Christmas curiosity in Transylvania: The gift-bearing Angel

The warm lights of the Christmas tree that shine upon the diversely decorated globes and ornaments, the scent of pine and gingerbread, the gifts hidden under the lovely tree, awaiting unpacking – just a few small, but widely beloved fragments of what the magic of Christmas means for those who celebrate it. Many elements of Christmas celebrations are similar in the countries of Western civilization, but there are a few local, regional curiosities too. Romanian children’s gifts are brought on the 24th of December by Father Christmas; British kids receive their gifts from the same character, but on the 25th of December. Finnish children believe that the “real Santa Klaus” lives in Finland, and his name is Joulupukki. In Sweden an elf called Jultomten hides the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. In Sweden, Austria and Hungary the child Jesus brings the Christmas gifts. Transylvanian Hungarians have a somewhat different custom concerning the bestowal of gifts: Their children are told that the Christmas tree and the gifts are brought into their homes by an angel, referred to as The Angel.

The custom of The Angel’s visit on Christmas Eve is connected to the very old tradition of caroling, which is still very much alive in Hungarian communities, mostly in villages. Children, unmarried young men and married men gathered – and they still do so – in separate groups to go caroling. They walked from house to house in the village to sing their songs, chant and say they greetings and good wishes. Small children usually rang little bells and sang the popular ecclesiastical song “Angel from Heaven.”

The people they visited gave them nuts and apples for their chants. In older times, these caroling children visiting each house were seen as the Angel-visit. In Catholic regions especially, angels have been important elements of the Christmas celebration from early times; they have been present in Nativity plays ever since the 17th century. It is believed that the first Nativity scene, the first display of the manger in Bethlehem, was made per the request of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), the founder of the Franciscan order. Franciscan monks contributed greatly in Transylvania to popularize these so-called mystery-plays related to the birth of Jesus.

Title image: The Angel swooshes through the windows on Christmas Eve and brings the tree and gifts  

Author: Éva Zay