A Traditional Hungarian Christmas Dinner: 18 Dishes

by Ella

Christmas in Hungary is a time of joy, family gatherings, and sumptuous feasts that reflect the country’s rich culinary heritage. Hungarian Christmas dinners are steeped in tradition, combining time-honored recipes, local ingredients, and a festive spirit that brings families together. This article will take you on a culinary journey through a traditional Hungarian Christmas dinner, exploring the key dishes, their significance, and the customs that make this holiday meal so special.

The Spirit of Christmas in Hungary

Advent and Christmas Preparations

The Christmas season in Hungary begins with Advent, a period of preparation and anticipation that starts four weeks before Christmas. Advent wreaths with four candles are common in Hungarian homes, with one candle lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve. This period is marked by various traditions, including baking, decorating, and attending church services.


Christmas Eve: Szenteste

In Hungary, Christmas Eve, or Szenteste, is the most important part of the Christmas celebration. It is the night when families gather to decorate the Christmas tree, exchange gifts, and enjoy a festive meal. The dinner on Christmas Eve is the highlight of the holiday, featuring an array of traditional dishes that have been passed down through generations.


See Also: 8 Essential Dishes of a Mexican Christmas Dinner


The Traditional Hungarian Christmas Dinner Menu

A Hungarian Christmas dinner is a multi-course feast that typically includes appetizers, soups, main courses, desserts, and beverages. Each dish carries its own significance and is prepared with great care and attention to tradition.


Appetizers and Starters

1. Halászlé (Fisherman’s Soup)

One of the most iconic dishes on the Hungarian Christmas table is Halászlé, a spicy fish soup made from various freshwater fish such as carp, catfish, or pike. The soup is seasoned with generous amounts of paprika, giving it a distinctive red color and robust flavor. Traditionally, Halászlé is cooked in a large pot over an open fire, but it is also prepared on stovetops in modern kitchens.

The recipe for Halászlé varies by region, with the most famous versions coming from the areas along the Danube and Tisza rivers. The Szegedi and Bajai versions are particularly well-known, each with its own unique preparation method and ingredients.

2. Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Töltött Káposzta)

Stuffed cabbage rolls, or Töltött Káposzta, are another beloved starter. These rolls consist of cabbage leaves filled with a mixture of minced pork, rice, onions, and spices. They are slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce, often with pieces of smoked pork or sausage added for extra flavor. This dish is hearty and flavorful, embodying the essence of Hungarian comfort food.

3. Liver Pâté (Májkrém)

Liver pâté, made from pork or goose liver, is commonly served as an appetizer. It is typically spread on slices of fresh bread or toast and garnished with pickles or onions. The pâté is smooth and rich, providing a luxurious start to the meal.


4. Újházi Tyúkhúsleves (Újházi Chicken Soup)

Újházi Tyúkhúsleves, a traditional Hungarian chicken soup, is often served at Christmas dinners. Named after Ede Újházi, a famous Hungarian actor, this soup is made with chicken, root vegetables, and vermicelli noodles. It is seasoned with parsley and sometimes a touch of paprika, resulting in a flavorful and aromatic broth that warms the soul.

5. Bean Soup (Bableves)

Another popular soup is Bableves, a hearty bean soup made with smoked ham hocks, beans, root vegetables, and spices. The soup is thick and satisfying, often served with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of rustic bread.

Main Courses

6. Roast Goose or Duck

Roast goose or duck is often the centerpiece of a Hungarian Christmas dinner. The bird is typically seasoned with garlic, marjoram, and paprika before being roasted to perfection. The meat is tender and flavorful, with a crispy skin that adds to the dish’s appeal. Roast potatoes, red cabbage, and dumplings are common accompaniments.

7. Fish Dishes

In addition to Halászlé, fish dishes are prominent on the Hungarian Christmas table. Fried carp is a traditional favorite, usually breaded and fried until golden brown. It is often served with potato salad or pickled vegetables. In some regions, baked fish with a lemon and herb crust is also popular.

8. Pork Dishes

Pork is a staple in Hungarian cuisine, and Christmas dinner is no exception. Roast pork loin or leg, seasoned with garlic and caraway seeds, is a common main course. It is typically served with sauerkraut, potatoes, and bread dumplings.

