Of all the times of year, Christmas can be one of the most bittersweet holidays for a missionary. The joy of celebrating Christ’s birth, the festive city, and the holiday parties…they bring us fun and fill our hearts with the warmth of the season. Christmas is a time for togetherness and sharing with loved ones. For us, it can also be a time of separation and loneliness. Often, we find ourselves longing for friends and family far away and the feelings and flavors of “home.”
One way our family deals with this juxtaposition of joy and sorrow is to embrace all that this season has to offer, whether those be traditions from our passport country or newfound special moments in our host country. Hungary has many traditions surrounding the Christmas holiday and we have found that participating in those local traditions helps to ground our celebrations and create wonderful family memories together.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, many in Hungary celebrate the Advent calendar. Our church has a special Advent focus each week before Christmas. There are special songs and activities meant to focus our hearts in preparation for the coming Christ child. As a fun way to mark the days, children in Hungary often have Advent calendars that open each day with chocolates or small treats. Our kids have enjoyed this new tradition and it helps the month to pass quickly with a special something each day. Another event that marks the Advent season is the opening of several Christmas markets around the city. Each market has small booths with handicrafts or food. With dazzling lights and fragrant smells, the markets give you a real sense of Christmas in the city! Plus, we love to do a little Christmas shopping to pick up small gifts for one another. We are also sure to enjoy a warm kürtöskalács (chimney cake)!
On December 6th, Hungarians celebrate Mikulás (St. Nicholas Day). The night before, children clean their boots and leave them sitting by the window. Mikulás leaves “good” children chocolates, nuts, or fruit (or in our house Christmas pajamas!). St. Nick also visits the children at school and passes out candies or chocolate. This is the only time that St. Nicholas brings treats to Hungarian children. According to tradition, the main exchange of gifts is brought by Baby Jesus and the angels.
The real celebration, however, begins on Christmas Eve, December 24th. This day is the big celebration for most Hungarians. It is a day full of family, food, and presents. Businesses, shops, and even public transportation close up early in the day and everyone heads home to begin their festivities. Traditionally, many Hungarians wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their trees. On Christmas Day, many churches have a Christmas service. This was a new tradition for us as well, since we used to attend a Christmas Eve service in the U.S. It is one we have come to enjoy as we gather with our church family to celebrate the birth of our Savior! We sing carols and afterward enjoy pastries and punch. The 25th and 26th are also days spent visiting family and friends. Everything in the country is closed these two days so that people can enjoy the holiday together.
There are still many American traditions that our family enjoys. We put up our Christmas tree shortly after Thanksgiving. We still hang stockings to be filled on Christmas Eve. We bake our favorite Christmas cookies and cakes. We listen to English Christmas carols while we decorate or wrap gifts. These things haven’t changed. Sure, our Christmas season looks a bit different than it used to, but most importantly, what hasn’t changed is the reason we celebrate: Christ coming to Earth, Immanuel – God with Us.
Boldog Karácsonyt! Merry Christmas!