Known locally as “farsang,” the Budapest Carnival is colourful, festive…and frequently bizarre
Who doesn’t love a good excuse for a party? Like many other carnivals around the world (Rio Carnival, New Orleans Mardi Gras) the Budapest Carnival season is an almighty blow out before the austerity of Lent begins, giving us 40 days to reflect on our excesses and nurse our hangovers. Well, for those who observe Lent at least.
In Hungary things are done a little differently. The Budapest Carnival season, known locally as Farsang, starts just after Epiphany and is an almost endless series of masquerades and balls, coupled with the noisy warding off of spirits, winter, Turks or any combination of the above. By the time Ash Wednesday comes around the Hungarians are exhausted, fatter, and ready to sit quietly in the corner until Easter arrives.
The traditions in place have been nurtured and followed for centuries, and while they often have the same religious roots, the bizarre adaptations mean each of them has a life of their own. The Budapest Carnival season is a festival of life, colour and joviality to be enjoyed by all, regardless of religious belief. For many, it has become more than a social event, with traditional events like Busójárás expressing the country’s roots and culture, while bidding farewell to winter and heartily welcoming the arrival of spring.
The first important event of the Budapest Carnival Season is the International Circus Festival, which happens on alternate years, and sees performers from all over the country come together for a show that celebrates everything from the sublime to the ridiculous – gymnasts and fire eaters to stilt walkers and clowns.
One of the main elements of the Budapest Carnival season is known as Busójárás, which takes place in the town of Mohács, on the banks of the Danube River. Here the traditionally Croat population dress up as “Busós” in large, somewhat terrifying masks with horns and oversized teeth, teamed with a sheepskin costume covering the body from head to toe.
It’s believed that in the 17th Century, villagers dressed up as Busós to scare away the invading Turkish forces. Today, the custom is still continued as a celebration of that triumph, and tradition dictates that it is the Busós who are tasked with providing the villagers with a ‘wake-up call’ after the arduous winter period.
A noisy parade through the city begins with 500-odd Busós arriving in rowboats on the Danube River, as huge feasts, balls, parties, fireworks and bonfires signal the start of the celebrations.
As with all carnivals, music plays an important role during the event – and although Hungarian folk music is often written in slower, more sombre tones, Carnival brings out a faster, more upbeat take on traditional tunes, whipping the crowds and revellers up into an ecstatic frenzy…or at least that’s the plan.
Although Busójárás is the main event, and the one that’s recognised around the world, there are a lot of other smaller events, festivals and masked balls that happen throughout Budapest Carnival season. Every year the Museum of Fine Arts hold a costume ball for the good and the great of Hungary, where intrigue and decorum get lost behind ornate masks.
The day after Ash Wednesday has become known as Fat Thursday, where the restaurants of Budapest throw open their doors for one final celebration of food and wine before the fasting commences. One of the best-loved local delicacies is the Carnival Doughnut, which serves the dual purpose of feeding the energetic hordes while staving off alcoholic oblivion with a little stodge.
Whether you call it Fasching (German), Carnevale (Italian) or just plain old Carnival, Budapest’s Farsang offers its own special take on these universal traditions. With a few unexpected surprises thrown in.