Being caught in the embrace of two hairy men, their arms wrapped tightly around me as they shook me up and down all the while shouting madly, their bells clanging and their faces menacing – well, it wasn’t quite how I’d envisaged spending a Sunday afternoon in March.
The unique festival of Busójárás is celebrated in the town of Mohács, on the banks of the Danube. It’s so famous that it’s acknowledged by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Dating back to the eighteenth century, it’s the locals’ way of scaring away the winter. They parade through the town wearing hideous busós (masks), making quite the ruckus. It has to be modern man’s way of dusting off his cave-man tendencies and giving free reign to his neanderthal dream.
The festival itself runs from Thursday to Shrove Tuesday with the main events – the parade, the lighting of the bonfire and the floating of the coffin – all packed into Sunday. It’s the best known of Hungary’s carnivals – the season itself (Farsang) precedes Lent, starting on the feast of Epiphany (January 6th) and it ending on Ash Wednesday. If you ever wanted to see what it’s like to stock up on a good time in expectation of 40 days of fasting, don a busós and take to the streets of Mohács.
I had seen pictures, of course, but nothing quite prepared me for the childish glee that came with watching these asexual beings (perhaps they all were men but who could tell…) run riot, poking and prodding passers by with their sticks and accosting anyone who dared to make eye contact. Strange red-tipped objects occasionally protruded from the fleecy folds suggesting an even more devilish intent but they were so fleeting, it was easy to think I was imagining things. And on a Sunday. But then I saw one – for real – being paraded down the street, dangling from the end of a pole. And I did a double-take, twice. To be sure to sure. All in the name of fertility.
The masks are disconcerting. It seems that the eyes behind are looking directly at you – even if they’re not. And they get up close and personal – in your face. And you find yourself smiling inanely, hoping for a reaction but always being met with that wooden implacability. The childish antics are greeted with squeals and giggles as everyone – just everyone – gets involved. I saw one old dear chase after a hairy man to retrieve the hat he’d stolen from her head. Anyone caught in a sandwich and jiggled to within an inch of their life couldn’t help but join in the fun. Mohács, on this particular Sunday, is no place for the bad-tempered or the sulky.
Other, even more sinister-looking bodies float around in stocking masks. These are the Jankele, the helpers. The Limerick duo – The Rubberbandits – would have been right at home. Masked women regaled in bright colours brought a bit of style to the proceedings while others were brandishing their ugly genes like badges of honour. And believe me, at times, it was hard to tell what was real from what was not so good were the effects and the in-character depictions.
That evening, in defiance of every health and safety manual I’ve ever come in contact with, the bonfire was set alight. And heat was fantastic. The effigy that was winter was set alight and the crowds went mad. Sparks flew. And yet the people, phones held aloft in unison, pressed forward, capturing it all on camera. They stayed to the bitter end.
Fifteen of us made the journey from Budapest, following the call of István Fulop of the IHBC. All of us made it back. Unsinged. Tired. Replete. And in fine form. It was a great day out and an experience not to be missed.
There’s a lot to be said for living in a country that has so much on offer by way of culture. And there’s a lot more to be said for living in a country populated by a people so willing to share their culture with foreigners, be they expats or tourists. Without exception, everyone I met on Sunday was on top form, willing to pit their English against my limited Hungarian. And with a country this rich in tradition, there has to be plenty more to explore…. ahem… István? Where to next?