Hungary, Easter and Holy Week in

Hungary, Easter and Holy Week in

Hungarian Easter celebrations blend many charming folk and religious traditions. The exchange of Easter eggs is such an important part of the festivities that Hungarians wish each other "Happy Easter and many red eggs!"

Palm Sunday

Hungarians substitute pussy willow branches for palms at their Palm Sunday services. Priests bless the branches which are then distributed to parishioners to take home with them. In past times Hungarian priests not only blessed branches on Palm Sunday, but also flowers. Thus arose the Hungarian folk name for the day Virág- vasarnap, or "Flower Sunday." Another old custom called for a ritual battle between two folk figures, Prince Cibere and King Marrow Bone. King Bone represents indulgence while Cibere is the name of a sour bran soup eaten during the Lenten fast. On Shrove Tuesday Prince Cibere conquers King Bone, ushering in Lent and its accompanying fast. On Palm Sunday, King Bone reestablishes supremacy, signaling the coming end of the lean season of Lent.

Maundy Thursday

Hungarians call Maundy Thursday Green Thursday. Folk custom calls for eating green foods on this day. Church services include footwashing ceremonies that recall Christ's teachings at the Last Supper (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday).

Good Friday

In some parts of Hungary people decorate their Easter eggs on Good Friday. In other regions, however, the eggs are usually finished by that day, along with other Easter preparations, including baking and spring cleaning. An old folk tradition required that no fires be lit on this day and the next. The prohibition on lighting fires ended with the ringing of the bells for church services on Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday

Many people still bring baskets of Easter food to church on Holy Saturday to receive the priest's blessing. The baskets often contain smoked ham, red Easter eggs, salt, and sometimes wine. This food is placed on the table at the feast that follows church services (see also Easter Vigil).

Easter Sunday

Hungarians call Easter Sunday Húsvét, meaning "Feast of Meat." Many homes serve a special meat loaf on this day, made of minced pork, ham, bread, eggs, and spices. Hungarians give one another Easter eggs as tokens of their affection on this day. Godparents often give decorated eggs to their godchildren. Little girls also exchange Easter eggs with friends on this day. One traditional method of doing so requires a girl to send a "bride's plate" to her friend, accompanied by eight or so other girls. The plate contains a bottle of wine, a large pretzel, and decorated Easter eggs. The recipient takes some of the eggs from the plate, replacing them with some of her own making, and sends the plate back to her girlfriend. Past customs also encourage Hungarian youths to decorate eggs to give to their sweethearts on this day. Girls often treasured these tokens of affection for many years. The girls in turn often gave twenty to thirty eggs to the men who courted them. In past times no one despaired if their egg-decorating skills were not up to snuff. Every village had at least one woman who specialized in the craft and would make Easter eggs for others.

Easter Eggs

Hungarians favor red Easter eggs. Indeed in Hungary people wish each other "Boldog Húsvéti ünnepeket és sok piros tojást," meaning "Happy Easter and many red eggs!" According to Hungarian folklore, red, the color of blood, represents the essence of life itself. Red eggs are thus said to stand for eternal life, renewal, joy, freedom, love, spring, and resurrection. Old Hungarian folk beliefs assert that these red eggs attract good luck and protect recipients from harm, illness, and fire. The red egg is so prominent in Hungarian Easter celebrations that piros tojás, or "red egg," is a common way of referring to any Easter egg.

Hungarians also inscribe Easter eggs with elaborate traditional designs thought to be centuries old. These designs feature crosses, swastika crosses, and circles as well as stylized symbols representing the sun, wheels, rakes, hands, oak leaves, rams, and frogs. The circle signifies the Creator, the cross the union of heaven and earth, and the swastika the wheel of the sun, with its spokes representing the essential elements of creation: air, earth, water, and fire. It is also said to represent the protective arms of God stretched out over the world. Oak leaves stand for family unity. The rake, frog, cock's comb, seeds and dots suggest fertility, while the ram symbolizes renewal. Some folklorists suspect that these symbols, and indeed the custom of decorating eggs, may predate the arrival of Christianity in Hungary around the tenth century. One Hungarian researcher discovered a scratch-carved Easter egg in a grave dating back to ca. 400-700 A.D. Some scholars identify the custom of pressing a red egg into the hand of the deceased before burial as belonging to the ancient horsemen of central Asia, the ancestors of the Hungarian people.

Hungarian egg crafters use a variety of techniques to create fancy designs for their eggs (for more on these techniques, see Easter Eggs). Women tend to favor the wax resist or batik method. Men often prefer scratch-carving. Certain skilled blacksmiths and machinists have perfected the art of metal appliqué egg decorating, in which small metal ornaments, such as miniature horseshoes, tools, and spurs made of iron or lead are attached to the empty eggshell with tiny pins or nails.

Many of these elaborately decorated eggs became treasured possessions. The beauty and fragility of these works of folk art may have inspired a well-known Hungarian expression. When someone takes great pains to care for something or someone, Hungarians say that they "take care of him/her/it as if he/she/it were an Easter egg."

Easter Monday

Hungarians call Easter Monday "Dousing Day" or "Water Plunge Monday." Folk tradition permits men and boys to douse women and girls with water on this day. In past times men interpreted this right rather roughly, sometimes dragging unwilling females into streams and ponds, or drenching them with well water. Folklore held that this treatment conferred good health, fertility, and the probability of being a good wife, which perhaps explains why women and girls responded to this soaking with hospitality, offering the men eggs, bread, or wine, and sometimes all three. Nowadays many men carry out the old custom in a more gentlemanly fashion, sprinkling women with water or even with cologne.

Further Reading

Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Web Site

"Hungarian Decorated Easter Eggs," "Easter in Hungary," and "Handled Like a Hímestojás," three articles by Emese Kerkay, posted by the American Hungarian Educators'Association at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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