Two Hungarian national holidays: August 20 and March 15

On the eve of one of Hungary’s three national holidays it is perhaps appropriate to say a few words about the history of August 20, the “name day” of Steven (István).

Name days evolved from the Catholic custom of devoting one day of the year to a particular saint. Saints are ranked. Some deserve special days that are observed everywhere while others must be satisfied with local fame. For a while St. Stephen’s day made the short list after Pope Innocent XI in 1686 elevated it to universal status. It seems that August 20 was already occupied because, according to the liturgical calendar, St. Stephen’s day was to be celebrated on August 16. But then came Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) who thought that there were far too many saints’ days, whereupon Hungary’s St. Stephen was relegated to the list of saints celebrated only by the Hungarian Catholic Church. Besides Stephen only three saints–Stephen’s son Imre (d. 1031), King László (1046-1085), and Margaret (1242-1270) of Margaret Island fame (where in fact she died)–get special notice from the Hungarian Catholic Church. All the rest of the “Hungarian saints and blessed ones” must share one day, November 13.

It was at the time of Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780) that the veneration of St. Stephen was revived. Maria Theresa was grateful to the members of the Hungarian Diet who didn’t object to her accession to the throne. She showed her gratitude in many ways. For instance, she was the one who managed to secure a mummified right hand from Ragusa (today Dubrovnik) which allegedly belonged to the saintly king. The Holy Right Hand was brought to Buda in 1771, and from that time forward it was the highlight of the religious procession held first in Buda and later in Pest on every August 20th. At least until 1947.

The Holy Right Procession, August 20, 2012 MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

The Holy Right Hand Procession, August 20, 2012
MTI / Photo Zsolt Szigetváry

During the period between 1945 and 1990 two new holidays were added to the old ones of March 15 and August 20: April 4, the day when allegedly the last Hungarian village was liberated by the Soviet troops (the date turned out to be incorrect), and November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. March 15, celebrating the Hungarian revolution of 1848, was relegated to a school holiday while August 20th became Constitution Day because it was on August 20, 1949 that the Stalinist constitution was promulgated.

Clearly something had to be done about the Hungarian holidays after the change of regime in 1989-1990. There was no question that November 7th and April 4th had to go. There was also no question that March 15th’s former importance must be restored. Moreover, August 20th could not remain as either Constitution Day or, as it was sometimes called, the day of the new bread. Adding October 23 to March 15th and August 20th was also a given. The only debate centered around which of the three should be primus inter pares.

SZDSZ, Fidesz, and MSZP opted for March 15th, arguing first that it was a secular holiday, not one with religious overtones, and second that 1848 signified the turning point when Hungary left feudalism behind and embarked on the road to a  modern form of parliamentary democracy.  There was a practical argument as well. On the chief national holiday embassies usually hold a reception where members of the government of the host country and representatives of other embassies are invited. August is not exactly the best time to hold such a reception. But the right-of-center government parties that were in the majority won and August 20 became “the” national holiday. Similar arguments developed around the question of the Hungarian coat-of-arms and again the conservative right voted for the crown as opposed to the coat-of-arms used after the dethronement of the Habsburgs in 1849.

The history of March 15 says a lot about Hungary’s history. In the wake of the 1848-49 revolution and war of independence the celebration of March 15 was outright forbidden. After the Compromise of 1867 Emperor-King Franz Joseph understandably wasn’t too happy about this reminder of the very difficult years of the empire. However, as long as celebrations were not too obvious they were tolerated. All was well until 1898 when Ferenc Kossuth, son of Lajos, who was invited to head the Party of Independence, suggested that March 15th should be an official national holiday. Such a move was too much for Franz Joseph as well as for the Hungarian government. A compromise was worked out. The national holiday, it was decided, would be on April 11, the day King Ferdinand V signed the so-called April Laws that transformed Hungary from a feudal state to parliamentary democracy. What followed was typically Hungarian. The Liberal Party celebrated on April 11 and the Party of Independence on March 15. Not much has changed in Hungary, it seems, in more than one hundred years.

