Christmas candy, angels and such

As promised, here is the lowdown on Christmas in Hungary. Just like everywhere in the world, it’s epic and awesome as is the nature of the festivity itself, but it is also very much Hungarian due to all the ceremonial quirks in the process. The following account is a brief summary of my friends’ and family’s experiences from the end of the previous century and the beginning of this one. Of course, everyone does it differently, but not much differently.

First of all, Christmas begins and kind of ends in a day. Although from October onwards all malls and supermarkets tend to pump out the same holly-bedecked Bing Crosby album as any self-respecting Walmart or Auchan around the world, family Christmas in Hungary strictly starts on 24 December, not one day earlier.

The average Christmas day starts by Dad skillfully shaving off his knuckles with an axe, trying to carve the tree into the stand. According to a venerable and ancient Chinese tradition, Christmas tree stands are compatible with only a handful of fir trees in the entire universe. Your Dad will not pick any of these sacred specimens. Your tree will be crooked, leaning at a weird angle and completely asymmetric. This is a wonderful opportunity for any grown sons to spend time with Dad in the garage/basement/condo balcony and fully embrace the richness, texture and darker tones of his vocabulary.  Smaller kids, such as ours, get the ‘appropriate for all audiences’ version, in that they are told that the Christmas angel brings the tree. For kids who still take naps, it magically appears all festooned and sparkly right as they rub the afternoon sleep out of their eyes. For non-napping kids, the tree makes itself apparent as they come home from their special Dad-walk. Due to the special Dad-walk situation, early afternoon is a social time out on the playground for toddlers and their half-frozen Dads waiting to receive the liberating text saying ‘tree done, beigli collapsed, ran out of sour cream and screaming in the effing kitchen due to exhaustion and stress, but you may now come home, my beloved’, or something similar.

Yes, the other specialty of Hungarian Christmas is the insistence on creating a really intricate traditional meal that no one really REALLY likes. Although modern wives tend to veer off this course to maintain their sanity and try to be with their families, the evening meal and accoutrements are a crucial part of the day, even if no one but Mum cares. Thus, there is fish soup and fried carp on the dinner table.  This is obviously the best choice for half-crazed infants who are already half dead due to 1. loud TV permitted all day, 2. Christmas candy consumed in industrial quantities, 3. the realisation that the time gap between now (n) and getting presents (p) always = (p-n) x 1000000000 hours. They are going to enjoy that meal immensely.

The fish is still purchased live in many, many households. They are kept in the bathtub until the time comes when Dad has to swing into action with the blunt end of the axe again. Though every year fewer people opt for the live carp massacre, I have to say supermarkets are fun around Christmas, because they have giant tanks full of carps, looking dazed and terrified like they’re awaiting a fish-rapture of some sort. Hungary is a landlocked country, and apart from folks in riverside towns and their truly glorious fish-eating heritage (e.g. Baja, Szeged, Paks), city folk don’t eat fish all year except for Christmas. It’s probably an unfair and sweeping generalisation, but fish is often considered to be a vegetable growing under water and Hungarians prefer pork products with pickles if given the choice.  So fish it is on the Christmas menu, mostly because it is, like it or not.

There is another thing that always happens and not many people really like it: the beigli. This pastry is a yeasty roll filled with walnut or poppy seed and then thinly sliced. It’s too dry and not sweet enough for children, who spent the day between St Nicholas’s day (6 December) and Christmas eating nothing but chocolate renderings of the saint. You also have to know that only shop- or patissery-bought beigli comes in neat swirly slices.

Your mum’s beigli will crack, the filling will come out, and then the whole thing is profusely watered by her angry tears and stuff you shouldn’t hear your saintly mother say EVER. Beigli is evil. Beigli, along with honey badgers and hangnails, was created by God to piss people off. (OK, I’ve known people who like beigli, but not many.)

So anyway, Mum normally toils over the hot stove and Dad does activities on the other end of the gender stereotype scale, mostly involving axes and lightbulbs. And then, after dinner is eaten and by the time the kids become truly aggressive and unbearable due to uncontainable and pent up excitement, the little bell finally rings signalling the arrival of the presents. The family walks over the other room, Dad lights the sparklers on the tree and everyone sings Pásztorok, pásztorok. It’s endless: watch the kids go all flushed and fidgety trying to stop themselves from ripping into wrapped presents. Then it all explodes into wrapping paper and ribbons flying, children screaming with joy and adults all welling up and taking pictures. It’s cathartic and really, really nice all around. Catholics often go to the midnight mass sans children after all’s gone quiet.

