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Hungarian Flowers and the Day of the Dead

Social niceties, such as the giving of flowers, are strong in Hungary, and tie in to other traditions like the Day of the Dead.

Whole families will visit the graves of family members in Hungary on the Day of the Dead, lighting candles in remembrance.

Crossing the metro station at Corvin-negyed in Budapest, on our way to meet a friend, my Hungarian partner said, “We should buy her a flower.”

The friend was a woman and it struck me as a little odd that my partner would buy flowers for another woman. “This is not strange in Hungary,” my partner said.

As is usually the case when we have this kind of conversation, there was the implication that the English are somehow a little less refined than the Hungarians. The longer I live here, the more I think my partner may be right.

It seems to me social rituals count for more in Hungary than they do in many other European countries, certainly the United Kingdom. This is truer nowhere than when it comes to flowers, especially around the time of the Day of the Dead (Halottak napja), on November 2.

I still shudder when I remember buying Chrysanthemums for my partner a few days before the Day of the Dead, the first year we were together in Hungary. I had no idea that Chrysanthemums are pretty much the official death flower in this country.

Hungarian Flower Rituals

My journey into the world of Hungarian flower rituals began with Katja Shläfli. Shläfli, who is Swiss, is the founder of Arioso Budapest, the splendid flower and lifestyle shop and café on Király utca in central Budapest.

“A friend suggested I open a flower shop here 15 years ago,” she told me, “and I realized there was a real opportunity to do something different from the usual, more chocolate-boxy flowers and arrangements you see in traditional Hungarian flower shops. From the beginning, I knew I had to be different. I had to offer more to the customer in terms of presentation and quality. People love to come into Arioso and choose exactly what they want in a beautiful environment.”

Although Shläfli began by bringing in flowers which she would have chosen for the, let’s say, more subdued Swiss market, she soon adapted her taste to fit that of Budapest. Today, she buys 80% of her flowers from Hungarian family growers who have begun to grow varieties specially for Arioso, including the subtle, green Alchemilla.

Did Shläfli think there was something different about the Hungarian approach to giving flowers? “There are many flower-giving traditions,” she agreed. “Far more than in Switzerland. International Woman’s Day is a big deal and men often give flowers to the women in their family and work colleagues. There’s Teacher’s Day in May and parents also give flowers to their children at the end of the school year. This practice now starts as early as kindergarten. People give flowers on name days. And, of course, there’s the Day of the Dead.”

Talking to Shläfli, I had the comforting sense that Hungary’s floral traditions were somehow sacrosanct. But when I spoke to my partner’s florist friend, Erzsébet, I discovered this wasn’t the case at all.

Changing Floral Ways

Erzsébet, who makes my partner’s wreaths, trained for many years to become a florist. While she was still learning, she began teaching floristry to other students. According to Erzsébet, it took her ten years to become a flowermeister or, in her case, flowermeistress.

“In the old times,” Erzsébet said, “it was more popular to buy flowers in Hungary. Traditionally, every family gave flowers on special occasions. Now, perhaps because good flowers have become more expensive, people often give chocolates instead. Also, names are changing in Hungary. Not so long ago, flower shops knew that they could sell plenty of flowers on name days because we only had the traditional names – Mária, Katalin, Éva, and so on. Now that people are giving their children all kinds of names, flower shops can’t expect to do good business on name days in the way they used to.”

Fashions are changing too. “Traditionally, in Hungary, people didn’t put flowers in vases so much. They would buy floral arrangements that had already been created. Now people will even bring their own flowers to restaurants for celebrations and all the restaurants do is provide the vases.”

What about the Day of the Dead? “It’s as popular as ever. The closer we get to it, the harder it becomes to buy good material for wreaths. Everything has sold out.”

So why is the Day of the Dead so popular in Hungary?

An Unlikely Social Gathering

My partner tells me that the reason the Day of the Dead became such an extraordinary event in Hungary has much to do with the Socialists. Because going to church was frowned upon, Hungarians poured all their innate mysticism into the Day of the Dead, which the authorities couldn’t stop.

This is why, in the week leading up to that day, Hungarian graveyards are every bit as weird and wonderful as those of Spain, Mexico and other Latino countries. Despite that the fact that that Hungary is not overwhelmingly Catholic.

I’d say that the Day of the Dead allows all Hungarians to indulge in what I would call their cheerfully innate morbidness. For example, we take a photo of my partner at her father’s grave every year. Somewhere, apparently, there’s a photograph album of the whole family filled only with pictures taken at various graves over the years.

But even though it’s taken me some time to get used to the Hungarian way of death, I think it’s wonderful. There’s something deeply comforting about communing with the dead as if they were still present, especially in a wintry graveyard at twilight filled with gigantic floral arrangements, ornate wreaths and thousands of flickering candles.