Christmas and Communism: How the Hungarian Communist Regime Tried and Failed to Co-opt the Holidays
How the Communist Regime in Hungary Tried, and Failed, to Reclaim the Birth of Christ Celebration for Its Own Purpose
When the Soviet-backed Communist Party came to power in Hungary after World War II, it had a monumental task ahead of it: it had to turn Hungary into an idyllic proletarian dictatorship. This transformation was political and economic, of course, but also cultural and spiritual. Everything that existed before had to be erased and replaced with a state-sponsored culture, history and belief system.
The Communist Party was on a direct collision course with Christmas.
Above all, Christmas was a celebration that brought together many Hungarians every year to contemplate and reflect on their faith, and therefore a direct threat to the militant atheism of the regime and its ongoing war against the Hungarian churches.
Second, Christmas was a much older tradition than the regime and thus linked Hungarians to their past. According to tradition, the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen, was crowned on Christmas Day in 1000 AD. This and others “Tales of the glories of Christmases of yesteryear” were an unacceptable irritant to the Hungarian People’s Republic.
Third, Christmas was already associated with the kind of commercialized capitalism that Communist dogma frowned upon.
Faced with a holiday that embodied the three major sins of communism – religion, tradition and capitalism – the regime had a problem. The simple solution would have been to ban the celebrations and try to erase Christmas from history. The Communists, however, knew it was best not to attempt such a solution, which would have further alienated a population that initially did not support them while driving the Christmas parties underground. Instead, they have embarked on a systematic process of subversion. Instead of destroying Christmas, they tried to replace it with their own creation, free from any problematic element.
This process began as early as 1948, when the regime chose Boxing Day to arrest the head of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Archbishop Mindszenty. The following year, 1949, the Communists replaced the Christmas holidays with a week of Stalin celebration. But it was only an interim measure. In the future, the regime chose to co-opt the symbols of Christmas, striving to imbue them with a new communist sense.
Thus, the Christmas tree became the focal point of Christmas, which changed from a religious holiday based on the virgin birth of Christ to the pine festival, during which good Hungarian socialists would express their gratitude to each other. others and the Communist Party.
Renaming Christmas and refocusing the holiday season helped the regime solve the problem of religion. It also helped to solve the problem of tradition, separating the holiday from the past and turning it into a celebration associated exclusively with the People’s Republic.
The regime has been less successful in combating the rampant commercialism associated with Christmas. The best the authorities could do was encourage Hungarians to buy their gifts from the Soviet bloc, with toys purchased for children presented as proof of the great prosperity that communism had brought to the nation. And even then, giving gifts posed an additional challenge: in traditional Hungarian culture, it is the Christ Child who brings the gifts, an obvious problem for those who wish to desecrate Christmas. The solution came by adopting the Soviet model of Santa Claus, Father Frost. Although Hungarians traditionally celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6, Communist authorities have attempted to merge it with Christmas to further supplant Christ’s role in the holiday. Father Frost would now bring gifts to children and those who still used traditional Christmas phrases such as “What has Jesus brought to you?” Could be reported to the authorities for dissident behavior.
The drasticity of these changes, which subverted and diminished the traditional religious character of Christmas, was matched only by their ineffectiveness. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the Communist authorities slowly began to withdraw from their campaign to redefine the party, knowing that the population had mostly rejected the changes they had wanted.
Imre Nagy, during his first term as Prime Minister, quickly revived Boxing Day on vacation, at the first sign of a turnaround. After the 1956 revolution, in which Nagy was finally deposed and executed by the Communists, authorities continued to become more permissive towards traditional Christmas practices and celebrations. In the mid-1960s, the state even announced official tolerance for those who celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday. Even then, the regime maintained its official rejection of the holiday’s religious overtones for decades. Christmas Mass was not televised until 1987, and all official events referred to Christmas as the Pine Festival until the end of the dictatorship in 1989.
What can we learn from all of this? The first thing to note is that communism often chooses to subvert pre-existing cultural traits rather than destroy them. This causes less external resistance and weakens the resistance that exists. The second thing to note is that these generalized policies have had only superficial effectiveness. While they have succeeded in publicly converting Christmas into a secular holiday with a communist flavor, they have failed to convert the hearts of the Hungarian people. The gradual relaxation of the rules from the late 1960s was an admission of defeat, and the regime and its secularization of Christmas both ended up in the dustbin of history.
For those who live in the free world, this is certainly a reason to be thankful this Christmas – but it is also a reason to be vigilant, because there will always be those who wish to subvert culture for the benefit of their own. political purposes.