Old Hungarian Easter customs

In Hungary, most of the old Easter customs are still observed today. For Radio Budapest, Balint Sebestyen has been looking at the origins of these Easter traditions:

Water, as a life-giving and purifying element of nature, receives a central role on Good Friday. According to a belief, those who take a bath before sunrise on Good Friday will be immune to all maladies. Bathing was considered to be a form of beauty magic. When someone took water from the river or the brook home, they had to walk home in silence. Hence, the name of the water: wordless water.

According to a widespread custom, there was no baking of bread on Good Friday, no lighting of fires and there was also a ban on chores connected with animal keeping.

In the early Church, candles used to be put out for the last three days of holy Week, not to be lit until the resurrection celebrations began. The custom survives in today's literature. It is the fire blessed as part of the service on Holy Saturday that is used to light the candle emblematic of the risen Christ.

In the old days, the resurrection procession was held at dawn. But for practical reasons, the church has transferred it to the evening of Holy Saturday. In many Hungarian villages, people would not light a fire, even in their homes until the new fire had been lit in the church. They would take some amber or coal from the church fire to light the fire at home, which in turn, serves for them for cooking the traditional Easter meals.

On Holy Saturday, people finish cleaning their homes, bake cakes, and cook their meals for the holiday. Just why ham has become traditional Easter food has its roots in the practicalities of peasant life. In the period leading up to Easter, people did not eat any meat, so they still had some leftovers from the smoked ham and sausages of the pig-killing feast held earlier in the year. Horseradish is eaten with the ham, as the pungent odour of horseradish is thought to possess some magic powers, warding off evil. According to legend, those who eat horseradish escape colic.

Eggs are another indispensable food on the Easter table - a symbol of life and rebirth. According to some, the egg shell symbolises the Old Testament and the inside embodies the New Testament. Moreover, eggs recall the resurrection of Christ. The redeemer, in this image, rose from his grave the way a chicken hatches from the egg.

Two additional obligatory dainties are the Beigli - a sweet cake with a ground walnut or poppy-seed filling rolled up in the shape of a Swiss roll, and the Easter brioche or milk loaf.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, the mistress of the house used to put the ham, the eggs, the horseradish, the salt, and the brioche in a basket, covered with a cloth for the family to take it to morning service, where the priest would bless the contents of the basket. The standard Easter Sunday dinner consisted of lamb probably as a reminder of the Old Testament Jews eating the sacrificial lamb.

Finally, another folk custom - the "Perambulation". On Easter Sunday at dawn, the parishioners used to walk out into the fields on the village bounds for a ritual reputed to give magic protection to the spring sowings.

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