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.
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?