Learn how 20 August became one of the most important holidays in Hungary, and how it is celebrated. Food, family events and fireworks all over the country.
Stephen I, the founder of the state
In 1083, Stephen I, the first king of Hungary and the founder of the state was created a saint on 20 August, only 45 years after his death in 1038. The cult of Stephen at first went hand in hand with the legitimation of the Árpád-dynasty, but it remained relevant even after their fall. Over the years, it blended together with the celebration of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is normally commemorated on 15 August, and who is patron of Hungary. Since both Stephen and Mary are catholic saints, and Stephen made Hungary a catholic country, the day is also a heavily religious festivity.
The Holy Right
The most important relic from Stephen I is his mummified right hand, which normally resides in a golden glass box in the St. Stephen Cathedral in Budapest. On 20 August every year since the early 19th century, the relic is picked up and showed around the city center in a procession. The relic is carried by members of the Hungarian Army, and the event is regularly attended by various public officials, giving public importance to this otherwise religious celebration.
The Day of the New Bread
During the years of socialism in the second half of the 20th century, religious celebrations were highly discouraged. The yearly processions of the Holy Right stopped. 20 August remained a public holiday, but it was repurposed as a harvest festival, when the first new bread can be baked from wheat harvested that year. (Before that, Hungary was not that big on country-wide harvest festivals, although there had been some attempts at their introduction since the end of the 19th century.) Even though the Day of the New Bread was supposed to be a secular festivity based on Soviet example, blessing the new bread is somehow still an integral part of the event.
It was around the same time, on 20 August 1949, that the Soviet-based constitution of Hungary came into force. The date was carefully chosen, and it was celebrated as Constitution Day until 1989. After the departure of Soviet forces and the first general elections, 20 August was confirmed as a public holiday celebrating the Foundation of Hungary, and this was included in the new constitution.
Celebrating 20 August
As a result of its complex history, 20 August is celebrated by a variety of religious and secular events both in Hungary and abroad. The day starts with hoisting the Hungarian flag in front of the Parliament in Budapest, after which new officers of the Hungarian Army are initiated. State honors and medals of merit are also awarded to artists and scholars for their exceptional talent. On this day, the Parliament is open to visitors who want to see the Hungarian crown (normally you need an appointment). In the afternoon, the Holy Right is paraded through the city center.
During the day, concerts and various events for families are organized in the city and in the Buda Castle. These include the Festival of Folk Arts, and the announcement of the winners of the yearly competitions for the title of the best bread of Hungary as well as the cake of Hungary (which is often dubbed as the “birthday cake of Hungary”). Similar events are held all over the country, with temporary markets, street food, and music.
The main event of the day is the traditional fireworks. Budapest always has the largest and longest event, broadcasted on various tv channels, but many other towns have their own fireworks too around the same time – traditionally right after sunset, which is around 9 p.m. in Budapest. Over the last few years, there have been some controversies over the fireworks, in part due to their costs, in part due to their harmful effects on the environment, such and air pollution, scaring animals, disrupting nature and killing birds.
The birthday of Hungary
Despite its hectic history, 20 August is truly one of the most important Hungarian holidays. The complicated history of the day is just fitting for the complicated history of Hungary and its many people, and it is a day of celebration of our thousand years of history and achievements.