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Saint Stephen's Day

Hungary's National Holiday


If you visit Hungary - and especially if you happen to be in its capital city, Budapest - on the 20th of August, you'll probably wonder what the big commotion is about: you are bound to find open-air market places on every corner, meet spindle legged clowns and loud street entertainers, be amazed by daring flight demonstrations, listen to live concerts and watch theater performances on improvised stages, and bump into a brass band or two on your way to close the evening by watching magnificent fireworks above the Danube. It's lots of fun, no question about it - but there is also more than a thousand years of history behind this event. It is the celebration of two things: the custom of welcoming the new bread and more importantly Saint Stephen, the Hungarian king who turned a bunch of pagan nomadic tribes into a strong independent nation, by embracing Western culture and Christianity. Stephen died in 1038, after ruling the country for almost forty years, and was declared a saint on the 20th of August 1083; when he was removed from his original grave at Székesfehérvár, the right hand of the leader was found intact - to this day it's kept as a valued relic by the Catholic church and each year a festive procession follows it around on the streets of Budapest. After World War I. the communist regime prohibited official ceremonies from honoring the memory of Saint Stephen because of their religious nature, and the public holiday became a tribute to Stalin and the constitution the Soviets envisioned. The parliament that resulted form the first democratic election in 1990, gave the decision back to its rightful owner: the people was once again free to make a choice on whom to dedicate the day to, and a tradition that had been alive for many centuries returned to the streets of Hungary.

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