How Hungary says good-bye to summer on its biggest national holiday, celebrated in August. By Andrea Nagyiványi-Kárpáti, Head of Secretariat, GSS Hungary
If you have ever wondered why your Hungarian counterparts send you a notice each year that they would be away from the office on 20 August and where they all disappear to, let us provide you with the answer. The reason why it stands out among our national holidays is that it marks the foundation of the Hungarian State by our very first king, Stephen I (997-1038), canonised on the same day in 1083 by Pope Gregory VII to become Saint Stephen, the Patron Saint of Hungary.
Founding of the State
Stephen, who inherited his throne from his father, Géza, the Grand Prince from the royal Árpád dynasty, carried on his legacy: they both recognised that the nation would only survive in the centre of Europe if it assimilated into the order of the surrounding monarchies. Thereby Stephen declared taking up Christianity to be the first milestone on that road.
Anointed in 997, after the death of his father, he started reigning over the loose confederacy of relatively independent pagan Hungarian tribes who had arrived in the Carpathian basin a little more than 100 years earlier.
He immediately set about spreading the new religion in the empire, strictly banning all the ancient pagan rites. Punishments for practicing the old tribal religion were harsh and often even cruel. As a highly symbolic move, he was crowned on 1 January 1001 with a hoop crown decorated with gem stones sent from Rome by Pope Sylvestre II (the original crown is on display in the Parliament). And thus, the Christian nation state was born and its founder, Stephen I, as he was called from then on, introduced legislation, taxes and administration, terms unknown to the tribes until then. He was also the first to establish bishoprics and the use of money and ordered the use of the Latin alphabet.
It truly was an extraordinary achievement to put all these innovations into effect but as you can imagine, it did not go peacefully. He spent the 41 years of his rule in constant war with his opponents. The most notable conflict he had to face, already in his first days as Grand Prince, was against Koppány, a chieftain from the same royal dynasty and claimed his right to the throne based on the ancient traditions of inheritance. The battle between them ended with Stephen’s victory and a disgraceful death for Koppány. This story served as the basis for the popular Hungarian rock opera, Stephen, the King, which premiered in 1983 and has been performed every 20 August ever since.
Things to do on 20 August
Festivities in Budapest start early in the morning in front of the Parliament with the inauguration of army officers and continue with an air and water parade on the Danube. This is followed by the procession of the Holy Dexter, which is actually the mummified right hand of Saint Stephen, on the square in front of the Basilica which bears his name and houses the relic. The Buda Castle hosts a range of family programmes with just about all you need: food, drink and music. A very popular event is the announcement and tasting of the winner of the title “the Cake of the Country” which will then be on sale for a year in every pastry shop around the country. The holiday also appeals to tourists, as all Hungarian museums can be visited for free all-day long.
The birth of the state is celebrated throughout the whole country, and for this one day, everyone, even those who work in agriculture, stop work to join the festivities. For them, this day also means celebrating the end of the harvest. Bread baked of the new grains, freshly picked grapes and wine are tasted at country fairs. In the evening, you can see fireworks in all cities, all around Lake Balaton and of course, the most spectacular display is held in Budapest. Here, rockets are fired from Chain Bridge and from barges anchored in the middle of the river. It is an amazing sight where the background is provided by the UNESCO World Heritage Site on both shores of the Danube.
On the beaches of Balaton
The holiday usually coincides with the last perfect beach weather in the season. The good thing about it is that there is no need to choose between staying on the beach by Lake Balaton or joining the celebration, as you will bump into events literally everywhere. Regardless of age or scope of interest, everyone will find something to keep them entertained. So, if you ever happen to be in Hungary on 20 August, you might want to come and join us, take part in the fun and thus say good bye to summer in the Hungarian way.
Head of Secretariat