The politicians of the Horthy period had an ambivalent attitude toward anything to do with revolutions and March 15th became an official holiday only in 1927. After all, they defined themselves as counter-revolutionaries, so it often happened that the official speeches were not so much about March 15 or even about April 11 as about the thirteen executed generals and about Világos (Arad County, Romania) where the Hungarians surrendered to the Russian General F. V. Ridiger on August 13, 1849. The official programs were held in those days on Szabadság tér amid irredentist statues reminding everybody of the lost territories. Later, as war was approaching, they moved the event to Heroes’ Square where again instead of celebrating parliamentary democracy the event focused on war efforts and regaining lost territories.

Immediately after the war the Hungarian Communist Party was super nationalistic and the 100th anniversary of the revolution was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. By 1951, however, March 15 was demoted to be a non-holiday or at least an ordinary working day. It is hard to figure what motivated the Rákosi regime to abandon their tender feelings for 1848. Perhaps there were just too many holidays around March and April, including Mátyás Rákosi’s birthday. Or perhaps, as was the case later in the Kádár regime, they were afraid of the message of 1848: freedom, parliamentary democracy, independence.

This situation became even worse after 1956. Usually only a few hundred people dared to gather in front of the National Museum or at the statue of Sándor Petőfi. However, by 1969 János Kádár felt secure enough to organize a bigger celebration, but it wasn’t really about March 15 and what it meant.  Instead, the regime created a new holiday called Forradalmi Ifjúsági Napok (Days of the Revolutionary Youth). The Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség (KISZ) celebrated March 15, March 21 (the day of the Proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919), and April 4 (the Day of Liberation) in one neat package.

It happened first in 1973 that the police used nightsticks to disperse the young people who gathered to celebrate March 15. From there on such incidents occurred practically every year. The last police attack on the celebrants took place in 1988 in spite of the fact that the Politburo of MSZMP four months earlier, on December 15, had declared March 15 to be a full-fledged national holiday again.

Surely, the socialist regime feared March 15th much more than August 20th.  Yet today’s Hungarian right, which claims to be fiercely anti-communist, prefers the heritage of August 20th which has very little to do with the concerns of today: democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Should we wonder why?


  1. I suppose Hungarians will now march around with the divine right hand of
    Laszlo Csatary….

  2. And after that there will be the divinity of Laszlo Kover, and Viktor Orban…and Lazar…and Antal. But I’ll lay 3:1 right now that Hungary won’t see a Nobel Prize winner for 50 years.

  3. petofi :

    And after that there will be the divinity of Laszlo Kover, and Viktor Orban…and Lazar…and Antal. But I’ll lay 3:1 right now that Hungary won’t see a Nobel Prize winner for 50 years.

    If there will be he/she will not live in Hungary

  4. Whatever they do, I wish they’d take a leaf out of our book and have the holiday on a Monday! Apart from Christmas and the New Year, all our national holidays (Bank Holidays) are on Mondays (except Good Friday, of course, but Friday is just as convenient).

    With the 20th falling on a Tuesday this year, all is confusion. Monday is also a day off for most people, but they are supposed to ‘earn’ their day off by working on the Saturday. So, some people worked Saturday and some worked today, some shops were open as if it was a week-day Saturday, some shops were open as if it was a Sunday today – no one seemed to know exactly what was happening when.

    On Sunday some shops were shut, some opened normal Sunday hours (until 11), some operated Saturday hours (until 1) and some were open all day. The only day that looks reasonably reliable is the 20th itself, when everything will be shut, even Tesco. Except that our local family ABC will be open – Sunday hours!

    The upshot of all this is that we’ve been eating zsemle and kifli like they were going out of fashion one day because we’d accidentally bought too many, and then run out of other things the next day because we thought the shops were op[en in the afternoon and they weren’t. My wife took the kids to our favourite strand today, but no one knew for sure if it was going to be open, and, if so, at what time!

