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Szent Mikulás and the Bright Side of Being ill in Hungary

David Holzer is introduced to yet another little-explored aspect of Hungarian cultural life: the rituals of being sick.

Mikulás or Miklós is the Hungarian Saint Nicholas, for many the “original” Santa Claus, shown here in an illustration from the 1900s.

I’ve not been fighting fit for the past week. While this hasn’t been much fun at all, it has given me a whole new insight into Hungarian life.  

Like so much in this country, it seems to me that being ill here involves being part of a ritual that hasn’t changed in years. But in a good way, mercifully. As soon as it was clear that whatever sneaky virus it was that laid me low wasn’t going away overnight, my Hungarian partner began the healing ritual.

For the first couple of days I ate nothing but Keksz Household Biscuits, probably the dullest biscuit I’ve ever tasted. Although they’re sweet, in the way a piece of wood is, Keksz are so dry that dipping them in tea isn’t a cozy indulgence. It’s a necessity.

Interestingly enough – to me, anyway, in a mildly feverish way – I first assumed that Keksz Household Biscuits were some relic of the socialist years. They’re certainly boring enough. But they’re not. Keksz only date back three decades. Or maybe they’re modelled on a biscuit munched by young chess-players at summer camps.

That English wording in the title – “Household Biscuits” – should have been a giveaway. I guess Keksz were created in an attempt to corner the world market in extraordinarily dull biscuits that people only ever eat when they’re ill. Given that this is my first encounter with the mighty Keksz, the manufacturer’s visionary strategy failed somewhat.

But handfuls of Keksz and tea did get me through that first couple of days. As did the medicinal water of Salvus.

Remarkable Cure All

According to the Salvus website, Salvus Spa Water from Bükkszek, at the western foot of the Bükk mountains, is the most popular spa water in Hungary. Whether that’s true or not, Salvus is certainly a most remarkable water.

Apart from being a treatment for, among other things, diabetes, smoking problems, respiratory diseases, stomach ulcers, asthma and laryngitis, Salvus also cures nettle rash. So now you know.

Unlike most spa waters, Salvus is not a water you’d quaff. It’s recommended that you drink Salvus in small doses, sip by sip. After taking a large mouthful, I could understand why. The water is so thick with mineral goodness it’s almost gravel.

I continued on with the Salvus when I entered the second phase of my ritual cure. This was to eat nothing but potatoes for two days, followed by another two days of white rice only.

And now another character entered into my world. I couldn’t find out anything about Dr. Theiss Lándzsás útifü szirup in English online. But I actually preferred this to arriving at a slick website that told me far more than I needed to know about what I was drinking.

Miracle Cure

I was free to picture Dr. Theiss as a rosy-cheeked character with pince-nez glasses, a walrus moustache and a florid handkerchief poking out of the top pocket of his white coat, bustling around a sanatorium in the foothills of the No-idea-where mountains as he invented his miracle cure.

I’m not saying it is miraculous, but Dr. Theiss Lándzsás útifü szirup is by far the best elixir for shifting stubborn catarrh I’ve ever encountered. A spoonful twice a day was enough to make me feel like a boulder was being rolled off my chest.

One morning I found myself singing “Lily the Pink”, that 1968 song by the Scaffold with its reference to a “medicinal compound, most efficacious in every case”. I knew I was truly on the mend.

By then, the next ritual I had to look forward to was Szent Mikulás night on December 5.

Szent Mikulás

Up until now, my track record with remembering Szent Mikulás even has a night hasn’t been good. I’ve been completely mystified when, on the morning of the sixth, my partner has presented me with a chocolate Santa. But I’m determined that, this year, I won’t have to resort to the lame excuse that “We don’t have Szent Mikulás in my country.”

If you don’t already know, Mikulás or Miklós is the Hungarian Saint Nicholas although he is becoming more and more like Santa Claus. He arrives on December 6 (the saint’s feast day) and leaves before Christmas. On December 5, Hungarian children traditionally placed a boot or a shoe on their windowsill for Mikulás to fill with gifts of fruits, candies and, increasingly, toys.

Mikulás is accompanied by the splendid Krampusz when he arrives in Hungary. Found in much of Central and Eastern and even Northern Europe, but especially in Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia, Krampusz is a nasty elf, not unlike the god Pan or the Devil, who punishes bad children by leaving them (awccording to various traditions) pieces of coal, carrot or potatoes instead of gifts. In Hungary, it is a virgács, a gold or bronze colored birch switch. No doubt, most children usually wake up to a combination of gifts and a switch.

Taken together, the experience of being ill in Hungary and looking forward to Szent Mikulás night reminded me of why it’s often so fascinating to live in this country.

In the United Kingdom, we’ve pretty much lost our traditions and rituals. If we fall ill, we dose ourselves with soulless concoctions mass-manufactured and marketed by gigantic, faceless multinational corporations. There’s no ceremony in getting well.

What we laughingly call the “festive season” is essentially an excuse to buy as much pointless rubbish for each other as we possibly can. It’s as if Christmas is simply a brief time out before all the gorging on conspicuous consumption can commence all over again. No matter how much we harrumph about how terrible this is, we’re all suckers for the bright and shiny stuff as long as it’s marketed to us in a way that makes us feel special. We’re all as guilty as each other.

So, give me rituals and peculiar preparations by people with unpronounceable names any day. And this year I’ll be asking my partner for a virgács on Szent Mikulás. My life simply won’t be complete without a bundle of twigs painted gold for no reason I can fathom.