Betlehemezés, as we call it, is a very old tradition in Hungary. The oldest Bethlehem (Nativity) play’s words were recorded by Liptai István, a priest of Ecseg, dated between 1684 and 1694, in Latin and in Hungarian. This tradition is so important and is so embedded in the heart of the Hungarian people that they carried it on, although secretly, even during the rule of Socialism.
According to popular folk custom, on the afternoon of Christmas Day, children and young ones go from house to house, with a Nativity set in the shape of a church in which the Holy Family can be seen. It is usually carried by two angels, as they sing and play out their skits. Some present Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem and looking for a room. Others dress as the three kings (wise men); but the shepherds’ acts are the main feature of the betlehemezés. Usually, there is a dialog between the three shepherds, one of whom is hard of hearing and misunderstands the others. The shepherds are simple but honest people who recognize the Son of God in the baby who lies in the manger, and they present symbolic gifts to him.
At the end they are invited into the house and receive gifts of fruit, some food or money.
For the last 28 years, Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin have been getting together on the second weekend in December for the Bethlehem Reunion; and since 2006, Debrecen is the venue. Hungarian betlehemezők from the Carpathian Basin come together from Erdély (Transylvania), Partium, Vajdaság (Serbia), Kárpátalja (sub-Carpathia), Felvidék, (Slovakia). A German-speaking group from Várdomb also participates.
This year, the Reunion will be held on December 8-10. More than 20 groups will arrive, and on Friday, around 5 PM, they will parade to the opening ceremony on Kossuth tér. On Saturday, from 9 AM to 8 PM, each individual group, one after another, will present their play at the Debrecen Cultural Center. Yearly, more than 10,000 people see these plays.
Many recordings of the events have been made. If one cannot attend in person, these can be purchased and shared with family and friends. The CD’s also serve as fundraisers for the event.
On Sunday, the Reunion ends with a trade meeting.
The groups visit many areas in Debrecen and villages and towns around the city, and show their plays in schools and cultural centers. The celebration continues until Christmas. The square in front of the Nagy Templom (Great Church) is the venue for folksongs and folk music presentations.
The purpose of the Reunion is to strengthen the relationship between the Hungarians who, thanks to the Treaty of Trianon, are now living in other national jurisdictions, and to help preserve their cultural identity as well as this most sacred heritage.
Debrecen city’s mayor once stated that “Without traditions, we have neither present nor future”.
In 2016, the Betlehemezés Reunion was registered by UNESCO as an item of Spiritual Cultural Heritage.
Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and Webmaster of Magyar News Online. She is the proud grandmother of two.