To the founding of the Hungarian state on August 20, to the thousand-year continuity of the state and to our founding king, to Saint Stephen it’s his holiday. However, we Hungarians did not always remember him without a cloud. Even now, the shadow of the war taking place in our neighborhood and the sense of uncertainty caused by the resulting economic crisis pervade our everyday lives.
That is why it is even more important to recall the difficulties our people went through. An overview of the observance of our national holiday through historical periods is an excellent opportunity and example for this.
What do we remember on August 20? During the reign of István I on August 15, a Our Lady he inaugurated the day of the Assumption, which commemorates his ascension, as a holiday, and sensing his imminent death, the sick king offered his Christianized kingdom to the Virgin Mary on this day. The date of Memorial Day Saint László our king transferred it to August 20, because on this day in 1083, VII. Gregory raised the relics of István I on the altar in the Basilica of Székesfehérvár with the pope, thus canonizing the first Árpád– house king. This year, the light of the commemoration is also enhanced by the fact that the newly restored St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Székesfehérvár, which bears the name of our first king, was recently handed over and rededicated as part of a votive mass.
Initially, August 20 was not primarily a celebration of the founding of the state. A XIV. century Louis I (the Great) from the reign of the king, Saint Stephen’s Day was celebrated as a church holiday until 1771, when XIV. Benedict the Pope reduced the number of these, and the day of our first king was left out of the line. Maria Theresa not long after, the queen again ordered the observance of the famous day, and even made it a national holiday. Habsburg-as a ruler, he wanted to please the Hungarian order and legitimize himself and his family on the throne of our country. In 1771, he brought the hand relic of St. István to Buda, the Szent Jobb, from which it was carried in a procession through the city on August 20. The tradition of the church procession, which is still held today, thus goes back centuries, and in addition to the faithful, the main public dignitaries also honor the event with their presence. Although the state and the church are separated, our Christian roots, thanks to Saint Stephen, are deeply rooted in our history and traditions, and we should continue to build on them in the future.
The Habsburgs “gave” it, but not later they took away the opportunity to celebrate it in retaliation: after the defeat of the 1848 War of Independence, the Hungarian people could not celebrate one of, if not the most important, national memorial day for a long time. The reason for this is that our King Saint István was a symbol of the independent Hungarian state, for the restoration of which so many sacrificed their blood on the altar of freedom. The next time they could celebrate the founding of the state was in 1860, but the commemoration day could only regain its old glory after the compromise of 1867.
Between the two world wars, the celebration was supplemented by the commemoration of the restoration of Hungary, founded by St. Stephen, but mutilated by the Trianon peace decree. In Hungary, which has dwindled dramatically both territorially and in terms of population, Saint István became a symbol of strong statehood, the Hungarian kingdom, and national unity. However, August 20 could only remain a famous national day until 1945, and Hungarians could only celebrate it publicly as a church holiday until 1947. For the communist system, the holiday was not acceptable due to its religious and content, but they could not completely abolish it as a national holiday. They did not dare to abolish one of the most important holidays of Hungarians. Therefore, August 20 was rather secularized and transformed in terms of content: it was first called the Feast of the New Bread, as this is when bread is baked for the first time from freshly ground flour. and now the new, Stalinist constitutional step, the founding of a completely new, socialist state, was timed for August 20, 1949, thus becoming Constitution Day.
Until the change of regime, in 1989, he had to be remembered in this way, without any kind of church reference. however, the old traditions were revived, for example, the St. Jobb Procession, whose tradition goes back centuries, was organized again. However, the complete rehabilitation of St. Stephen’s Day had to wait until 1991: in accordance with the decision of the first freely elected Parliament in 1991, St. Stephen’s Day was elevated to the rank of the official state holiday of Hungary among the national holidays.
We can thank St. István for the spread of the Christian faith and the establishment of a solid, Christian Hungary. Did our first king think on his deathbed, when he offered our country to the Virgin, that a thousand years later his people would still live here in the Carpathian basin? Or would he have believed that Hungary, which he converted to its size and economic power, would play an important role in the defense of Western Christian civilization?
In the course of our history, the content and emphasis of the celebration of our first king and the founding of the state have changed several times. During the time of the Árpád kings, the embeddedness and strength of the ruling dynasty was demonstrated by commemorating the holy ancestor. This is how Mária Terézia wanted to legitimize her status as queen, to please the Hungarian people. Over the centuries, the character of a state or religious day of remembrance became more prominent. When they wanted to yoke the “head” of the Hungarians, they completely denied us the celebration or changed the meaning.
It is of symbolic importance that after the regime change, by taking our own destiny into our own hands again, the memory of our King Szent István and the day of the foundation of the state could also regain their former glory. Today, everyone can remember this day according to their beliefs, some with a secular view only about our founding king, and believers also about his holiness. The point is that on August 20, we all celebrate our country’s thousand-year anniversary together, at home, abroad, and Hungarian communities around the world.
Because August 20 is a community holiday, it cannot be celebrated alone. A celebration of our national unity, our history, the Hungarians who lived before us and those who will come after us, our beautiful country. In recent years, many things overshadowed the common day of remembrance – two years ago, the coronavirus epidemic was right next door – but Saint Stephen’s Day was of outstanding importance in all our historical periods, regardless of internal or external circumstances that made it difficult to remember. We must always keep this in mind.
The intention of King Szent István was to create a strong, sovereign state. He reorganized the grand principality of the Hungarians based on a tribal alliance into a unified Christian state. to his heir, St. Imre after the death of the prince, he became really sick of the knowledge that he had no one to leave the country to. However, respect for his work and his person overcame this problem. We, the heirs of the thousand-year-old Christian state, like our ancestors, have a duty to continue and protect this heritage.
The author is an analyst at the Center for Fundamental Rights.