I thought I knew how to do Christmas: decorate some cookies, write a few cards, sing along with Bing Crosby, hold back tears when nearly all of Bedford Falls packs into Jimmy Stewart’s house at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. That is until I moved to Hungary.
Hungarians take Christmastime to an entirely new level. And they have a couple of wintertime pleasures that just might keep me in Hungary forever.
My first December in Budapest, my Hungarian friend Botond took me out on the town. There were two things, he said, I had to experience. Our first stop was the Christmas market at Vörösmarty square in Pest. I’d never been to a traditional European Christmas market before. All over the continent, such markets dot cities and towns in December. People go there to chat and connect. An older Facebook.
The Christmas market at Vörösmarty looked like a fairyland. Circling a giant Christmas tree, a village of wooden storybook stalls sold Hungarian handicrafts, food, and drinks. The façade of Gerbeaud coffeehouse had been transformed into a huge advent calendar. Hanging in the trees, giant pompoms of lights looked like magic mistletoe.
As Botond and I strolled through the crowds, we passed counters stacked with gingerbread, marzipan, poppy seed pastries, and doughy funnel cakes known as kürtőskalács turned over hot coals then rolled into sugar and nuts for eager visitors who waited for them.
One mustached man was selling homemade Hungarian hooch in bottles shaped like pistols.
“I don’t get it,” I said, pointing to one of the glass guns.
Botond grinned. “One shot drinks.”
As we continued walking, I noticed several people carrying mugs and cups. “What are they holding?” I asked.
Botond pointed to a sign hanging around a barrel of steaming liquid, slices of orange floating on the surface. The sign said mulled wine.
“Have you ever had it before?” Botond asked.
“Actually, I don’t think I have.”
“Oh, you’ve got to try it,” Botond said. “For me, Christmas begins with the first cup of forralt bor.”
Botond bought us each a cup, and I took a sip of the temperature raising tipple mixed with cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. “Ahhhh,” I sighed loudly, “I sure like your way of bringing in the season.” When I finished, I got right back in line for another cup.
From Vörösmarty, Botond and I took the metro out to Városliget – City Park. He said it was surprise. When we stepped out of the station, it was snowing. A path led us to the front of the Széchenyi Baths, a sprawling swimming palace of indoor and outdoor pools.
“We’re going swimming?” I asked.
“But it’s FREEZING!”
“You have to experience it,” said Botond. “There’s nothing like sitting in a warm pool on a winter night with the snow falling on your shoulders.”
“But what about our suits?”
Botond patted his backpack. “I came prepared.”
After finding our cabins and changing into our swim trunks, we stepped outside, raced through the snow to the largest pool, and sunk to our shoulders into the warm water. All around, men, women, and children relaxed and chatted as steam billowed from the surface.
“I feel like I’m taking a bath with a couple of hundred people,” I said, looking around.
Botond smiled. “You are.”
As we wallowed in the water, I watched a couple of teenage boys race out of the pool into the freezing air, dive into the snow, then sprint back, screaming their heads off the whole way.
“They’re insane,” I said, shaking my head.
Botond grinned at me. “I dare you to do that.”
“You gotta be crazy! There’s no way I’m going to get out of this water practically naked to jump into some snow!”
“Did I tell you that there’s another Christmas market nearby?” Botond said with a smirk.
“There is?” I said, perking up.
“Uh huh.” He pointed to the closest pile of snow. “And if you jump into that, the next forralt bor is on me.”
I looked at the snow then back at Botond. Suddenly I burst out of the water…I’m sure everyone in Széchenyi heard the screaming.