The Chrismas Archives

HUNGARIAN CHRISTMAS

Collected Remembrances and a Recipe

Twas the night before Christmas, 1923

(remembered by Richard Bujaki)

Grandma gathered her five children around her, and arranged them seated in a semi circle around her as she sat in a chair. My father was only seven at the time, but this was to become one of his most memorable Christmas stories. Grandma produced a small new  testament bible written entirely in Hungarian. She read in Hungarian  all of her favorite bible passages to her children. When she finished, she reached into a bag and handed each of her children only one single piece of fresh fruit. My father received a fresh orange. My father then asked, "Is this all we get for Christmas?" "No grandma replied softly, the best is yet to come." Bundling up all of her children against the cold night air, she stood under the stars and pointed out the lights silhouetted against the backdrop of night. My father could see the lights of the then worlds tallest building , The F. W. Woolworth Building  looming on the horizon. "Over there,"  Grandma pointed out to her children is the Statue of Liberty. Soon my father couldBujaki Family see the lights of this magnificent American icon and symbol of freedom to many generations of immigrants. "This is going to be your new home," grandma told her children. "This may be the greatest Christmas present you will ever receive," grandma told her children. My father wasn't impressed. He was cold, and he still wanted a piece of candy. What does a seven year old care about seeing the Statue of Liberty. For you see this was Christmas eve, December 24, 1923. The steamship, the S.S. Ultonia was steaming into New York harbor bringing the Bujaki family to their new home in America. This was to be my father's first and fondest recollection of Christmas in America. 

As fondly remembered by his son, Richard Bujaki

©1998 Richard Bujaki. All rights reserved.
See Generations, Richard Bujaki's Home Page, a tribute to his Hungarian and Polish heritage.


Under the Christmas Tree

(remembered by Éva Kovács)

The Christian world unanimously celebrates the birth of Christ. But the way this joyous holiday and the preceding Advent is observed is influenced by the culture of the celebrants. In my native Transylvania the emphasis is more on religious and culinary preparation than on shopping for gifts. I remember early morning masses before school, the screeching of the pig about to be killed, and the aroma of fresh sausages.

Days before Christmas the house was full of the scent of freshly baked honey cookies, walnut and poppy seed rolls, egg bread, pastries, cakes. Everything for the eye and the nose, nothing for the mouth - except a stolen cookie here and there. I remember high mass on Christmas eve and the lighting of the candles on our Christmas tree followed by a festive supper. In those times, Christmas was white without fail, life seemed slow and peaceful; books, sleigh rides, ice skating were our favorite pastimes.

By Éva Kovács


Hungarian Christmas--A Personal Account

For St. Nicholas' day, (December 6), children put out a pair of well-cleaned shoes the night before; the understanding is that if they have been good throughout the year, in the morning the shoes will be filled with sweets and small toys or gifts. If they've not been good, they received potatoes, stones, or a wooden spoon. (When we were children, we usually received some of both!).

The house was decorated a little more each day as Christmas drew closer: pine boughs and cards on the mantelpiece, a manger scene of cornhusk dolls from Slovakia on a side table, candles, embroidered tablecloths and runners around the living and dining rooms.

Supper on Christmas Eve always began with sauerkraut soup, very piquant with dried mushrooms and sausage (kolbasz) floating in it. We usually had poppyseed rolls (baigli) or crepes (palacsinta) for dessert.

The Christmas tree was not put up until Christmas eve. As children, we were sent into another room to play after supper, and told to "listen for the angels". In a little while, a bell would ring, and we would come back into the room to find a beautiful Christmas tree fully decorated with the wrapped presents arranged underneath its boughs. The decorations always included "szalon cukor" a kind of wrapped fondant candy that was imported from Hungary, ornaments embroidered on felt from Hungary, and wooden ornaments from Slovakia. We were asked if we had heard the angels' bells, as they had rung them as they were leaving. Gifts were then opened, and the whole family went to church later for midnight mass.

In terms of Christmas carols, I have lyrics to a number of traditional and folk carols in Hungarian, as well as a Hungarian version of Silent Night. Many of them are sung by the members of the Hungarian dance group I teach, as we have established our own tradition of visiting Hungarian families and serenading them with carols in Hungarian; we usually do this the week before Christmas. I understand that caroling in Hungarian villages was usually done between Christmas and New Year's eve. As we visit the various families, they reward our efforts with pastries, a little brandy, chocolates, or money; this is very much like what the carolers used to receive in the village tradition!

(Author's name and location withheld by request.)