    So, Hungary, I don’t care what dates you celebrate, but PLEASE can you just do it only on Mondays or Fridays?!

  5. Yes,Paul, the constant swapping of Saturdays and weekdays is constantly baffling. And surreal, often, with banks and post offices being open while everywhere else is closed. It doesn’t help that Magyar calendars are never actually marked with the day switches … though I note that school children will be working a full school day on Saturday 21st of December, this year. Because it’s a week day. Baffling. And as for the tourists, who encounter total inexplicable shutdown on certain days (except,maybe, for the National Tobacco Shops) …

  6. Good summary!

    Small correction: The name of the independent (1358-1808) republic was Ragusa, not “Raguzza”

  7. Have you noticed that since 2010 on every national holiday be it March 14, August 20, October 23, when the government traditionally distributes medals and merits of awards always, without exception, top ranking medals go to various (mostly Catholic but not necessarily) church people? This occasion was no exception.

    Fidesz rewards its humble men in the country (often these people live in the country) who can deliver votes and organize a community and who will go out as per the commands from Kubatov centre and get the vote out.

    Also, top Fidesz media ideologues and editors received top awards (Borókai and Csermely).

  8. Ron–Good, Dunaferr made some HUF 60 bn losses altogether in three years. But the nationalization is really for the next 15 months.

    Fidesz (sorry the state that is the taxpayers) will purchase the company (which is completely worthless, but they will pay a nice amount) and then it will have to deal with it a year or two later when the losses will be completely unbearable. Until then they can play with the numbers. But it will be in the future, so the problem is solved as far as Fidesz in concerned. Better still, if they can attribute the closing down to a new or former government, they can acquire the Fejér county votes for good (note that Orbán and his family are from the county), which is now right-leaning, but perhaps can be flipped in some districts.

    Unfortunately, the smelter business is just hopeless, you should see what is happening in Ukraine, Serbia, Slovakia or in Western Europe. And we do not have either coal or iron ore!

    Half of the capacities must disappear in Europe, there is no demand in Europe.

    I am not sure what the solution is, it would be a terrible tragedy for the Duanújváros region, but the business cannot be operated without taxpayers’ money.

    It will be another MÁV, the perennial loss-making and bad state railway company.

    BUT, in the midst of the giant losses there exist a huge opportunity to loot (always legally) money through friendly companies. Fidesz is a master of that.

  9. @Holabda

    I do not disagree with the nationalization of Dunaferr. Of course, Orban does it for election’s sake, but this might turn out to be good use of taxpayers’ money. The measure will save several thousand people from unemployment for a while.

    Who knows, the fortunes of the global steel industry can turn around down the road, and Dunaferr can be re-privatized at a profit (hopefully not for pennies to a Fidesz oligarch or politician)

  10. Nationalising the steel industry is no good – even the USA gets steel from China nowadays …

    However the quality isn’t always up to standard, I read that several US bridges have problems because of that.

    And here’s an interesting article/comment on China’s products and production:

  11. My last comment on steel production is in moderation – I forgot again that you should have only one link in a comment – reminds me somehow of the first commandment …

    I’ve also been perplexed by the number of religion-oriented holidays and activities in Hungary – is this a kind of backlash after the Communist rule ?
    Or are people here really that religious ? Actually I doubt that …

    Still, when Tesco etc are open every day and some of them 24 hours it might be a good idea to close everything a few times a year.

  12. Tappanch: it is a huge gamble to say the least.

    It will cost about 20bn per year for the taxpayers to operate the company if things improve, otherwise perhaps as much as 30bn.

    The problem is not only with the local and global demand, but also with supply.

    In addition, this is mostly a commodity business, everybody can produce steel if given coal and iron ore and cheap energy. And believe me, you don’t want to be in a commodity business. There is no way to differentiate your product (except for extra high quality, but it’s done by the likes of Swedish and German, with their almost hundreds of years of experience and great raw materials, at least in Sweden).

