The history of sleighing and skiing

December. Usually, the first snow falls down this time and lakes may freeze in as well. The snow-cover thickness record of 151 cm that fell in the area of Kőszeg in February 1947 could not be overpassed since then. A lot of snow fell during the 20th century, for example there was a memorable snowfall in 1987. What did people of the 20th century do in wintertime? Let us see it now!

Janó Ákos: Gyerek szánkóval (1960) - Thorma János Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The sleigh (sledge or sled) is among the oldest means of transportation of mankind. It is also used as a means of traffic, dragged by animals in winter, and even in areas where snow or ice is not typical, they use so-called ‘summer sleighs’ pulled on muddy roads. As children’s toy, a smaller version is widespread and besides the wooden sledges the market is full of die-cast plastic sleighs, sleds and bobs. But if you don’t have any of the above mentioned versions, you can use anything else as a slider according to your

Every small hill is suitable for sleighing, but the people of Budapest usually prefer Normafa. It is the highest point of Svábhegy (477 m) on the edge of Buda Mountains. It used to be called Viharbükk after an old beech tree that was destroyed by a thunderstroke on 19 June in 1927 and its place is marked by a memorial tablet (fortunately it is preserved by photos as well). Normafa was a popular place of excursions and a sport paradise in the first half of the 20th century with ski and sleigh slopes, a ski-jump and a ski-lift and the Normafa Ski-house, which is a restaurant today.

The first snow at Normafa in February 1956 (the cog-railway also appears in the recording):


Garami László a Kékestetőn - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

There is an excellent possibility for skiing and sleighing on the highest peak of Hungary, Kékestető. Sports life started its boom on the slopes as of the 1920s, and it was also a favourite destination of people who wanted to be cured or recreate. By 1932, the sanatorium of Kékes was finished and started operating as a medical hotel. Even international ski competitions were held there – despite the fact that the ski-lift was opened only as of the 1950s. The operation of skiing pistes depends on the number of snowy days, whose record is almost 80 years old: it took 154 days in the winter of 1943/44 – but the historical situation was not favourable back then.

Let us return to the winter games panorama

A chair sled is a kind of chair that has two runners to slide on the ice of lakes. It can be pushed or passengers can propel themselves forward by poles. It spread in Hungary, mainly around Lake Balaton in the second half of the 19th century. Some say it came from Austria, others say that children around Lake Balaton stole some wooden tools used for taking boots off from home in order to slide on them on the frozen lake – and this is where its Hungarian name ‘Fakutya’ (‘wooden dog’ in English) comes from.

Jégvitorlás - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Ice sailing is not a widespread sport, but people did it and do it from time to time on the frozen water of Lake Balaton. The first iceboats were used on the ice of the River Hudson – for transportation and fishing – in America around 1790. They appeared in Europe, in Norway about a hundred years later. Competitions were organised as the winter version of yachting was born. In Hungary, the first iceboat was built and put on ice in Balatonfüred in 1888. It is rare in Hungary, because our big lakes do not freeze
thick enough to do sports on it securely, or they
freeze in for only short periods.

Lake Balaton might be frozen in and can be suitable for sports occasionally. For example the winter of 1962/63 was so cold that the ice remained on in for a record period of time: 110 days. Our largest river, the Danube also froze in 1963, and it was the last year until today when people could walk on its ice securely. Before that time, this phenomenon was more common and people could cross the river between its two banks on the ice. The history also recorded several cases like that, for example the Tartarian army managed to reach the Transdanubian area passing across the frozen river in 1242. Another example is when Mathias was declared king on the ice of the Danube in 1458. The disappearance of this natural phenomenon is related to the river regulation, because before that the watercourse was shallower and the water flowed slower, thus there was no need for extreme cold for it to freeze. Nowadays, it is very rare. The winter of 1986/87 was the last time that there was a connected ice-sheet, but it was not safe enough to walk on.

The frozen River Danube between Nagymaros and Visegrád in February 1929:

A curiosity from 1932: residents of Murnau (Upper-Bavaria) slide on the ice by sledges mounted on animal bones:


Gutmann sport ruhái és felszerelései (1931) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Skiing is also an ancient means of traffic. The first skis can be 2000 – 5000 years old, according to the archaeological dating. Ancient rock drawings and linguistics also confirmed this theory, backed up by the etymology of the Finnish word ‘suksi’, which is ‘sí’ in Hungarian. Skiing has had an important role in traffic on snow and ice, in expeditions and wars during thousands of years. It spread in the 19th century due to Norwegian effect as a form of sport and amusement and the first ski competitions were also held that time. A great deal of ski sports have developed since then, for example: Alpine skiing, biathlon (combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting), skijoring (meaning that a person on skis is pulled by an animal or a motor vehicle). The new sport arrived in Hungary at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. People skied in Kőszeg and on Kissvábhegy, in Hungary first in 1892. The first Hungarian ski club was formed in 1908. The sport was called ‘foot-sledging’ in Hungarian back then.

Besides the sports above, I have not mentioned snowman-building, snow-angeling and snowballing, though everybody has memories of snow-battles on the schoolyard. And there are also the real ‘icy’ sports that can be found in the programme of the winter Olympic Games like ice-hockey or curling. Ice-skating was also left out, because the topic requires another virtual exhibition – completed with the history of Városligeti Műjégpálya (City Park Ice Rink) of Budapest.


Translated by Zita Aknai


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