Christmas traditions: Hungarian Christmas begins Dec. 6

When a friend showed up at the door of Katalina Camara’s Burnaby apartment one day in early December 19 years ago, bearing a beautifully scented pine tree and a smile, she was confused.

“It’s your first Christmas,” announced the friend. “This is how we celebrate.”

But in Camara’s native Hungary the tree isn’t put up until the night before Christmas. Then while the children are out for a walk, it’s decorated with frosted honey cookies and chocolate covered candies and surrounded with gifts “from the sky.”

Hungarian Christmas actually begins on Dec. 6 when St. Nicholas comes into town to place little offerings in carefully polished boots left in the windows by children. If they’ve been good, they’ll get chocolate, maybe an apple and some nuts. If they’ve been bad, they get a glittered tree branch.

“That’s very exciting stuff,” says Camara.

The next few weeks are spent in the kitchen, baking beigli, the traditional Hungarian Christmas cake, cookies, and preparing the fish soup and stuffed cabbage rolls to be served for Christmas dinner.

“Outside it’s cold, there’s usually snow, so it’s good to be together inside where it’s very warm,” says Camara.

In her town, Kaposvar, a big decorated tree is erected in the central square and many churches put on special Christmas concerts.

But the big day itself is reserved for families, who visit after attending midnight services.

“The whole of Christmas is very introverted,” says Camara. “It’s a family celebration.”

The tiled hearth that heats the living room in many Hungarian homes is the centrepiece of those gatherings. Family members sit on its ledge eating, telling stories, singing carols.

“Kind words and spending time together is what’s important,” says Camara. “Christmas is not about gifts.”


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