Though COVID prevented us from getting together in person, we still celebrated Farsang this past weekend, virtually. Meeting in the virtual world did not diminish the festive mood, and the fun of the celebration. Our members got together through a Zoom meeting, many wearing animal masks or all-out costumes. Fun and games, and a fánk-eating contest were all part of the celebration, but the online format offered a new possibility: we were able to host host Vilmos Keszeg, Ph.D., professor of Hungarian studies at the Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, a well known and respected ethnographer from Transylvania.
We learned a lot from Professor Keszeg about the Hungarian Farsang, its origins and local-specific variations. Through his photos and stories Professor Keszeg also transported us back to Transylvania, to witness the traditional Farsang celebrations of Torockó.
But before we talk more about our celebration, let’s take a brief look at what farsang actually is, where it comes from and how did one of its variants get included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.let’s take a look at this traditional Hungarian festival.
What Is Farsang?
Celebrated for centuries, Farsang is basically the Hungarian version of Carnival. It is a very long festival, lasting from January 6th til mid-February, both beginning and end connected to religious dates, Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. However, Farsang is far from being a religious holiday. The original purpose of the holiday is to say goodbye to winter and celebrate the beginning of spring. In fact, in many traditional Hungarian villages they hold a mock burial of winter at the end of the celebrations.
The whole month-and-a half of Farsang is filled with celebrations and get-togethers, but the main festival is held at the end of this period. The three-day festivities during the last weekend of the holiday, called Farsang farka (the tail of Farsang), mark the end of the celebratory period culminating in a parade and all-out party.
When I try to explain the holiday to my American family members and friends, I simply tell them farsang is the Hungarian version of carnival. You mean Halloween?; they ask. Not exactly, although people dress up in costumes and have fun, the holidays have that much in common. Yes, this is an integral part of the holiday. But as we learned from Professor Vilmos Keszeg, it is only a small component of the centuries-old folk tradition.
The Origins of Farsang
Hungarian Farsang dates back at least as far as the thirteenth century, in fact we have written evidence of this holiday dating from 1283, making it one of the oldest traditions. This holiday is not specific Hungarian; the Romans celebrated it, and so did the Bavarians. In fact, the word farsang has its origins in the Bavarian-Austrian vaschang. However, we made it our own, adjusting it to our specific cultural needs.
Over time, the tradition went through many changes.
During the Christian Reformation, it was considered immoral, and the church tried banning it. In 1552, Gáspár Heltai, author of the Hungarian Chronicle, referred to it as “The Holiday of the Devil”. However, the holiday endured, though it changed to accommodate Christian values and dates.
Later, in the eighteenth century, thanks to the Italian influence, the nobility started celebrating it as masked balls in the royal court and in their own homes. From the courts, the celebration expanded to the bourgeoisie in the cities, who took it into the streets. By the time the village population started celebrating farsang, they incorporated it in their everyday lives. In a short time, the holiday became so widespread that the people even celebrated it during the war campaigns, taking a break from fighting.
Celebrating the Traditional Farsang
Though the celebration changed, adjusting to the times, its basic idea is still the same: a month-long party filled with music, dance, and jokes. Get-togethers and parties fill Hungarian-inhabited towns all over the world.
One of the primary locations of the celebrations in Transylvania were the fonók, houses where traditional women and young girls spent the long winter evenings spinning and sewing. Since it was a gathering place for only women and girls, and one of the fundamental characteristics of the farsang period is courtship, these fonók were an important location for the celebration. During the month-long celebrations, season, groups of young men, wearing costumes and disguises, would visit these places, disrupting the work, taking the girls for a dance, turning the place into an impromptu party.
Besides courtship, culminating with engagements and weddings, the essence of the farsang was fun, disregard of social rules, jokes, and fundraising, but mostly large feasts.
And since a long fasting period follows farsang, part of the festivities include a mock fight between King Konc, symbolizing gluttony, and Voivode Cibere, symbolizing fasting. In the beginning of the farsang season King Konc wins, but at the end Voivode Cibere, and thus the period of feasting ends and the long period of fasting begins.
The tail of Farsang, farsang farka, the last three days of the festival season, is the most fun though, filled with most parties. This is also the time for the mock funeral procession of winter, a fake wedding, and a carnival ball.
The Busó Festivities in Mohács, Southern Hungary
In Mohács, in southern Hungary, the “tail of Farsang” brings the famous Busójárás, the Busó festivities, included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2009. The protagonists of the six-day celebration are the Busó men, dressed in scary costumes, wearing wooden masks and large wool cloaks.
The major celebration starts with the appearance of the Busók, who arrive by boat on the Danube, chase bystanders, and make loud noises to banish winter. They follow a coffin symbolizing winter in a procession through town, culminating with the burning of the coffin in an enormous bonfire in the main square.
The Funeral of Winter in Torockó, Transylvania
Torockó is a traditional Székely-Hungarian village in Transylvania, is one of the few places where farsang has been celebrated uninterrupted for thousands of years. Though we couldn’t be there in person, we visited the town virtually through the photos and descriptions of Professor Vilmos Keszeg.
We saw the “tail of carnival” and attended the funeral procession of Döme, the name locals gave winter during this holiday. The coffin of Döme, in a cart pulled by a donkey, walks down the main street, followed by more and more locals, and often visitors from out-of-town who come to take part in the celebrations. At the end of the funeral procession locals drown Döme in the center of the village, in the csorgókut, a well flowing through an enclosed area where women used to wash the clothes.
Traditions Keep National and Cultural Identities Alive
We still celebrate farsang in most Hungarian-inhabited regions of the world. This holiday, as other traditional ones, keeps our national identities alive. Getting together, having fun, getting to know each other is an important facet of the holiday celebrations. But it’s more than that.
By preserving our traditions for millennia, we preserve our identity, and ensure our survival as a nation. Farsang, though originally not a specific Hungarian custom – people celebrate different versions of Carnival over the world – has a unique Hungarian tint. By continuing this tradition, we help preserve our cultural identity.
Our Hungarian Community in Phoenix Also Celebrates Farsang, Keeping the Tradition Alive
Returning to our Hungarian community in Phoenix, we try to preserve our culture and national identity here as well, as much as possible. This time of the year we did it through farsang.
We started the festive zoom gathering by presenting the costumes. We had many characters, from kings and princesses to dinosaurs, wild cats and butterflies, and a few others in between.
Part of the farsang traditions are the so-called csujogató mini-poems, meant to chase winter away. Many of our members even improvised short, creative csujogató poems to banish not winter (we love winter in the desert), but disease, especially CoVid. And this is one part of farsang that evolves and adjusts to the specific community and area.
Games and story-time were also part of the celebration, along with a donut-eating contest.
Our members also baked, or rather fried, batches of the traditional farsangi fánk, the Hungarian donut of Farsang, and we had a donut-eating contest with them. Hanging on a string above their head, contestants had to eat as many as they could without using their hands. This was one of our most fun event, eliciting lots of laughs.
Even though we celebrated online, our community still had fun during Farsang. We hope to celebrate next one in person, with even more fun and games.