In Hungary, it is customary to eat a traditional dish called bejgli at Christmas time. This speciality, which is the essence of Christmas in Hungary, is made of yeast-raised dough is stretched thin and filled with either poppyseed or ground walnut filling, and rolled into cylinder shapes.
Budapest’s Christmas markets – particularly the most famous at Vörösmarty tér – have become part of the winter-time experience in the city. With vendors selling hot roasted chestnuts and the scent of mulled wine (forralt bor) wafting through the street, it makes this season one of the best times of the year to visit.
The Christmas season begins in Hungary with Mikulás-nap (St. Nicholas Day) on December 6th when children polish their shoes and set them on window sills in the hope that Miklós will fill them with small goodies during the night. For those who have misbehaved during the year, Mikulás’ helper, krampusz – a scary character who looks like a cross between a demon, a monster, and an elf – will instead leave switches.
In Hungary, Santa Claus does not arrive during the night of December 24th. Rather, Jézuska (baby Jesus) and his helpers (the angels) come on the evening of the 24th. Jézuska drops off presents for good children and also brings and decorates the Christmas tree, with help from the parents. When the tree is fully decorated, sparklers are lit and the traditional Christmas tune to sing together is Mennyböl az angyal.
No Hungarian Christmas tree is complete without a generous selection of szaloncukor, pieces of fondant or chocolate filled with marzipan or other ingredients and wrapped in colourful foil wrappers.
As it is customary to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve dinner revolves around fish. While every family has its own traditions and favourites, the meal most often starts with halászlé (fisherman’s soup), followed by whole roasted fish or breaded carp and potato salad. A Christmas day dinner is often stuffed cabbage with sour cream, but it could be anything from roast duck to turkey. Dessert could be mákos guba (bread pudding flavoured with honey and poppy seeds). Whatever the meal, there should be plenty of sparkling wine for toasting and celebrating.
(Adapted from an article by Carolyn Bánfalvi, founder of Taste Hungary and food and travel writer who has authored two culinary guidebooks to Hungary)