Winter feasts and traditions

This week we look at the winter repertoire of folk food culture. The cold season, festive and religious customs limited the food choices and, in this context, food as magical objects, the ritual of eating and the beliefs associated with it were of particular importance. It also reveals how the traditional Christmas dishes of today (fish soup, stuffed cabbage, poppy-seed and walnut roll cake “bejgli”) were brought to the table of our ancestors.

disznovagas_722039.jpgIn winter, the most common way of stocking the larder was the pig slaughter, often on St Catherine's Day (25 November) or St Andrew's Day (30 November), so that smoked sausages and hams were ready for Christmas, but also on St Thomas' Day (21 December) to keep the pork dishes fresh for the feasts. It is interesting to note that the pig was a pagan sacrificial animal, hence the tradition. Last but not least, pigs are associated with good luck, a belief that has been passed down to the present day, especially as regards the New Year's first day menu. 

fustolt_szalonna_370064.jpgThe animal's parts were processed in various ways, such as salting and smoking the head, the pork cutlet bone, the under-fat meat, the spare ribs, the long pork loin, the shoulder, the bacon, the sausages, the pork cheese and the legs, which were used to make ham. Mostly the women made the sausages and haggis with porridge and chitterling stuffing. The dishes eaten at the dinner after slaughter, the pig feast, were made from fresh meat, such as the broth, which was typically made from pork cutlet bone, or the roast pork and “toros” cabbage. This celebration was also attended by relatives and neighbours of the family.

“Cabbage stuffed with pork meat
Chop up the pork, add salt, pepper, paprika, rice, one onion and mix it well. Wrap the heaps in cabbage leaves, tuck in the two ends. Place some cabbage in the bottom of the pot, and the wraps on top. Add the cabbage juice or water and cook. Then place the cabbage wraps in a bowl. Thicken the remaining leaves and bring to the boil. You can also remove the top of the parboiled sauce and sprinkle it with a little paprika and flour. Then you don't have to thicken it. It is cooked and then you put it on the stuffed wraps. (Tiszakürt)" - Zsolt Sári: The Pleasures of the Peasant Table


The 24th December, the Christmas Vigil, was a fasting day in both Catholic and Protestant regions. On this day, the fast of Christmas without meat was observed until noon, but occasionally the whole day, and sometimes believers drank only water until the midnight mass. Regarding fasting foods, they often ate foods believed to bring good luck and wealth: beans, lentils, poppy seeds (in the form of noodles and cakes with poppy seed). Christmas apples, walnuts, baked pumpkins, wafers (also known as miller's cakes or mill cakes), honey (mainly in cakes and gingerbread), cottage cheese (flavoured cottage cheese or pie) were all used for divination and healing. Garlic was eaten simply with bread or was used for flavouring meat dishes after fasting, and which also played an important role in scaring off evil spirits and witches.

"Miller’s cake
Ingredients: 0.5 kg sugar or potato sugar; 1.1 kg flour, anise seeds or vanilla sugar, a little volatile salt, lemon peel.
Mix the dough to the consistency of pancakes. The iron for baking the cake was heated well and two tablespoonful of dough were poured over the iron and shaken. After half a minute of baking, it was ready and rolled up into a pancake shape (Jászapáti)." - Zsolt Sári: The Pleasures of the Peasant Table

Another wafer recipe from Boldva in Borsod County, collected in 1970:

"For 1 litre of sweet milk, add 2 eggs, a little flour, and sugar. Mix it like pancake batter and add a very little fat. Put a spoonful in it and close the mould. When we opened the iron mould, we immediately rolled it on a wooden spoon. You had to stick it in the machine. We did it for holidays, Christmas, Easter, and for weddings. It was made for big game hunting for the landlord."

fustolt_husok_376005.jpgAfter the mass, which was around lunch on 25 December, the feast began, usually with the previously processed pork dishes: a hearty broth, boiled or roasted meat with a side dish, a meat and cabbage dish and pork chitterlings. Nowadays, fish soup is almost obligatory at Christmas, but our ancestors rarely ate fish at Christmas, and if they did it was fasting, and it had a function, as the scales represented money and were expected to bring prosperity. 

kurtoskalacs_sutese_412084.jpgThe Christmas meal was characterised by a duality that varied from one region to another, as there were also beliefs about eating a great variety of foods in a festive atmosphere, and rigid rules about the menu, the number of courses and the order of the meals. Even today, the indispensable dessert of the feast is the bejgli or cake roll, traditionally filled with poppy seeds or walnuts. Wine and brandy were also often served.

karacsonyi_asztal_127932.jpgWe also have to mention the concept of the Christmas table that was dressed up in special festive decorations. According to folklore, the objects, food, cereals, straw (Christmas straw) and hay placed on the Christmas table had magical properties, such as bringing abundance to the family for the coming year. These were removed from the table a few days later, typically on 28 December, on Holy Innocents’ Day, or on New Year's Day or on Twelfth Night. The seeds were given to the poultry to increase the quantity of eggs, and tools became more effective by the mystery of the Christmas table. Foods that were put out but not eaten (salt, pepper, honey, garlic) also had magical powers, and bread was used to feed supernatural visitors (baby Jesus, angels) - similar to the ritual of feeding the dead on All Hallows' Eve. Sometimes the family would spend the night on the Christmas straw, and it was also used for making a bed for the visiting baby Jesus, and later they placed it under the domestic animals for fertility magic. 


For this occasion alone, one or more Christmas tablecloths were used stacked on top of each other, usually white, decorated with stripes. Even the placing of the tablecloths on the table was a ritual and the ritual involved folding in the Christmas crumbs, i.e. leftovers from the meal (e.g. pieces of bread and cake, walnut shells), which were considered to have magical powers. Christmas tablecloths and crumbs were then used for curing illnesses, among other things.

"Festive dishes in the old days
Christmas and New Year's dishes changed everywhere and fresh pork was served everywhere because every worthwhile family slaughtered fattened pigs, and so the folk tradition developed that poultry was not slaughtered that time, because poultry scraped the luck out of the house. Christmas was the big Christmas and New Year’s Day was the little Christmas. The Christmas, New Year's Day menu:
Lunch: pork soup, tomato sauce with soup meat, cabbage with pork meat, oven-baked meat, blood sausages with coffee, strudel with poppy seed, cottage cheese or cabbage, poppy seed cake and home-made wine.
Dinner: leftovers from lunch. Breakfast: boiled milk with bundt cake, followed by liver sausage and wine." - Folk diet of the village of Gölle, time of collection 1979


Translated by Zita Aknai


Cs. Pócs Éva: A karácsonyi vacsora és a karácsonyi asztal hiedelemköre. In: Néprajzi Közlemények, 1965. 3-4. sz. Hungaricana Könyvtár

Diós István - Viczián János (szerk.): Magyar Katolikus Lexikon. Budapest. Szent István Társulat, 1996

Ortutay Gyula (főszerk.): Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár

Remete Farkas László: Régi karácsonyi, böjtmentes ünnepi ételek. Budapest. 2020. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár


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