August 20th is a state holiday in Hungary that celebrates the birth of the nation. It is publicly celebrated in much the same way as the Fourth of July in the United States: fireworks, parades, raising of the national flag, air shows and military demonstrations. But one tradition that is purely Hungarian is the parading of the Holy Right. That is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen that is generally kept on display in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, but on August 20th it is taken out and paraded around town with great pageantry. If only we had George Washington’s teeth preserved to march about in this country!
Stephen was the first Christian King of Hungary and was canonized by Pope Gregory VII on August 20th, 1083 for uniting Hungary under Christianity as well as his prolific building of Roman Catholic churches around the country. That public works program is probably how he got to be the patron saint of masons, stonecutters and bricklayers in addition to being the patron saint of Hungary, kings and children who are dying. That last one is a little confusing, and depressing, but evidence of what a well rounded guy he was, I guess. So much so, that the Eastern Orthodox Church was finally able to overlook the snub of Stephen choosing Rome over Constantinople for his capital of Christianity and made Stephen a saint on their side of the Catholic fence as well in the year 2000. This is an honor that has never been bestowed on any Roman Catholic saint since the two sects split in 1054, demonstrating what a crack PR time Stephen had even a thousand years after his death.
Stephen is closely tied with the Holy Crown of Hungary, which is often called, The Crown of St. Stephen. According to Tradition, Pope Silvester II and Holy Roman Emporer Otto III sent a jeweled crown to Stephen for his coronation on Christmas Day 1000 or January 1, 1001, recognizing Hungary as independent nation for the first time. The interesting thing about the crown of Hungary is that it has legal personhood. The crown itself rules the country, the king is just a vessel for the divine power of the crown… takes a little of the pride of kingship out of a job that is otherwise pretty fraught with stress, but I guess it also relieves the king of a some responsibility too… “The crown made me do it” would come in handy as a scapegoat for any world leader.
The August 20th celebration is also the farewell to summer bash in Hungary. A popular Hungarian summertime party tradition is the Szalonnasütés or Bacon Cookout. This is akin to an American backyard BBQ, but instead of hotdogs and hamburgers, bacon is roasted on spits over open flame, and the bacon fat is let to drip onto rye bread with cabbage, onions and radishes to make a porktacular, fatty delicious sandwich. Serve this with Hungarian Potato Salad and Cucumber Salad.
If you have a guest of honor, it might be fun to buy or make a Crown of St. Stephen for that person to wear.
If no one on your guest list is deserving of particular distinction, you can wear the crown yourself and rule the party as the voice of the divine headpiece. If you have children at your party, or hipster adults who enjoy crafting, you could set up a craft table where everyone can make their own mighty crown. With a few sheets of craft foam, an assortment of patterns, scissors, some foam stick-ons and maybe a little glitter-glue, all your guests can become possessed with the power of their own crown.
The piece-de-resistance for a successful St. Stephen’s celebration, is the parading of the Holy Right. Just because the true relic resides under lock and key in Budapest doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate with the same pageantry as the Hungarians. Construct a replica of the hand out of food and parade it through your gathering, and your guests will be feel compelled to follow you with reverence.
*A special thanks to Machaela Cavanaugh for the beautiful photos of the food, Michael Cavanaugh for use of his fantastic camera, Maureen Cavanaugh for the amazing sculptural work and Evelyn Barrett for the beautiful location.
Also a big thank you to all of my sous-chefs.