It takes a village to get a 50-foot Christmas tree into a Hungarian school’s common area. On a gray afternoon in early December, seemingly half of my school’s student body was deputized to help city workers drag an enormous fir into our entrance hall. Class was supposedly in session, but many students exempt from the corvée managed to find their way over to yell encouragement and snap photos of their classmates. Once the students had dragged in the tree, someone used a chainsaw to shape the base of the trunk for an oversized stand. Why this extremely noisy job was done in the school common area while class was in session, and not somewhere outside, is a Christmas mystery on par with the Virgin Birth. After much difficulty, and thanks to the creative use of several ropes, a ladder, and the school’s load-bearing columns, the students finally raised the massive tree. Christmas season in Hungary had officially begun.
The school where I teach is a public institution, but its enthusiastic observance of the Christmas season would put many American parochial academies to shame. From Christmas markets to school pageants, Hungarians celebrate the holiday with a verve that is both charming and somewhat disorienting to an American accustomed to our secular public square. In this corner of Eastern Europe, the War on Christmas is over, and Christmas has decisively won.
What Christmas markets and colorful lights can’t hide, however, is the underlying weakness of Hungarian Christianity, which is gradually degrading into a collection of shallow cultural signifiers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often speaks of building a “Christian Democracy” as an alternative to Western European liberalism, but such grandiose pronouncements raise the question: what does Christian Democracy mean in a country that is gradually forgetting its Christian heritage?
From Orbán’s rhetoric to the recently revised constitution’s proud affirmation of Hungary’s “Christian culture,” the political climate in Budapest suggests near-medieval levels of piety. Just as American politicians only began referring to the United States’ Judeo-Christian heritage after the onset of secularism, these public pronouncements are best understood as a sign that all is not well within Hungary’s historic churches. Catholicism and (to a lesser extent) Calvinism have long been Hungary’s dominant religious traditions, but any theological differences have been submerged under vague nostrums about the country’s historic Christian identity. In a country whose second city, Debrecen, was once known as “the Calvinist Rome” for producing generations of combative Protestant theologians, this bland ecumenicism is particularly striking.
In Eger, a mid-sized Hungarian town two hours northeast of Budapest, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most visibly active religious communities. The native denominations have their traditions, history, and the town’s beautiful old churches, but energy and conviction are on the side of the foreign imports (Orbán’s own son is a Pentecostal preacher). Meanwhile, local enthusiasm for the Christmas season masks widespread indifference to anything that might be described as regular religious observance. In Eger, Christmas means lights, music, and festivals, not Midnight Mass.
Data on church attendance confirm this picture of a rapidly secularizing society. Although a majority of Hungarians identify as Catholic, only 12 percent regularly attend church. Less than 15 percent of Hungarians say religion is “very important” in their lives. Christmas markets, generous public subsidies to religious schools, and beautifully preserved churches have done little to arrest this steady decline.
The combination of public enthusiasm for Christian symbolism and declining religious participation is not unique to Hungary. Despite the fall of communism, church attendance throughout Eastern Europe has dropped significantly since 1990. Countries whose churches are associated with national resistance to imperial rule, such as Catholic Poland and Orthodox Serbia, are generally more pious than countries where the dominant Christian tradition was tainted by foreign interlopers. Hungarian Catholicism probably suffered from its association with the Habsburgs, and the famously secular Czech Republic is a product of the Austrians’ brutal suppression of that country’s indigenous Protestant churches. In The Good Soldier Svejk, perhaps the most notable work of 20th-century Czech literature, “son of an Archbishop” is just about the worst insult imaginable. Not coincidentally, the Czech Republic is the one country in Eastern Europe where a majority now identify as non-believers.
Regional and national variations aside, the trend line is clear: institutional Christianity is in decline, even as religious symbolism and the rhetoric of Christian identity have experienced a post-communist revival. In Hungary and the Czech Republic, the national significance of figures like Saint Stephen and Saint Wenceslas have eclipsed their religious origins. Christian traditions and symbols are gradually being repurposed by Eastern Europe’s newly reawakened national polities, which are eager to distinguish themselves from both their avowedly secular communist predecessors and the liberal, atheistic West.
There is, however, considerable tension between Christian universalism and religiously tinged nationalism. Members of the Polish clergy have vocally criticized Pope Francis’s liberal views on immigration. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church recently responded to Russia’s de facto annexation of Eastern Ukraine by officially breaking with the Moscow Patriarchate. In both cases, national identity overrode theological considerations.
Just as Eastern European nationalism is a necessary constraint on an overly ambitious European Union, the revival of distinctly national religious traditions may prove a useful corrective to theological overreach. Pious Polish Catholics are under no obligation to embrace Pope Francis’s vision of a Europe without borders, and perhaps the theological split between Ukraine and Russia will prompt the Moscow Patriarchate to reconsider its relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is possible that the persistence of Christian symbolism in Eastern Europe’s public square may yet inspire a genuine religious revival in the region.
There is, however, a less hopeful alternative. Shorn of its theological commitments, Christianity in Eastern Europe is in danger of being co-opted by a particularly narrow and mean-spirited brand of nationalism. Orbán, perhaps the most visible spokesman for Eastern Europe’s nationalist revival, is once again leading the way. His government recently banned the homeless from sleeping in public spaces, a move that has more to do with making Budapest palatable to foreign tourists than building a genuinely Christian society. A few months later, an Orbán spokesman accused those protesting a new labor law of spewing “anti-Christian hatred,” an absurd statement that reduced the Christian faith to a crude political attack.
This is not be the first time that Christianity has been ill-used by Hungarian politics. At the turn of the 20th century, the adjective “Christian” was adopted by those—usually minor members of the gentry—who wished to stress their non-Jewish, anti-Marxist, and anti-liberal bona fides. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hungary’s quasi-authoritarian regime under Admiral Horthy stressed its “Christian and National” character to similar effect. Neither Horthy nor the minor Hungarian nobility were known for their piety, and their opportunistic use of Christian rhetoric is a worrying precedent.
Christmas in Hungary is undeniably charming, and Hungarians on the whole are a generous, kind-hearted people, whatever their Sunday habits. But the gradual transformation of Eastern Europe’s great churches into museum pieces devoid of spiritual meaning is a sad fate for a region once steeped in the Christian faith. After a long period of dormancy under the Soviets, the revival of national identity is now a fact of life in Eastern Europe. How the region’s great churches will fare in this new political environment is still an open question.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.