Busójárás: Hungary’s version of Whacking Day

The blow nearly knocked me off my feet. I was crouching down to take a photo and WHACK! I felt and heard some blunt instrument smack me right on the top of my head. I was momentarily dazed by the force of the blow and by the time I gathered myself, my assailant, a boy of about 12 dressed up in a wooly suit and wooden mask, was already halfway down the block.

“What the hell just happened?” I asked an amused group of bystanders.

“It’s Busójárás, so the young little devils like to run around and whack people,” said a young man who spoke English.

Welcome to Busójárás, Hungary’s version of Whacking Day. I’d heard about the colorful pre-Lenten carnival held in Mohacs each year but no one had warned me about the devlish little busós who run around whacking people.

Busójárás (pronounced Boo-show-yar-us) is a six-day festival that runs from February 16-21 this year. On the final day, always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, locals burn a coffin in the town square to symbolize the death of winter. The festival’s highlight, however, occurs on Sunday when the carnival march of the busós starts. Busós are the scary, wooly-cloaked men with wooden masks you see in the accompanying photos, who arrive in a convoy of rowboats on the Danube River.

The busós march all around the town in their home-made vehicles, while they attempt to frighten onlookers with cow-bells, clappers, and sticks, all the while courting women with symbolic erotic play and offering the audience wine, pálinka (a spirit) and doughnuts.

The festival was first celebrated about 300 years ago by the local Croatian Sokác minority. Depending on which version of history you subscribe to, the busós were originally supposed to scare off either the Turks or winter itself. These days, the occasion is celebrated by a broad spectrum of the local population, not just ethnic Croats. According to UNESCO, which recognized the carnival as a part of the region’s cultural heritage which was in “urgent need of safeguarding” in 2009, some 500-600 busós from about 20 different organized groups participate each year.Some of the most well-known Busójárás groups include the Devil’s Wheel, Winter Scarers, Turk Beaters, and Wine and Colo. The kids who run around terrorizing people like me are called kisbusós (little busós). Female “fair” busós wear folk costumes and don veils to cover their faces. There is also some gender role playing as well- men who dress up like fair busós and vice versa.

In addition to the busó march, the festival also features folk dancing, live music and a variety of other events. Vendors sell food, drinks, local handicrafts and also a variety of junk made in China. If you plan to experience Busójárás, consider using Pécs, a lively city near the borders with Serbia and Croatia, as a base. But whatever you do, keep your eyes peeled and try not to get whacked.