SALEM – Christmas in Hungary separates the religious celebration of the Christ Child’s birth from the gift-giving festivities, Melissa Brown discovered.
For two Christmases, the 2002 Glenvar High School graduate experienced Christmas as Hungarians celebrate it.
She was known as “Brown Nover” or “Sister Brown” while she was a missionary for her church, Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in Budapest and other Hungarian towns.
Recently, she talked about the differences while she was home for a little while with her parents, Bill and Jennifer Brown of Glenvar. She is the middle child out of six, who has five brothers.
Brown showed some of the angel ornaments, embroidery, nativity scenes and other Christmas items she was given or collected in Hungary.
“There’s a difference between Santa Claus Day and Christmas Day,” she said. “They celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 each year. On that night, Santa comes and delivers chocolate and small toys,” she said. “It’s never as grand as what we think of as Christmas presents.”
And there is “Kranpusz,” a gremlin that comes for the bad kids, she said. Adults exchange gifts, but they are small gifts, Brown added.
“The Santas there have felt beards, and you can obviously tell it’s not Santa,” she remembered.
On Christmas Eve, Baby Jesus comes and brings toys, she said. “He is called Jezuska, or Small Jesus.” “They call it Holy Night. The whole religious aspect is a little more prevalent,” she said.
Each town has a nativity scene of some sort, Brown said, and there are frequently large Advent wreaths in the town squares.
“There are Christmas markets everywhere,” Brown recalled. “We did a lot of caroling. They have baked goods with poppy seeds put into a grinder and ground fine, almost like flour.”
The biggest thing they decorate trees with is candy, szalonchkor, all over the tree, Brown said. “It’s not candy canes. It’s chocolate-covered fondant with a wrapper around it.”
She also found that “name days” in Hungary are a bigger deal than birthdays.
As it happens, on Holy Night, the name for that day is “Adam and Eve.” New Year’s Eve is Szilveszter. “Instead of New Year’s Eve parties, you’ll see Szilveszter parties,” she said.
Foods that Hungarians enjoy at Christmas-time are also different from what Americans serve.
“A popular Christmas meal is halaszle or fish soup, with floating fish heads. It’s pretty intimidating for a foreigner to sit down to,” Brown said. “The fish has all its bones, too.”
Other popular foods are stuffed cabbage, stuffed with a mixture of pork and rice, and stuffed peppers which are paprika peppers instead of green bell peppers Virginians use.
Although she describes herself as “a big homebody,” she doesn’t stay home much.
Brown has lived in a lot of places, “but I keep coming back. I have an addiction to traveling the world.”
Brown recently returned from visiting friends she served with in Hungary, after three months working as a nanny in Munich, Germany. While in Europe, she traveled to Austria, Salzburg and Vienna; in Switzerland she went hang-gliding over the Alps. Brown was in Poland for a weekend, Italy for a week, and the Netherlands and Belgium.
Along the way, she had an internship for six months and worked with special needs children in a hospital.
After her 1-1/2 years in Hungary, she taught English in China for six months in the southern China city of Zhongschun. Soon, she will move back to Utah to study to become a child life specialist.
Meanwhile, she is training for a marathon in Disneyworld in January, although much of her heart remains in Hungary.
“I love Hungary, and I loved being a missionary. It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Brown said. “It makes me happy every day of my life.”