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Hungary, where colourful folk traditions live on to this day

Hungary has a very rich repository of folk traditions, whose heritage is well worth exploring. Discover the building blocks that make up the country’s fabulous folklore legacy.

Hungary is rich in preserved and living folk traditions, as well as valuable intellectual heritage, which are certainly important parts of what makes the countryside such a popular cultural tourist attraction. Experience the Busó festivities, falconry, the Matyó embroidery or even folk dancing and folk music, just to name a few; but when it comes to distilling pálinka and winemaking, it’s safe to say that they all form part of the country’s authentic image. Let's take a look at what constitutes the complex world of Hungarian folklore.

What makes Hungarian folk culture so special?

There are two reasons why Hungary’s folk music, folk dance and the traditional folk dresses that go with them are so special and popular around the world. One is that – unlike in other, less fortunate nations – in Hungary, the process of collecting and ‘registering’ folk music and dances was started early enough to bequeath an unparalleled treasure trove of folk art to posterity. This art, from the “purest source”, has been kept alive to this day. The other reason is that this culture of dance and musicality sprang from people’s everyday lives. The harshness of the dances reflected the harshness of daily work. Fiery and virtuosic movements were meant to tame nature itself, while softer partner dances embodied love and the endless cycles of family life, producing truly organic and uniquely human folk art.

Folk art is continuity

“Traditions are not to be cared for, as they aren’t sick, and are not to be preserved, as they aren’t food. Our traditions can only stay with us if we live them.” – Ferenc Sebő

In other words, folk music springs from the human soul, while folk dances are no longer something we can only get acquainted with through old footage found in the archives. The essence of folk culture is that it always goes through the body and soul of the people of a given era. Thus, people continue shaping it until the end of time, allowing it to remain a substantial and genuine treasure.

 

‘Dance houses’

In the sixties, the first folk dance halls in Budapest, also known as ‘dance houses’, were opened, inspiring extraordinary enthusiasm among the young people of Hungary, who were on a quest for their identity, and yearning for human contact. This was Central Europe’s answer to the ‘Beat’ music coming from the West.


The evening dances, organised in the dance houses, where you could listen to organic folk music live and unplugged, while dance instruction would take place, made this slice of culture accessible to anybody looking to become a part of the joyful experience. After the first sessions, the popularity of the dance house concept grew so rapidly that people sometimes could not even fit inside the dance halls. Dance houses became a movement that neither the country’s borders nor the ranges of the Carpathians were able to stop, so today, this slice of Hungarian culture, which has even been selected by UNESCO to be featured on the World Heritage list, is ubiquitous from Japan to Brazil, on five continents.

 

Although it has changed a little over the years, dance house culture survives to this day with the same spirit: by the early 2000s, folk pubs became the centre of Budapest’s folk art culture. Places like Fonó, Rácskert, Hétker or Pótkulcs accommodate dance house events that go on until sunrise, or even later, from Buda to the centre of the seventh district of Pest. At dawn, songs called ‘matutinals’ start playing to bid sweet melancholic goodbye to another night spent on the town.

Fun fact about dresses

Hungarian folk dresses and costumes are today synonymous with colourful, patterned garments, although in the 18th century white was their dominant colour, owing to the high prices and poor quality of the dyes available at that time. However, the 19th century brought about a turning point. With industrialisation, bright colours – each representing their respective meanings – started to be used on large clothing surfaces. Certain colours suggested wealth, while others conveyed the message of belonging to a denomination, or even a certain state of mind, such as grief. Since the surfaces to be coloured or decorated were finite on each piece of clothing, certain regions often competed with each other in the intricacy of the patterns they used.

Hungarian intellectual and cultural heritage also recognised by UNESCO

Any mention of true Hungarian heritage is sure to include Matyó folk art. This folk art features floral, space-filling embroidery, which dates back to the end of the 19th century and is used, primarily, on textiles for household use and for decoration. The various patterns, such as the famous Matyó rose, also play a major role in other craft activities. This characteristic folk art and costume has become world famous over the years, and has also been added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

 

Matyó folk art is not the only Hungarian particularity recognised by UNESCO: falconry is also on the organisation's highly prestigious list – as are the Busó festivities at Mohács, the costumed end-of-winter, greeting-of-spring, protecting and fertility-conjuring carnival; and the indigo dyeing process, which was the dominant fabric dyeing method used for Hungarian folk costumes and home textiles.

 

Guardians of community folk art: folk houses

The main ‘duty’ of folk houses is to preserve and present local culture of the past, along with the folk art produced by the community; to show the general public the architectural masterpieces of folk culture and to present authentically furnished house interiors, together with the everyday life of a given social stratum. As a result, if you visit the country’s individual folk houses, you can travel back in time from the period following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (1867) up to the 1950s.

Another way to protect folk monuments is to relocate valuable buildings to open-air ethnographic museums and allow a glimpse into the customs of the peasant way of life.

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