    In Hungary, we have none of the above, the problem is that even in Ukraine where all three are abundant (at least compared to Hungarian situation), companies are making huge losses.

    So it might just be much cheaper to give as much as net 20m to every family (or say 5-10 to every worker) in one lump sum and forget about Dunaferr. It certainly would have been cheaper in the case of Diósgyőr and Ózd.

    It is sad, but I just don’t know what else could be done.

  13. Eva S. Balogh :

    Ron :
    OT During the Ministers meeting in Szekesfehervar it was decided to re-nationalized Dunaferr.

    Where all this money coming from? A money losing business to save jobs? And then what?

    To save only 1500 jobs? Not likely, I believe Viktor Orban’s father (and so the Orban family) will be become a little more richer. They did it before and why not again?

    Btw the money most likely will come from the Saving Cooperations’, which are taken over by the government currently.

  14. Eva S. Balogh :
    Re medals. Incredible number of priests. More than usual, it seems to me.

    It is a political rally, the priest are there to make it more religious.

  15. I’m still amazed at the lack of popular support on these days. Concerts, dancing, shops and houses dressing, anyone? I think there are more people cheering and celebrating the mangalica fesztivál than any of the national days.

  16. On August 19 in Szekesfeherver, Viktor Orban Prime Minister gave a speech. The local government in order to show their appreciation and to make the event even more special hired (or requested) the local string orchestra to play some fitting music. They choose Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances (the only Bartok piece written for strings). Big mistake. THe local government was afraid to announce the full title of the pice under the current political situation, so they announced the piece as Folk Dances. Of course this was just a
    “mistake” according to the mayor of the town.

  17. Re Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. Unreal! Poor Bartók whose 6,000 folks songs he collected were a mixture of Romanian, Slovak, and Hungarian folk tunes. Each about a third of the collection. Do you remember when in Pécs an orchestra and choir were supposed to play/sing a Kodály piece: „Fölszállott a páva, vármegye-házára, Sok szegény legénynek szabadulására,” but they were told not to because the mayor whose name is Páva = Peacock” might take offense? This is how things go in Hungary nowadays.

    That reminds me that years ago when I was still living in Canada I was driving alone somewhere in the United States alone. It was a long and boring trip andI was madly looking for some half-decent radio stations when suddenly I found one where to my greatest surprise one Hungarian folk tune was played after the other. Or at least I thought they were Hungarian. It turned out to be a Slovak hour on that particular station. All those songs exist in both folklores. I assume the situation is pretty much similar in the Transylvanian part of today’s Romania.

  18. That’s really funny/strange/typical Fidesz ?

    I remember that some years ago we took my sister and her husband to “Stuhlweißenburg” (that’s the German name …) on August 20th. I was afraid we might not find a place to park the car – but no problem, just across the little church where St what’s his name is supposed to have his sarcophague …

    We looked at the ruins, evrey thing was very well described and then walked though the pedestrian zone off for lunch …

    On the way we passed that collection of strangely clothed Catholic priests, nuns, whatever – they really looked strange in their garb, but not too many people looked their way – everybody was waiting for the fun to start, food and drinks and be merry …

  19. This was with no doubt the strangest (for me) August 20 celebration.

    In the morning Dunaferr, in the afternoon the procession (btw I suspect buses were rented to bring in some Romanians and Polish people. I did not see too many people during this procession. I expected more. Saw VO on TV he is looking terrible, and he seems to haven eaten with too much salt.

    Just now finished watching the fire works. Was not impressed. Now watching on RTL Klub Istvan a Kiraly. This is the best so far today.

  20. “But it will be in the future, so the problem is solved as far as Fidesz in concerned. Better still, if they can attribute the closing down to a new or former government…”

    The Fidesz approach in a nutshell. Postpone the problem for the future, and blame it on the past.

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