One of Hungary’s most anticipated cultural festivals of the year takes place in the days leading up to Lent—and its debauchery is of epic proportions.
At one point, I gave up on plucking the feathers from my hair. Having gotten too close to the parade of masked monsters just moments before, one of their attendants approached me and gave me a liberal baptism of feathers–and a wink. I didn’t mind, however. I had been warned to be prepared for mischief and merrymaking during Busójáras, a rowdy winter carnival in southern Hungary, and now the inauguration was complete. After all, Busójárás is not for the casual observer but for the dedicated reveler.
Past and present collide at this major folklore event. Occurring during Hungary’s farsang (Carnival) period, leading up to Lent, Busójárás (loosely translating to the “Busó walking” or “march of the monsters”) is one of the most anticipated cultural festivals of the year. Historically, the event was a way to scare off winter and welcome spring and fertility–in the present day, the six-day winter carnival also functions as one of the region’s largest celebrations and tourist attractions. The fact that it gained a spot on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 has only increased its popularity.
As with many old traditions, the true origin of the Busójárás custom is wrapped up in legend. As the story goes, the Šokci people, displaced by the advancing Turks during the Battle of Mohács in the early 1500s, bid their time and carved frightening masks in the surrounding marshlands. Then, they donned the formidable Busó costume, crossed the Danube River under the cover of nightfall, and created such fear with their disguises and noisemakers that the occupying Turks fell into a panic and fled Mohács. This lore is widely acknowledged to be historically inaccurate; however, what most can agree on is that the Balkan-originated Šokci people brought the winter burial custom with them when they settled in what is now southern Hungary.
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This legend may be what inspires the kickoff of the celebration: If you make your way to the shore of the Danube early on Shrove Sunday, you’ll see boats laden with more than 500 Busós ferrying across the river to burn the symbolic winter coffin and start the rest of the day’s festivities.
Arguably, the most iconic part of the carnival is the procession, and even in the early hours, the small city of Mohács is bustling with people eager to witness the event. Festival-goers from Budapest can take the 3.5-4-hour train ride or opt to hop on a quicker chartered bus as part of a day tour (providers such as AlfaTours or GoTravel offer one-day excursions).
As we gathered on the side of the street to watch the start of the parade, we could see the stars of the festival gathering—the Busós. This monster’s costume remains unchanged over the centuries: straw-stuffed trousers, a heavy sheepskin coat with a belt and a bell hanging from the waist, and the iconic and indispensable wooden mask, painstakingly carved from willow wood and painted with bold colors (traditionally animal blood) with horns pointing proudly to the sky. Grasped in their oft-gloved hands are noisemaking accessories, from clappers to staffs (you may find yourself getting poked once or twice) to the ubiquitous, hand-carved wooden mace. The mace, traditionally made by fitting together small pieces of wood without any nails, is a show of artisanal skill itself. Looking closely will reveal that each Busó’s mask is slightly different–many are passed down through generations, exhibiting the craftsmanship of specific masters.
The significance of the masks lies not only in the artistry they exhibit but also in the anonymity they afford. The essence of this Šokci tradition is true transformation. Retreating behind the mask is seen as transformative–a link to a more instinctive state, as is the case in many Carnival traditions around the globe. Admittedly, this freedom may add to the rowdy atmosphere of the ritual celebration.
Busós aren’t the only ones marching, however. They are accompanied by Šokci Girls, dressed in full, patterned skirts and sporting veiled masks, who act as the Busós’ eyes, as the heavy masks restrict vision. Interspersed through the procession are men dressed in traditional wedding clothes. Jankels follow along, tasked with keeping the crowd back by good-naturedly covering onlookers with feathers, flour, or ash if they get too close. Stepping nimbly between the monsters and their caravans of decorated wagons, carriages, and carts are the musicians, now a near-integral part of creating the festival atmosphere, tambourines ringing out joyfully.
Adding to the mischief is the periodic appearance of the “devil’s wheel”, a horizontal wooden disk perched precariously at an angle. Pulled behind a cart or tractor, three or four Busós can be seen gripping the central handle, trying to keep their balance on the spinning surface. Cries of the crowd rise and fall with the wheel until one or more Busós eventually fall off, much to everyone’s amusement.
The busiest days of the carnival are Saturday and Shrove Sunday, but there is programming all festival long. Depending on when you visit, you can encounter folk dance ensembles, tambourine bands, craft fairs, regional cooking demonstrations, and even the traditional door-to-door visits of the Busós. The carnival officially closes on Shrove Tuesday with a final bonfire and ceremonial coffin burning, followed by one last dance with the Busós in Széchenyi Square.
Planning ahead can add even more depth to the experience. For an unparalleled look into the heart of the Busójárás tradition, you can book a visit to the workshop of Antal Englert, one of the most respected Busó mask folk artists. Born and raised in Mohács, Englert dedicated himself to studying the art of mask making from his mentor, a Master of Folk Art, with the motivation to preserve the culture and intellectual heritage of the Šokci people. Having become a Master of Folk Art himself in 2021, Englert offers tours of his workshop (booking ahead is essential), during which visitors can get a firsthand look at the carving process. For even more information, you can make your way over to the Busóudvar Cultural Center, where you can take a closer look at masks of years past and learn even more context about the celebration.
Planning has its merits, but one way to join in the merriment of the festival is to simply go with the flow. Most day trippers from Budapest time their arrival to coincide with the start of the parade, so find your place along the street and prepare to be stimulated–the march of the Busós begs to be experienced with all your senses: The smell of bonfire smoke wafting from Széchenyi Square. The scratchy-soft down of feathers against your neck or grit of flour between your lips if you get close enough to a Jankel. The music of the tambourine bands, crackling noisemakers of the Busós, jovial laughter of the crowd, and periodic booms of canon fire all weave together to form a rumpus that does its best to scare away even the harshest of winters. In a country that consistently makes headlines for its increasingly conservative policies, Busójárás seems like a world away, an instinctive and unabashed revelry.
The procession path will take you past an outdoor food court in one of the city’s parks. The lines are long and the tables fill up quickly, but having the chance to warm up with a steaming bowl of gulyás or tearing into lángos laden with garlic and sour cream just might make the maneuvering worth it. The drinks flow freely, and festival-goers are all too happy to sip the traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, pálinka, to add a little extra comfort. At the same time, local bands and folk performances play in the background.
As the sky darkens, however, the park thins, and more attendees start to head toward the city center. Although I found myself separated from my group, I remembered that all roads lead to Széchenyi Square. Surrendering to the tide of people, I made my way to the square, peeking at stalls along the way as people purchased honeyed wine, souvenirs, kürtőskalács (chimney cakes), and whatever else struck their fancy.
As dusk settled on the city, everyone milled about in the square, the concentration of monsters and revelers growing. (This is the perfect opportunity, by the way, to snap a photo with a Busó.) Eager onlookers scrambled to get a viewpoint as the clatter and mayhem of the day rose to a fever pitch for the main event: the lighting of the bonfire.
Just before the blaze started, I caught a glimpse of my friends–a Busójárás miracle–and made my way over to them as the mayor began his speech. My Hungarian isn’t quite adequate to have understood everything completely, but I comprehended enough to craft my own meaning as the flames rose and ripples of awed delight ran through the crowd.
With the Busós’ horns silhouetted against the roaring fire, hopes, fears, regrets, and expectations were sent up to the sky in a crackling blaze. The flames beat back the darkness as we all set our sights on the growth ahead. The Busós have done their work. Just like spring, rejuvenation is right around the corner.