appear during the holidays and bring presents for children, usually on the night of December 5 with Mikulás. Télapó is a remnant from the Soviet Union and a stand-in for the Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz. However, Mikulás continues to be the more popular gift-giver on St. Nicholas Day.