March 15th – Hungarian National Holiday

Why would anyone want to celebrate a noble endeavor that failed miserably? How can you take part, and avoid hurting the feelings of locals? How do you impress them after reading this post? And what does it all have to do with beer? All you need to know about the BIG March 15 national holiday in Hungary.

What is being celebrated on March 15?

Suppose you lived in a country that lost just about every war in the last five hundred years, most of which time it spent being occupied by bigger neighbors – on national holidays, you would still want to celebrate something, right? For us Hungarians, the solution is to get together and celebrate the points in history when at least we tried.

As the outcome was usually pretty similar, you can tell these occasions apart by the friendly neighbor Hungary celebrates having revolted against – in fall, Hungarians celebrate the crushed 1956 revolution against the Soviet Union, and right in the middle of March, the 1848-49 uprising against the Habsburgs.

So why is it worth celebrating if it failed? In 1848, the Hungarian nation united to fight for freedom, and this eventually led to the creation of Austria-Hungary, which meant Hungarians started to have more say in politics after the reconciliation with Austria. And while Hungarians ended up losing, their generals as well as soldiers deserve praise for putting out their best effort, against all odds, for such a long time. The brilliant chemist turned general who surrendered in 1849, named Artúr Görgei, was often portrayed as a traitor for having “given up”; but in reality, his strategic genius had helped Hungarians stick it out for so long in the first place.

What does it have to do with beer?

Legend has it that the Austrians clinked their glasses of beer over the execution of the Hungarian generals. Hungarians, in turn, pledged to go 150 years (until 1999!) without doing so. 1999 was a major turning point in Hungarian pub life, as we slowly learned to clink glasses of beer again without guilt. Some hardcore fanatics still don’t do it – don’t be surprised if some otherwise locals refuse to.

So is this a sensitive topic?

Other than the beer history, not really. Despite the negative outcome (downright, dismal failure), 1848 was a long time ago. Most young people wouldn’t feel an immediate connection, and frankly, many would just remember the boring celebrations every spring in elementary school. You can definitely go out and meet locals on the night of March 15, as on any other day. Don’t be surprised if many people will be wearing a red-white-green pin (the colors of the Hungarian flag) in remembrance.

Do I have to be careful?

The one thing that I would warn you about is politics: this is a big national holiday that parties usually use to try to score points with, usually through mobilizing voters, especially now that we’re really close to the April 8 elections. The governing right-wing party is organizing a big “Peace March” in Budapest, and a joke party called the Two-Tailed Dogs want to do their own parody peace march. A student initiative are planning a demonstration outside the Opera House, while the prime minister is scheduled to deliver a speech outside the Parliament.

Are most of stores closed?

Yes, as it is a national holiday – it’s best to do any shopping the day before. Cafés and restaurants in the downtown are usually open – you can check at the reception desk in Maverick!

Any freebies in sight?

Oh yes, visitors can usually go see the holy crown in the Parliament for free on this day. There are also mostly family-oriented events on the Castle Hill and several museums.

How do I impress my Hungarian friends without reading whole books on this subject?

Fun fact #1: The young emperor who crushed the freedom fight and executed the Hungarian generals to set an example once and for all, went on to start the First World War more than half a century later. Thanks a bunch, Franz Joseph!

Fun fact #2: The Polish hero of the Hungarian freedom fight, General Bem escaped to Turkey, and avoided being extradited by converting to Islam and taking a job in the Ottoman army – and died in Aleppo (today’s Syria) under the name Murat Pasha.

Fun fact #3: Today a prime tourist destination above the downtown, the fancy Citadella on Gellért Hill was built by Austrians after the crushed freedom fight to remind Hungarians never to dare rise up again.