The Corner

Christmas in Budapest

Writing here a few days ago about the Duck Dynasty brouhaha, I threw out the line that I was late to the controversy for a reason I would later reveal. Let me therefore now reveal that it’s the same reason why I’ve been late or AWOL for a lot of recent American controversies. Since midsummer I’ve been living in Budapest where I am helping to found a think tank devoted to promoting conservative and classical-liberal ideas in Central Europe and to creating a transmission belt for those ideas between the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), Western Europe, and the Anglosphere.

Our think tank — the Danube Institute — won’t officially launch itself for a few more months. But it’s already held several public lectures (by such speakers as Hudson scholar John Fonte and former U.K. Ambassador Charles Crawford, now a celebrated diplomatic blogger); a movie discussion series devoted to films on Communism and post-Communism (starting with David Satter’s superb documentary on the last days of the Soviet Union, Age of Delirium); and a highly successful full-fledged international conference on the continuing impact of the 2008 financial crisis. That’s still an important topic because a false interpretation of the crisis and its causes has undermined the moral self-confidence of conservative intellectuals, parties, and leaders across Europe.

No need to ask for more information about these and later events, however, because I’ll be posting such news as the Institute launches them and itself. A video of the entire conference, kicked off by a witty but substantial speech by former U.K. finance minister Norman Lamont, will soon be on our website. It will provide you with fascinating views both on the crisis and of Budapest by night.

Two things follow from all this: First, unhappily, in all the hectic activity I’ve become slightly detached from Washington politics — to the extraordinary degree that I sometimes shake my head and say wonderingly “Have they all gone mad?” Second, more happily, I am spending Christmas in Budapest.

If you have seen the Lubitsch movie, The Shop around the Corner (based on a 1937 Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo and starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), you will have quite a good grasp of what Christmas in Budapest was like before the disasters of Nazism and Communism overtook it. Well, the city has now survived both, wiped off the grime of Communism, and recovered its old brio. Andrassy utca, the city’s own Fifth Avenue, is ablaze with lights from the Oktagon almost down to the Danube river bank. The parks have the Hungarian equivalent of Chinese lanterns hanging from the trees. The shops, theaters, and restaurants are crowded with festive customers. There are two vast open-air “Advent Markets” (that actually go on until the New Year), one outside St. Stephen’s Basilica, the other in the central tourist venue of Vorosmarty Square, selling fur-lined clothing, jewelry, purses, belts, hand-thrown pottery, Hungarian wines (now of a very high quality), palinka fruit brandies made from every known fruit, and delicious street food from the homely fish ’n chips to the more local goose-leg confit with red cabbage.  

Economic statistics have been telling us that the Hungarian economy is recovering for much of the last year. But here in the Advent Markets one actually feels it happening. And before you criticize this observation as a consumerist distraction from the true Christmas, please reflect that many more Hungarian Bob Cratchits enjoyed a plump Christmas goose over the holiday and many more Tiny Tims successfully maneuvered them into buying a slightly too expensive toy as a result of the upturn. The last few years (since 2008 again) have been economically miserable for most Central Europeans. The way ahead is still hard for many. But there is new economic hope for people this Christmas. Besides, the signs of a religious Christmas are not lacking. Midnight mass in the Basilica was crowded even by soccer standards. And there is a Christmas crèche around every corner of the city. Budapest 2013 strikes a visitor as resembling a New York Christmas in the Fifties — after wars and depressions people are making merry but also thanking God for it a little nervously.

But Frank Morgan in The Shop Around the Corner can sum up the Budapest Christmas far better than I can. Here he is, lonely at Christmas, hoping for the companionship of his employees. When I saw this, I thought he was talking to me. Half an hour later, I realized that he had been.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.

The Latest