After ‘lighting the tree’ and playing till you drop, everyone goes to bed happy and exhausted and full of love and new gadgets and a million photos. The next couple of days will be spent by re-enacting the whole thing at Grandma’s and at friends’ and at Auntie Martha’s and all that, in endless variations of beigli, but no more fish, as the advent fast is over with Christmas eve.

Another difference is the myth surrounding the presents. Although Coca-Cola has brought the image of the enlightened Santa of the Free World to millions of grateful Hungarians, as was our wish when we were feverishly dismantling the Iron Curtain back in 1989, there is still a considerable confusion as to who brings the presents on Christmas Eve. Not Santa. Growing up in a secular household and going to a school dedicated to raising well-rounded atheist Socialists for the nation, I got my presents from Télapó, who is a Hungarianised version of the Russian Ded Maroz. The difference is that he’s not fat and wears a cool cloak instead of trousers. People adhering to more religious Christmas traditions get their presents from Baby Jesus or the Christmas Angel. My more extended family had all kinds of myths going around among different branches and cousins, and I never found it hard to negotiate all the various versions in my head. I guess Christmas candy helps to obfuscate annoying details and uncertainties regarding the materialisation of presents under the tree. Whatever it is, it’s awesome.

The last typical Hungarian thing is the aforementioned Christmas candy, known as szaloncukor. Although it looks mostly the same as in my childhood, the fact that there are major companies vying for the attention of consumers has transformed the originally rather lacklustre confectionery.

As opposed to my childhood’s jelly-filled (zselés, as in the photo above) and more expensive fondant-filled (konzum) varieties in two colourways, there is now an abundance of flavours, brands and colours to suit your Christmas theme.

A family normally buys a pound or two, clips them on little hooks, and on the tree they go along with all the baubles and lights. It looks rather grand on 24 December. By Epiphany, the candies somehow all turn into empty wrappers skillfully folded back to look like they still have candy inside. Any small breeze or draft can reveal the sad fact that a pound or two of extremely sugary marzipan and chocolate-based candy has somehow disappeared in the space of two short weeks.

I was delighted and very much touched to read in a book about European Texans emigrating in the nineteenth century, that Hungarians missed their beigli and szaloncukor so much that they recorded recipes to recreate these homey treats (see excerpt below post).

So this is all what makes Hungarian Christmas special. Needless to say, the real Chrismas miracle, as it is everywhere in the world around this time of the year, is the joy on the kids’ faces and the family coming together over good food and maybe a little wine.

And my new moleskin notebook of course.

Merry Christmas and may you have your stockings filled with goodies!

One aspect of the Hungarian Christian culture focused on the Christmas tree. According to custom, children did not take part in decorating the tree. they were told that the Christ child and the angels brought the tree and presents before Christmas Eve. At the appropriate time, a bell signalled to the children that the tree was ready for them to view.

Especially important in decorating the Christmas tree was to use szalon cukor, a special Hungarian Christmas candy that many of the 30,234 (2000) Texans of Hungarian descent still enjoy.

Szalon Cukor Candy

Measure 4 cups of sugar into an aluminum pot. Add 1 cup of cold water. Boil ingredients over medium heat about 20-25 minutes until mixture thickens. Do not stir mixture while it is heating. Test mixture for thickness by inserting a loop of thin wire into the pan. If it is possible to blow a sugary bubble with the mixture adhering to the wire loop, then the syrup is ready to be removed from the heat. If not,continue the heating process. While the candy syrup is still cooking, prepare two large platters (flat surfaces) onto which the mixture is poured. Rinse the platters with cold water, leaving surfaces damp. When the mixture is ready, remove candy from the stove. Divide it into two portions right away. To one portion add 1/3 cup of ground hazelnuts or pecans and one teaspoon of vanilla. Start stirring that portion right away with an electric mixer. To the second portion, meanwhile, add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 1 teaspoon cocoa or moccha coffee powder. Stir with a wooden spoon until mixture hardens. Both portions should be stirred until the candy hardens, but with enough suppleness left that it can be poured out onto the platters. After the candy is poured, flatten it with dampened hands to a thickness of 1/2″. Cut the candy into pieces.

Recipe of Annie Nagy from San Antonio, TX, quoted in Allan O. Kownslar, The European Texans, Texas A&M University Press, College Stattion, TX, 2004, pp. 151-52.

Merry Christmas Y’all!

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