Side Dishes

9. Sauerkraut (Savanyú Káposzta)

Sauerkraut, or Savanyú Káposzta, is a traditional side dish made from fermented cabbage. It is tangy and slightly sour, providing a refreshing contrast to the rich flavors of the main courses. Sauerkraut is often cooked with smoked pork or bacon for added depth of flavor.

10. Potato Salad (Burgonyasaláta)

Hungarian potato salad is a creamy and tangy side dish made with boiled potatoes, onions, pickles, and a dressing of mayonnaise, mustard, and vinegar. It is a perfect complement to fried fish or roast meats.

11. Red Cabbage (Vörös Káposzta)

Sweet and sour red cabbage is another traditional side dish. It is made by slow-cooking shredded red cabbage with apples, onions, vinegar, and sugar. The result is a flavorful and colorful accompaniment to the main courses.


12. Beigli (Walnut and Poppy Seed Rolls)

Beigli is a quintessential Hungarian Christmas dessert. These rolls are made with a sweet yeast dough filled with either a walnut or poppy seed filling. They are rolled up, baked until golden, and often dusted with powdered sugar. The intricate swirls of filling and dough make Beigli not only delicious but also visually appealing.

13. Szaloncukor (Salon Candy)

Szaloncukor is a type of Hungarian Christmas candy traditionally used to decorate the Christmas tree. These candies are typically fondant-covered in chocolate and come in various flavors, such as vanilla, raspberry, and caramel. Families enjoy picking these treats off the tree throughout the holiday season.

14. Mézeskalács (Honey Cakes)

Mézeskalács, or Hungarian honey cakes, are similar to gingerbread cookies. They are made with honey, spices, and flour, and often decorated with intricate icing patterns. These cookies are a festive and aromatic addition to the Christmas dessert table.

15. Dobos Torte

While not exclusively a Christmas dessert, Dobos Torte is a beloved Hungarian cake that often makes an appearance during the holidays. This multi-layered sponge cake is filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with a caramel glaze. The combination of textures and flavors makes it a decadent treat for any celebration.


16. Pálinka

Pálinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, is often served as an aperitif or digestif during Christmas celebrations. Made from a variety of fruits, such as plums, apricots, and cherries, Pálinka is potent and aromatic, embodying the essence of Hungarian spirit-making.

17. Mulled Wine (Forralt Bor)

Mulled wine, or Forralt Bor, is a popular beverage during the cold winter months. It is made by heating red wine with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise, along with citrus fruits and a touch of honey or sugar. The warm, spiced wine is perfect for sipping by the fire on Christmas Eve.

18. Tokaji Wine

Hungary is renowned for its Tokaji wine, a sweet dessert wine made from grapes affected by noble rot. Tokaji is often enjoyed with dessert or cheese, providing a luxurious end to the Christmas meal.

Customs and Traditions Surrounding the Hungarian Christmas Dinner

Fasting and Feasting

In many Hungarian households, it is customary to fast on Christmas Eve until the festive dinner is served. This fasting period is seen as a time of reflection and anticipation, heightening the enjoyment of the meal when it is finally time to eat.

Blessing the Food

Before the meal begins, it is common for a family member to say a blessing or prayer, giving thanks for the food and the company of loved ones. This moment of gratitude sets a reverent tone for the meal.

Sharing and Generosity

Christmas in Hungary is a time for sharing and generosity. It is not uncommon for families to prepare extra food to share with neighbors, friends, or those in need. This spirit of giving and community is a core aspect of the holiday.

Singing Carols

After dinner, it is traditional for families to gather around the Christmas tree and sing carols. Hungarian Christmas carols, or “karácsonyi dalok,” are beautiful and heartfelt, often telling the story of the Nativity and the joy of the season.

See Also: 4 Components of a Traditional Austrian Christmas Dinner


A traditional Hungarian Christmas dinner is a feast for the senses, filled with rich flavors, aromatic spices, and heartfelt customs. From the savory appetizers and hearty soups to the indulgent main courses and delightful desserts, each dish carries a piece of Hungary’s culinary heritage. This festive meal is more than just food; it is a celebration of family, tradition, and the joy of the holiday season. Whether you are of Hungarian descent or simply looking to experience a new culture, embracing the traditions of a Hungarian Christmas dinner can add warmth and richness to your holiday celebrations.



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