Work Customs

We have already considered customs associated with certain tasks in their appropriate place (cf. pp. 215–19). Here, therefore, we wish to examine the relationship between work and custom, rite and belief. In general we can state that the majority of customs relate to the beginning and conclusion of work. The customs at the beginning of work are interwoven with beliefs meant to assure the success of the work, whilst the emphasis at the conclusion is simple but liberated celebration, joy over the results won. It is worth taking some examples into consideration from this point of view. Thus, at the time of sowing, people try to influence the coming crop in the most diverse manner. Water was sprinkled on the first carts going out to the fields in the spring, to assure a plentiful crop, also by ploughing an egg into the first furrow. On the first day of sowing, tradition prescribed a special diet and abstention from certain dishes. Besides these customs, people did not forget to ask the Church’s blessing either; the sower took off his hat, and before he started work he asked God’s blessing in a brief prayer. How different is the conclusion of harvesting and threshing (cf. Ill. 26)! At that time, there is no forbidden food, and celebration takes place with songs, dancing, and a rich dinner, during which various jokes, bantering, and mummery were also practised. The same can be observed in relation to work in the vineyards, at the end of which a happy celebration, the szüret (wine harvesting) (cf. pp. 226–31), concludes the work (cf. Plate LII).

308. Harvest festival

308. Harvest festival
Kazár, Nógrád County

Numerous customs and beliefs are also attached to driving out the animals in the spring. Since much trouble could come to the stock on the plains of the Great Plain and on the mountain pastures, this was prevented with various actions, actions which a herdsmen’s song from Csík has virtually gathered into a bouquet:

Herdsman go and gather
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Cattle droves together;
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Little bullocks bawling, mooing
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Go the roads along-a.
Fasten chains on threshold
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
So the herds of cattle all told
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
{664.} May return home in the autumn –
Neither thieves nor wolves maraud ’em –
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Safe where they belong-a!
Grass it grow before them,
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Let diseases spare them!
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
Let them fatten while a-grazing,
Folks their price should keep on raising
Ching-a, ling-a, long-a
In the market throng-a.

                           (former Csík County)

How different is the “crowding in the fold”, that is to say, the stock’s return in the autumn, when on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) or, in some places, at the first snow fall they drive the flocks home:

Would it rained and wind was blowing,
Setting cows and horses homing;
Herdsman he could make his tally,
Shepherd’s boy was free to dally.

                      Györgytarló (former Zemplén County)

Afterwards follows the “wetting of the bargain” (áldomás), the celebration of their having successfully protected the stock from all dangers.

We can also make similar observations in connection with the building of the house. The lifting of the first soil from the foundation, the already mentioned building sacrifice (cf. p. 660), are all attempts to influence the success of building the house. The first occasion for celebration is when the wall and roof structures are already upright. Celebration reaches its peak when the house is completed and, after the family has moved in, they hold a house-warming, the expression of joy at the completion of work.

We shall also mention customs not directly connected to work but to occupations. Noteworthy among these are the days that refer to predicting the weather and crop yield. A few of the more important ones follow:

If the snow is melting on St. Vincent’s Day (January 22), the time of thawing, then the vine growers think they can hope for a plentiful and good harvest, while if the sun shines on the Day of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Gyertyaszentelő Boldogasszony, February 2), then a much longer winter can be expected, as is told by a short ditty:

If bright on Candlemas Day,
Get you out your chaff and hay!

                      Báránd (Bihar County)

If the ice is still firm on Icebreaking Matthias’ Day (February 24), the fishermen expect plentiful fishing, especially the fisherman who on this {665.} day succeeds in catching a pike. If the first warm day is St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), then everybody must start ploughing that day.

St. George’s Day (April 24) is an ancient holiday celebrating the beginning of spring. On this day the stock is driven out and the spring hiring-market for servants is held. According to tradition, cows had to be guarded from witches with special care on this day, because witches were said to collect dew on the fields to acquire the benefit of the milk. On St. Mark’s Day (April 25), the day of the cattle men, the owners of the stock they guard would bake strudel for them.

