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Farewell Winter, Here Comes Spring - The End of Winter in Budapest

By Budapest Expert: Marta, Hungary, February 2011

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February is the shortest month of the year, and yet, it often seems that it would never last. The feasts of December are over by now, you have long forgotten about your New Year’s wows, the snow that remained on the sides of the streets is dirty and hard, it has nothing to do with the miraculous soft first snowdrops of December. You are longing for spring, and it even shows up sometimes: in the afternoon sunshine that touches the Danube and clears away the fog from above the Castle, in the smell of the soil in the City Park that has started to melt, in the first sunrays of the early mornings while travelling on the yellow tram to work, when you realise it’s not dark any more…

Nevertheless, these miracles last only for minutes, and shortly after that you fall back to the deep dark winter time. The only way to make you feel better is party. And I don’t necessarily mean clubbing, but generally speaking, socialising, having fun with people, enjoying yourself, celebrating. Celebrating what? That it’s still winter, cold and dark and foggy and wet? No, forget about this pessimistic Central European attitude and take the example of the old generations. February is full of festivals.

It is common everywhere in Europe that people back in the old days tried to protect themselves from the bad spirits of cold winter time by scaring them off. One period when most of these rituals were held is around Christmas time that coincides with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It’s easy to pass this period, since it’s just the first month of winter, but the more you go into the dark cold winter days, the more you feel the need for spring to come. The period of January-February thus can be rather depressing unless you do something against it. Fortunately we needn’t think too much about it, everything is already prepared: and it’s called Carnival!

This period, which in the Christian calendar starts with Twelfth Night and finishes with Ash Wednesday, is the time for party. In Hungary Carnival is the period for fancy dress balls traditionally. (Halloween parties are just a new tradition, since the 1990’s, don’t have any roots in Hungary) Nowadays, the world is crazy about the Venice Carnival, the Rio Carnival, however, to me, carnival means more the fancy dress parties at primary school when all the girls wanted to disguise as princesses, while the boys were dressed as knights or cowboys, waiting for the fancy dress contest, eating doughnuts and odd salami sandwiches. Even if we didn’t send away any bad spirits this way, but at least were having fun.  

There are regions in Hungary, where “chasing-away-winter” traditions of ancient roots are still held. The most famous one is called Busójárás, held every year in a small town, next to the Croatian border, called Mohács (only 3 hours from Budapest). It’s a six day-long festival of the Busós: men wearing wooden carved, devil-like masks and sheep-fur coats, walking up and down in the streets, scaring off winter and at the same time having fun by scaring women, too. The main attraction during this Carnival feast is when the Busós arrive rowing from the opposite side of the river Danube, march along the streets of Mohács, make a huge bonfire and burn the coffin of winter. This thrilling festival attracts hundreds of visitors every year. No wonder why it is listed on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. In 2011, thanks to the stars and the Moon, and the whole calendar stuff, the carnival period starts later, and so does this fest: it goes from the 3rd of March, Thursday to the 8th of March, Tuesday which is the last day of the Carnival. So, if you would like to have a unique experience - which of course wouldn’t be the same without an exact amount of pálinka (the traditional Hungarian spirit) – jump at the chance or onto a bus to Mohács, and have fun!

The 8th of March is an important date in the Christian calendar, it is called Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival (originates from the Italian words: carne-vare ~ meat leaving), the last day before the Lent starts, and the last chance to eat meat before the 40day period of Lent. Traditionally, on this day families ate up all the meat from the larder, not to give a chance to any temptations in the following period, when no meat was allowed to be eaten. Probably, it was not a hard task to finish all the food left in the lard: the families’ stock of meat gained from the late November pig slaughters had almost come to an end by this time. So had the sweets, being one of the main attractions of the Carnival parties. And after all, having eaten up all the fat and sugar, Lent was also a natural way of clearing the body (very up-to-date issue).

Nevertheless, there has always been that type of greedy people who can never have enough. Well, instead of starving, they made up Fat Thursday: the day after Ash Wednesday, a one-after-the-last chance to eat some pieces of the hidden treasures of bacon, sausages, ribs, etc. (According to some resources, Fat Thursday was originally celebrated the previous week of Ash Wednesday, so no greedy people had any chance to break the rigid law of Lent.) Anyway, in Hungary, the tradition of Fat Thursday was renewed by the National Tourist Organisation (Magyar Turizmus Zrt.) in 2006, in the form of a very sweet (literally) promo: since 2006, every year on Fat Thursday many of the restaurants offer 50% discount to every guest. In 2011 it is the 10th of March. So, you are still in time!

Even though it is mainly the Hungarians who join this event, from year to year there are more and more foreigners who know about it. It is advisable, however, to get into contact with some locals to book a table in advance, otherwise you might not find any free. You can give it a try on your own, too, since it’s easy to find out about places on the net. In this case, however, you should be aware of the fact that thanks to some bad translations or in reference to those nasty greedy people, this event is called Greedy Thursday (instead of Fat Thursday). So don’t forget: 10th of March, Greedy Thursday: a great and cheap chance to go deeper into the gust cavalcade of the Hungarian cuisine, and a chance to forget about Goulash, at least for this one day. 

All in all, it’s not that bad. Festivals, cheap restaurants, carnival parties at most of the pubs and clubs, I think I will do with it despite the cold and wet and dark. It’s not even so dark. It can’t be. After all, it’s Budapest: the Paris of the East, the Pearl of the Danube. And two months later it’s Easter!

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