St. Stephen’s Day in Hungary: What makes it special and what to look for this year

King St. Stephen, or Szent István Király, was the beloved first monarch of Hungary who lived during the turn of the first millenium. He was canonized August 20, 1083, by Pope Gregory VII for bringing Christianity to Hungary and later deemed the patron saint of Hungary. In 1771, Queen Maria Theresa declared the day a national state and church holiday. The celebration has been observed annually on the saint’s feast day ever since and commemorates the foundation of the Hungarian state.

Unfortunately, because of its religious nature, the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day was secularized during communist times.  The Party tried to strip the holiday of its nationalistic importance, and from 1945 to 1990, the holiday was simply known as Constitution Day and commemorated the foundation of the communist regime.

Today, the holiday once again celebrates the nation’s patron and the foundation of the Hungarian state over 1,000 years ago. On August 20, countless traditions and celebrations are observed in Hungarian communities throughout the Carpathian Basin, but Budapest’s festivities remain second to none.

Celebrations get under way at Kossuth Lajos Square, the site of the Hungarian Parliament, at 8:30 in the morning with a flag-raising ceremony, the swearing-in of new military officers and an address by President János Áder. The House of Parliament will remain open to the public for tours during the day, free-of-charge – including visits to St. Stephen’s Holy Crown and the coronation regalia – as a reminder of the building’s function as “the people’s house.”

Nearby at the St. Stephen’s Basilica, Holy Mass followed by a procession with a relic venerated in Hungary as St. Stephen’s holy right hand will begin at 5:00 p.m. During the process of canonization, the king’s remains were exhumed, and, according to legend, his right hand had not decayed. Today, the relic rests in a side chapel in the Basilica. Across the river in Buda, St. Stephen’s bread will be blessed, according to the annual tradition, and the Festival of Arts will be buzzing with activity.

Every year, a nationwide cake competition is held in order to find the year’s best cake. Once selected by a panel of judges, the cake is cut in Clark Adam Square in the morning and from then on will be available at pastry shops across the country in sugar and sugar-free forms.

The blessing of the bread takes place under the St. Stephen statue at the Buda castle and is followed by a procession. The blessed bread symbolizes a fruitful harvest for the fall.

The Festival of the Arts takes place over several days in the Buda Castle district, featuring the best, traditional folk artisans. With a small entrance fee, tourists can explore stands overflowing with crafts from customary ceramics to artisanal honeys.

Throughout the day, visitors should keep an eye out for the vintage trams and buses. BKK, Budapest’s public transportation service, celebrates St. Stephen’s Day with “Nostalgia Rides.” Be sure to climb aboard since these vehicles only make their debut once a year.

The day’s celebrations are crowned after dusk by an unparalleled show of fireworks over the Danube River. The fireworks are launched at multiple intervals along the river and from Saint Gellért Hill and major bridges. The show is best seen from the riverfront, the Budapest hills or rooftops.

St. Stephen's Day has remained one of the most significant celebrations for Hungarians. It is a day to celebrate the founding of the state, the Christianization of the Magyars, the nation's first king and the history of a nation that has endured  for more than a thousand years. Here, on August 20th, everyone is Hungarian, a day to celebrate, remember and give thanks.

For a complete schedule of the 2017 festivities (in Hungarian), click here.