Christmas eve, chicago 1939

(by June Meyer, author of June Meyer's Authentic Hungarian Heirloom Recipes cookbook)

I was just a little girl perhaps five years old as I sat upon the sofa in the front room, next to the fragrant pine christmas tree. It's lights were shining bright and colorful. The silver tinsel shimmered in the heat of the tree lights. Strange ornaments, heads of angels, hot air balloons with scratchy wire decorations. Funny looking Santas, bunches of fruit, all made in Germany out of the most fragile painted glass. These ornaments were very old, brought to America from Hungary, by my Grandmother in 1910. When I looked at my reflection in the round ornaments my nose became swollen and large, my tiny eyes squinting. As I held one in my hands I heard muffled sounds through the wall of someone moving on the stairway, startled, I let it fall with a tiny tinkle on the floor, shattering into many shards.

My mother was in the kitchen preparing special food for the evening meal. The fresh Hungarian sausage my mother and father had made and stuffed was going to be the meal for Christmas Eve as it was last year and would be this year as well. It was our tradition.

First we would go to the evening service at St. James, our Luthern church. It was always a special service with the Christmas Tree glowing in the darkened sanctuary. This was a childrens service. After we sang all the old Christmas carols in German and English, the children were called to the alter to receive a gift from the Pastor. It was always candy. We used to receive a wonderful box of chocolate, but in later years it became a bag of hard candy, all stuck together that no one wanted. It looked pretty but tasted awful. After church we would walk many blocks to our home through the cold dark that chilled my bones. I can still remember the pain of shivering. The cold always seemed to snake down around my neck inside of my coat and stop there.

As we approached our house we could see the Christmas tree lights flickering through the frosted glass of the lace curtained window. The lights wore tiny halos of colored light. My father often worked a holiday shift as a streetcar motorman for the extra pay. He would be home by the time we came back from church, and the house would be warm after he stoked the stove in the kitchen and dining room. Our house was old, built just after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.There were still old gas jets jutting out from the walls.

When we opened the door we could smell the Hungarian sausage cooking. This was the only sausage we made. It was full of garlic and paprika and allspice. When it was cooked it became the rich brown color of mahogany. The sour cream and horseradish sauce served over it was as white and heavy as snow. When you ate the sausage your eyes and nose watered from the sharpness of the sauce.

The Christmas Eve dinner was always traditional in our family. Besides the homemade Hungarian sausage we had Herring in sour cream, mashed potatoes, creamed peas and carrots, dilled squash that we canned ourselves, Jello mold with fruit and American concession and wonderful homemade Hungarian desserts. My mother made Apple Strudels with tissue thin dough. Poppy Seed Strudel, Walnut Strudel and Raisin Strudel rolled up and baked. Many varities of Christmas cookies, some recipes hundreds of years old, were arranged on a beautiful platter that was brought to America wrapped in a homemade goose down comforter.

A month and a half before Christmas my Mother would start baking many cookies to see us thru the Holiday Season. Hungarian cookies are made from butter or lard, dried fruits, nuts of all kinds, sour cream, cream cheese, spices and lemon zest.

As a child, I remember the whole family sitting around the kitchen table, picking the nut meats out of the walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and almonds. We would pound the nuts open with a hammer and use the nut picks to pick out the meat. One for the bowl, one for the mouth. My Mother would yell at us to not eat so many, she needed them for the cookies. My Grandmother sat at the table with the nut mill she brought from Hungary and milled the nuts for the cookies and strudels. Other nuts were chopped for sprinkling on top of cookies.

Some cookies were rolled out and cut with the old cookies cutters from Hungary, some were pressed into an ancient copper cookie mold in the shape of a bundle of wheat and gently knocked out. Other cookies were rolled in the hand and baked and then rolled in powdered sugar or sugar and milled nuts.

Pounds of dried Apricots and dried Prunes were cooked on the stove with water and sugar to make the Lekvar for Kipfils and cookies.

The cookie most beloved and treasured was the Linzerteig (dough from Linz, Austria). It meant that we children would be helping to cut the cookies out and decorating them.

The old cookie cutters were large and small. Hand made and soldered more than 150 years ago, the cutters were black with many years of use.

Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, Clubs, Crescent Moons, Stars, Suns. No Frosty the Snowman, or Rudolph, no Christmas trees, no Angels. Just the celestial bodies and the suits of cards.

After the cookies were cut from the dough, we would coat the top of the raw cookie with some egg white that was beaten with a few drops of water, and then sprinkle some decorations on it. Colored sugars, mixtures of chopped nuts and sugar, half of a candied cherry or a dab of Lekvar.

Baking would go on for weeks. The washing of the Cookie pans were my job. It was a never ending job. The wet dish towels hung over the oven to dry. Pans going into the oven and pans coming out of the oven. Cookies burn very quickly if they are not watched. You can alway tell by smell when the cookies are done.

At least 20 different cookies and three kinds of Strudels, Walnut, Poppy Seed and Raisin would be made. Trays of Kipfels with assorted fillings, Prune, Apricot, nut, and cheese would be made before the baking was finally done. All of the family cooking pots, roasters, and cookie tins were filled with cookies. We had a stairway leading up to an unheated attic. Every step held two pots, or roasters. The cookies would keep fresh till they were made into gift platters for our neighbors, and friends.

