Sunday, November 01, 2009
Halloween in Hungary
We don't do Halloween in Hungary. We have "All Saints Day" - known as "mindszentnap". Hungary is a Christian nation, give or take a few hundred thousand Jews (like me) Muslims (like them) and Buddhists (like the band Belga) but by and large Hungarians are not a very practicing religious lot. Most religious holidays are taken as days off, shoppping holidays, a time for family meals, and Hungarians are not generally attracted to hard core fundamentalism or religious revivalism. Christmas and Easter are celebrated but generally are occasions for family get-togethers. The biggest religious holiday, however, may be November 1 - All Saint's day - when everybody heads out to the cemetery to lay wreaths and light candles for the Dead. Everybody. The crowds were insane. Essentially, it is the celebration of the Hungarian Ancestor Cult. Which is actually the most genuine form of family worship you can find. There are traffic jams at all the cemeteries and flower sellers gang up at the intersections. Everybody gears up to tend the family grave sites. No cost is spared. If you die Hungarian, you can at least expect a day each year where your family tosses some serious cash for you. Grave tending is hard work. And you don't attend to it every day. We stopped into a local grocery for some water and we saw a special on gravestone cleaning fluid. This is not something you would find in an American Walmart.... "Gravestone Cleaner"We rode our bikes yesterday a few miles west out to Rakospalota and just happened to be by one of the main cemeteries, which is on the way to the Polus Center, a spectacularly sad shopping mall that has one of the only Army Surplus stores left in Budapest (cheap army cargo pants are hard to pass up.) People crowded the streets, flower and candle sellers did a huge business, and we had to check out the action inside the boneyard... Candle lighting is very important on All Saint's Day - if you travel past a cemetery at night it is like a pre-industrial light show. The interesting discovery were the specialized glass grave houses that Gypsy families erect to protect their graves from the elements.The names on these graves are from the Lovari Gypsy family groups - some of the most traditional of the Roma tribes in east Europe. They maintain very specific traditions about keeping things "Roma" separate from things not Roma. Such as grave space. And so they erect these huge glass houses over their graves. Some of the graves had Roma-specific symbolism like horses carved ointo the stones: this person,with the very Lovari name of "Raffael" was nicknamed "Benga" - "devil". Lest we forget...I dont really miss Halloween - the trick or treating thing has never caught on in Europe and I don't really miss it, but the costume party aspect of the holiday has been growing. Hey - who doesn't want another excuse for an office party? But I really respect the Hungarians' strong hold on the tradition of All Saints Day. You may be gone, but you ain't forgotten.