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A Communist Christmas Story

Hungary’s Christmas tree lit in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, December 4, 2018. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
How the Communist regime in Hungary tried, and failed, to coopt the celebration of Christ’s birth to its own ends

When the Soviet-backed Communist Party came to power in Hungary after the Second World War, it had a monumental task ahead of it: It had to transform Hungary into an idyllic proletarian dictatorship. This transformation was political and economic, to be sure, but it was 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.

First and foremost, Christmas was a holiday that brought together many Hungarians each year to contemplate and reflect on their faith, and thus a direct threat to the regime’s militant atheism and its ongoing war on Hungarian churches.

Second, Christmas represented a tradition far older than the regime, and thus tied Hungarians to their past. According to tradition, the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen, was crowned on Christmas Day in 1,000 AD. This and other “tales of the glories of Christmases long ago” were an unacceptable irritant to the Hungarian People’s Republic.

Third, Christmas was already associated with the sort 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 celebrations and try to erase Christmas from history. The Communists, however, knew better than to attempt such a solution, which would have further alienated a population that did not support them to begin with while driving Christmas celebrations underground. Instead, they engaged in a systematic process of subversion. In lieu of destroying Christmas, they tried to replace it with their own creation, free of any problematic features.

This process began as early as 1948, when the regime chose the day after Christmas to arrest the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Archbishop Mindszenty. The next year, in 1949, the Communists replaced Christmas celebrations with a week-long celebration of Stalin. But this was just a stop-gap measure. Going forward, the regime chose to coopt the symbols of Christmas, endeavoring to imbue them with new, Communist meaning.

Thus, the Christmas tree became the central focus of Christmas, which was transformed from a religious holiday based upon the virgin birth of Christ to the Pine Festival, in which good Hungarian socialists would express gratitude to each other and the Communist Party.

Renaming Christmas and refocusing holiday celebrations helped the regime solve the problem of religion. It also helped with the problem of tradition, by divorcing the holiday from the past and making it into a celebration associated exclusively with the People’s Republic.

The regime had less success in curbing the rampant commercialism associated with Christmas. The best the authorities could manage was encouraging Hungarians to buy their presents from the Soviet bloc, with toys purchased for children touted as proof of the great prosperity Communism had brought the nation. And even then, gift-giving posed an additional challenge: In traditional Hungarian culture, it is the Christ-Child who brings the gifts, a clear problem for those wishing to desacralize Christmas. The solution came in adopting the Soviet model of Santa Claus, Father Frost. Although Hungarians traditionally celebrated St. Nicholas on December 6, the Communist authorities attempted to merge it with Christmas to further supplant Christ’s role in the holiday. Father Frost would now be the bringer of gifts to children, and those who still used traditional Christmas phrases such as, “What did Jesus bring you?” could be reported to the authorities for dissident behavior.

The radicalness of these changes, which subverted and diminished the traditional religious character of Christmas, was only matched by their ineffectiveness. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the Communist authorities slowly began retreating from its campaign to redefine the holiday, knowing that the population had for the most part rejected the changes they’d sought.

Imre Nagy, during his first term as prime minister, quickly restored the day after Christmas as a holiday, in the first sign of reversal. Following the 1956 revolution, in which Nagy was eventually deposed and executed by the Communists, the authorities continued to become more permissive of traditional Christmas practices and celebrations. In the mid 1960s, the state even announced official toleration of those who celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday. Even then, the regime maintained its official rejection of the holiday’s religious connotations 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 this? The first thing to note is that Communism often chooses to subvert preexisting cultural traits rather than destroy them. This provokes less outward resistance, and weakens what resistance there is. The second thing to note is that these widespread policies only had superficial effectiveness. While they succeeded in publicly converting Christmas into a Communist-flavored secular holiday, they failed to convert the hearts of the Hungarian people. The gradual loosening of the rules from the late 1960s onward 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, that is certainly reason to be thankful this Christmas — but it is also reason to be vigilant, for there will always be those who wish to subvert culture to suit their own political ends.

Stephen Sholl is a junior fellow in the Hungary Initiatives Foundation and Mathias Corvinus Collegium’s Budapest Fellowship Program, hosted by Hungary's Committee of National Remembrance.

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