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December 25. Christmas

In Hungary and in Hungarian communities worldwide, a key element of celebrating Christmas is a traditional custom, the Bethlehem Shepherd’s play (betlehemes jatek). The present-day version of the Bethlehem folk play originates from the 19th-20th century, although it may date back as far as the medieval times. The players called “Betlehemesek” go from house to house, dressed as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and the Three Kings, narrating scenes about the birth of Christ. An essential part of the play is the homemade manger or small church, carried along by one of the players.

Hungarian Bethlehem Shpeherd's Play, Calgary, Canada
Betlehemes in Calgary, Canada, 2003


The Bethlehem Shepherd’s play acted out by peasants and shepherds at first, and later mostly by children, usually covers the following events:
  • There is no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn.
  • An angel of the Lord comes to the shepherds, who keep watch over their flock by night. The heavenly messenger brings the good tidings in Latin, a language not clearly understood by the shepherds, which creates misunderstandings that put a smile on the audience’s face.
  • Once they understand the message, the shepherds go and worship the little Jesus.
At the conclusion of the play, the Betlehemesek ask for alms (candy or other gifts), which is gladly given, in the spirit of Christmas.

At the turn of the century, there was a tradition in Szeged, which involved the shepherds marching into the Church for the Midnight Mass, sounding their bagpipes, and offering a lamb to the priest. At the end, an equinox dance followed, with the members of the congregation.

The Christmas-table was set after the Midnight Mass, decorated with a consecrated candle in the center of a bunch of wheat shoots grown from seeds planted on St. Lucy’s Day (December 13). The table was covered with three tablecloths woven and decorated during the weeks of the Advent, and wheat straw was spread under the table, which can be interpreted as a symbol of Jesus and the Sun.

The family sat around this home altar, the Christmas table, and the host sliced the apple "dipped into golden water" into as many pieces as there were sitting around the table. Sharing the apple symbolized not only the togetherness of the family but also the oneness with the Universe.

Christmas Beigli, Sasfeszek Restaurant, Kecskemet, Hungary

Fish, meats, sweets (including the indispensable beigli or bejgli), and fruits (apple and walnut) are served for the Christmas Eve dinner.


Links

The Christian inspiration of Hungarian folk poetry