Today is a national holiday in Hungary because on the Hungarian liturgical calendar August 20th is the name day of István, hence the Day of St. Stephen. Initially Catholic countries designated particular days of the calendar to honor saints, but soon enough the name day tradition spread beyond the realm of the saints. What to do with such non-saintly names as Adam and Eve? They were accommodated, but they had to share a day, Christmas Eve. (Talk about a bummer!) Then came all those pagan names that couldn't be deprived, so pagans got their own name days. After a while on any given day there could be two or three names honored. A person's name day remains a celebratory event in Hungary, but it comes with its own downside, especially for women. Friends and acquaintances appear unannounced with flowers; in return they expect food. Nice little holiday for her!
I checked name days in a fair number of countries and it seems that August 20th is Stephen's Day only in Hungary in commemoration of his canonization in 1083. He was born as Vajk, a name of Turkic origin meaning "rich." His father's name was Géza (also of Turkic origin). He was the most important chieftain of the Magyars but was obviously a transitional figure since he was already referred to as "prince" (fejedelem). According to most historians it was Géza who began his people's conversion to Christianity. Although there is a late nineteenth-century painting entitled "The Baptism of Stephen" in which he is depicted as an adult, most likely he was baptized early in life. According to one of the Legends of St. Stephen, the bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert, ministered the baptismal rite to Stephen.
Géza obviously envisaged a westward orientation for Hungary because he made arrangements for his son's marriage to Gisella of Bavaria, daughter of Henry the Wrangler (951-995) and sister of Henry II, later Holy Roman Emperor. Géza died in 997; according to western customs his son Stephen would have automatically succeeded him. But that was contrary to the old Hungarian (and Slavic) custom where succession followed seniority. Stephen's older cousin first had to be defeated (and killed) before Stephen could rightfully claim the position of prince. Once feeling secure in his position, he turned to Pope Sylvester II and asked for a crown in recognition of his kingship. I might mention here that the so-called Holy Crown of St. Stephen is not the crown Stephen received from Rome. Perhaps one day more about the intriguing story of the crown. However, the sceptre and the coronation cloak do date from 1000.
Stephen's importance cannot be overestimated in the history of the country; even today August 20th is considered the birthday of Hungary. When the first parliament of the Third Republic convened in 1990 a decision was made about which national holiday to consider paramount. There were three contenders: March 15, celebrating the 1848-1849 revolution and the war of independence; October 23, the day of the outbreak of the uprising against the Hungarian communist leadership and Russian occupation; and August 20. They decided on August 20. Not everybody agreed. The liberals and socialists then in opposition would have preferred March 15th as the birthday of the modern, democratic Hungary. However, it seems that while March 15th and October 23rd are contentious holidays, where left and right simply cannot agree or celebrate together, August 20th usually comes and goes without any upheaval. Once again, August 20th passed without incident.
In the morning, in front of the parliament building in the presence of the president, prime minister, speaker of the house, and head of the constitutional court, a huge Hungarian flag was raised very slowly to the tune of the mournful Hungarian national anthem. Earlier a fancy military unit arrived as the central military band played the Rákóczi March. Apparently far away from the official event about twenty people tried to disrupt the proceedings but to no avail. Later, on Heroes' Square the new graduates of the military and the police academies took their oaths. At night there was about half an hour of fireworks over the Danube.
One interesting twist. The organizers of today's festivities invited groups immersed in the crafts and customs of the late tenth and early eleventh century to give demonstrations that would appeal to children. I assume that this was an attempt to neutralize those people who show their opposition to the goverment by returning to the ancient ways of Hungarians. And indeed why not invite them to show what they can do when it comes to ironworks, leatherworks, horsemanship, old jewelry making? I'm sure that not only children but adults enjoyed their demonstrations. And perhaps the traditionalists will start to believe that the government is "national" after all.