Grandma Sehne, Tante Betty and cousin Bill, Great Tante Miller, and my family always spent Christmas Eve together. As a child I could never quite figure out why Santa would first bring presents for me to Tante Betty, and then come to my house and leave presents for my cousin Bill. And he had not left any gifts for me yet!

While we were eating, Santa came and left quietly. His gifts would just appear. They were just there! How exciting and filled with promise those brightly wrapped gifts were. A little childs ironing board and iron. When the iron was plugged in it gave off a strange smell I was never comfortable with as I washed and ironed my dolls clothers. The best gift I ever remember receiving was that Christmas. A heavy long box, many hands helping me to tear off the wrapping and open the box.

There before me was the most beautiful doll. Nothing like this doll had ever been seen or touched before. The body and arms and legs of the doll were made of life-like soft padded latex rubber. The whole doll felt like a real baby. It was the latest in doll manufacturing. Not the usual doll of paper mache and plaster that melted in the rain. This doll could be washed, she could cry and her real eyelashed eyes opened and closed. She had beautiful curly hair like I knew I would never have even after an hour of sitting under a heavy contraption with long snake like electric cords attatched to my hair. Here was a doll to hold and love, to feel softly nesteled in my arms. After Christmas Day the precious doll was put back in her box and stored on top of my parents closet shelf, to save it for a time when I was a little older and would take care of it better. I cried, but like most children I soon forgot about the doll. Out of sight, out of mind. For a while.

One day, many months after that strange Christmas day, a box was discovered on the top shelf of my parents closet. That dark closet, where the sun never shines, but the heat is stifling, finally yielded its treasure. The forgotten box was brought down and opened. We recoiled in horror with cries of disbelief. There in the box what had once been beautiful was now corrupt and decayed. The lifelike flesh had rotted in the heat of the closet, the latex was in a state of enthropy. What was soft was now gummy and split with the cotton padding oozing out. The little fingers were cracking and falling off. Her head was incorruptable. It was made of mache and glue. No harm. Her violet eyes still opened and closed. She still emitted her plantive cry. Her hair still curley.

We all bore the scars of that unfortunate occurance. What was found was lost again in anguish.

The doll was sent off to a doll hospital. When she finally was released to my care, she was a different person. Gone was the real skin softness, and in it place was a body of grey cloth stuffed with cotton, her new arms and legs and head attached to stumps of grey body with twists of wire. She stilled cried that plaintiff cry and it mingled with my cry as I saw what they did to her. I held her close to me. We were a sober pair. I treated her with love and care.

My doll still survives today sixty years later. Like me she is without much hair, one eye is permanently crossed, her fingers and toes are broken and chipped, she does not cry anymore. But she is a survivor and I love her. We are a pair.

 

Regards, June Meyer
June4@interaccess.com

Visit June's home page for some delicious recipes, such as this one:

June Meyer's Authentic Hungarian
Poppy Seed Moon Cake
(Makosbeigli)



Here is a recipe for Poppy Seed Moon Cake. I learned to make it from my grandmother and mother who were from Austria-Hungary. Every family has its own version of Mond Kuchen. These cakes predate Christianity as the poppy was dedicated to the Moon goddess. Opium-sleep. The seeds are still called "Moon seeds" in german. The recipes are handed down by the women. The Moon cakes are now usually made around Christmas time when all the fancy baking is done.

Poppy seeds can be purchase in bulk from a German Deli that specializes in imported spices. They should finely grind the seeds for you. You can also grind your own seeds in a coffee grinder. Grind the seeds well. It will make a big difference in the texture. You should not use the poppy seeds that come in small jars. They would be too expensive and not fresh enough.

These cakes can be wrapped in foil and stored in the freezer after they are baked.
Hope you enjoy this cake.

Regards, June Meyer.



Cake Dough

  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 eggs slightly beaten
  • 2 cakes yeast reg. or dry
  • 1/2 cup soft butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Crumble yeast in bowl, add water and sugar stirring till mixture liquidifies. Blend flour and butter with wire pastry blender. Mix well, mix in eggs, salt and yeast. Mix until dough is smooth and leaves side of bowl clean.
DO NOT LET RISE.
Divide into four portions and roll each out in a rectangular shape spread with filling and roll up like Jelly Roll. Place in greased baking pans. BAKE AT ONCE in 350 oven about 30 to 45 min. or until brown.

Poppyseed Filling

  • 1 pound of freshly ground poppy seeds (finely)
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1cup BOILED milk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 2 teaspoons of grated lemon zest

Mix filling in bowl using only 3/4 cup of boiled milk...It should be thick. If not spreadable use the rest of milk. divide into 4 portions, one for each dough rollup.
Makes 4 cakes.


Copyright © 1997 June V. Meyer & Aaron D. Meyer All Rights Reserved

Finally, visit Robert's MIDI Home for some excellent Hungarian Folk Dance Music and Songs