The plane descends into the clouds. As the grey clouds scatter, they reveal the country beneath – snowy mountaintops, and then frozen, tough ground with naked trees.
Outside the plane, the cold air feels sharp like tiny knives on the cheeks and it’s hard to breathe.
We get inside a black van, my mother-in-law sits in the front and speaks Hungarian with the driver. The view from the window never changes, it’s the same naked trees, the same cold ground, the same grey skies. Sometimes there’s a small house.
It was already dark when we arrived at Mohács. Nobody was outside and the few street-lamps lost the battle against the darkness, as if the cold makes the lights smaller. The pavement was made of grey stones and the houses seemed almost medieval.
Then, a monster emerged from withing the darkness.
First, the sound of the bells, heavy bronze cattle-bells, ringing on every step. Then its shape, almost human but taller, wider, with two horns on its head. It is white and wooly like a sheep and holding a shepherd stick with its tiny human hand. The face is a wooden mask, carved into a hideous smile.
And then, looking closely, one can see a familiar shape carved in the crooked end of the stick.
It’s a dick.
This guy is holding a huge, wooden dick.
Welcome to the Busójárás Carnival!
Since the Middle Ages, it is celebrated every year in February.
The name stands for Busó Walking – Busó meaning the name of those creatures. The men wear these demon costumes, made of wool with a grotesque hand-made wooden face, making a racket with big iron bells tied to their waist. The women are dressed in traditional embroidered dresses as a black lace veil covers their faces, exposing only eyes. Their hairs are tied to a neat bun with a red ribbon. Children are part of it, too – it is very common to see tiny Busó puppies and baby-witches.
The only rule is, there are no rules.
They are rude, they are drunk, and they are hilarious.
The festival signifies two things.
First, it is told that when the Turcs ruled there, the locals managed to scare them away by wearing those costumes.
Second, is to scare the harsh winter away and welcome the spring. These kinds of festivals are celebrated in many East-Europian countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.
Photographer Charles Fréger has a beautiful series of those. Find it here.
We traveled there with Roni’s family – his parents and two brothers.
We stayed there for five days and lived in a charming, cozy apartment on the main street.
After we settled down and chose rooms for ourselves, we went outside and walked along the main street. It was all just starting, some Busós were walking and jingling their bells and people were settling their stalls. We arrived at the central park where the fair began and order delicious food from a stall – we had this crazy, comforting dinner of fatty meats, with pickled vegetables and hot wine.
A few men in costumes but without the masks invited us to drink with them. Their heads looked tiny, peeking from the clumsy monstrous fur. They had a flask filled with pálinka, which they shared with us. Pálinka is a traditional Hungarian drink but it is popular all around East Europe. It is clear and made of fermented fruits, mostly plums but also cherries, peaches, apples and more.
As the days passed, the festival got bigger and crazier. They had stalls all over the main streets and dozens of people, with or without costumes, marched around in groups. Some of them had cars, decorated with hay, horns, dried chilies, dried corn, masks.
Some of the participants make their own interpretation for the costumes, and dress up as witches or old women. A groups of classic witches dress all in black with horrific make-up passed by us, dragging a black coffin on wheels decorated with skulls behind them.
The main street led to a pastoral scenery by the Danube river. On the other bank stood a dark forest, with naked tree trunks. An old lady with a baby carriage came by. She raised her tiny head to look at us – it was a man in a costume, wearing a shawl over his head and a bright red lipstick. He then raised the hem of the skirt, to show us fake pubic hairs he glued to his underwear to represent a hairy vagina.
Not to mention what he had on the back part of his panties.
He took me to see the baby – a tiny Busó-doll laid there, with a huge smile on its wooden face. The man pulled a string, and a wooden dick rose from the carriage as if the baby had a boner.
Then he gave Roni a juicy kiss on his cheek, leaving a red lipstick mark, and marched away.
Everything was busy and crowded, day and night.
There were stalls everywhere, some for artist and some for food and drinks.
I’d like to focus on the drinks for a minute here.
It is so cold in there, it hurts. Just breathing the air might freeze you from inside, and it’s hard to even open your eyes. Then, you run into a man standing by a big, covered pot, laid on a bonfire. He smiles and opens the lid a little, just enough to let the sweet smell reach you. Inside, there’s a hot wine cooking slowly with some fruits. He scoops some of it with a ladle into a paper cup, and as you sip from it, you forget about all the cold weather.
If you stay for a bit longer, you can get a shot of Unicum. This dark, bitter-sweet digestif, might take a while to get used to, but it so worth it. Made of more than forty kinds of fermented herbs, the Unicum burns its way down your throat and calms down every ache or pain you have in your guts, and very effective against heartburns.
Speaking of heartburns, let’s talk about the food.
Fatty, juicy, spicy, hot, sleazy. Meat, sausages, fish soups, some pickles, all soaked in paprika.
Delicious, but regrettable in the long term. After a week of this, all I could eat for a few days without hating my life was lettuce.
And the artists. So many different hand-made crafts were sold everywhere, from tiny glass sculptures and Busó dolls to houseware and leather clothing. Some also perform.
A small man sat in a birdcage and whistled with a special tiny pipe he held inside his mouth, while pretend-playing on a fake violin with a wooden spoon. Next to him, stood another man and gave the tempo with an instrument made of wood and leader, making a funny clumsy sound.
On the freezing nights, they warm up with booze.
As the stalls begin to close everything seems to be empty, besides the local bar.
It is so crowded inside you can hardly move, and so warm you can lose the coat, gloves, hat and sweater. The go-to drinks are beer, obviously, and pálinka. Big, loud groups of young men sit there around the tables, sing and laugh in deep voices. Everything is decorated in a sort of Medival style, with dark heavy furniture and flags on the walls.
Outside, drunk groups of Busós are stumbling the streets and feasting on their flasks of pálinka. It is utterly quiet, besides the iron bells around their thighs and their singing.
The last day is a parade. People from near cities gather as all the groups of Busós and witches march, showing off their hand-made costumes and decorated cars and wagons. Traditional music plays in the central square, where thousands of people gather in the otherwise bleak town. In the center, there is a huge pile of woods and twigs, ready to be set on fire.
At night, they light the big pile and celebrate around the huge bonfire. Everybody’s drunk and loud, and sassy.
It is as if they let it all out, all the vulgarity and shamelessness they keep inside throughout the year. And being there, and to witness this, is what makes me Lucky.