The Day of St. John of Nepomuk (May 13) is the holiday for men connected with water: fishermen, sailors, millers, who on this day organize a big celebration on the Danube in Baja and parade with illuminated boats.

St. Urban (May 25) is the patron of bee keepers, and the bees begin to swarm on this day. But the vine dressers paid respect to him as well as to Donát. The statue of Saint Urban stood on the path to the vineyards, and on this day the vine dressers put flowers on the statue to protect the vines from hail and other damage. Péter Bod, an 18th century historian from Transylvania, related that: “They held this day as a Dies criticus, from which the ignorant tell fortunes: a plentiful yield of wine if there is bright sunshine; scarcity if there is rainy weather. In this regard there was in Alsace a custom that if there was bright sunshine they took the wooden image of Urban through the streets with much joy and singing of songs; if the weather was rainy, they tied a rope on his neck and dragged him through the mud.”

Peter–Paul (June 29) played an extremely important role in agricultural life because the stalk of the wheat breaks off then, and it is time to start harvesting. The day is also celebrated by the fishermen, whose patron saint is St. Peter. They organized parades at this time and invited the leaders of the village to a dinner made of fish.

St. Michael’s Day (September 29) begins the autumn quarter of the agricultural year, was also the day by which all payments in kind had to be taken care of. The mountain herdsmen at this time held the celebration that was to ward off losses to wolves. From this day on the bees did not go out to collect honey. The oak forest was freed, and the herd could be driven into it.

The statue of St. Wendelin (October 20), the patron saint of herdsmen, can still be seen frequently, especially in Transdanubia. On St. Wendelin’s Day the herdsmen held a great celebration. The name Wendelin (Vendel) was specially frequent in herdsmen’s families.

Days of celebration related to occupations are eclipsed by the general days of celebration throughout the year. On St. Martin’s Day (November 11), city dwellers and in some places even the peasants, killed a goose and tasted the new wine. It was a day of much eating and drinking, to ensure abundance until spring. At this time the herdsmen went around to the farmers and got from them cakes or, in place of cakes, money.

St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) is the last day before Advent that is still free for entertainment. This is the time people begin to slaughter pigs and hold pig- killing feasts (disznótor). St. Ambrose (December 7) is {666.} the patron saint of bee keepers and honeycake makers. His day was celebrated even in Budapest between the two wars, and a procession with church flags was held.


309. Saint Wendelin, the patron saint of herdsmen

309. Saint Wendelin, the patron saint of herdsmen
A wayside statue

One fundamental feature of Hungarian folk customs emerges from the above: the community, whether a village or a market town, or only a group of peasant homesteads, remained unconditionally loyal to the social conventions indispensable to its members. In descriptions of the customs of certain villages we never find it said that a certain custom was practised one way in one house, another way in the next. The proverb, “There are as many customs as houses”, does not apply to the main events of village life, such as the customs of celebrating holidays. It happened of course that the various nationalities in a village followed different traditions; this is only natural, and goes to show that even a single village is comprised of distinct, well-defined communities. Social categories also created differences, but these differences are observable in the “pomp and circumstance” of life. A wedding, an Easter or a funeral feast was held by the poor, too, in accordance with {667.} village custom, though more often than not, at the price of great sacrifice.

Naturally, there were fastidiously observed unwritten agreements regarding what was proper for a poor man, whom he may ask to be a koma, with how much splendour he could celebrate his wedding, what his clothes, his food should be like, etc. In many places they reprimanded the poor if they wanted to imitate the big farmers. In other places, the poor held themselves aloof voluntarily and evolved separate forms for celebrating important moments of their life. All these ethnic and social differences verify that peasant life submitted itself to the discipline of the community even in the looser moments of celebration; for example, in many villages young men could visit the house of their chosen ones only on prescribed days, and the laws of the village even watched over love. And needless to say, anyone breaking these laws received his just punishment.