Szent István (c. 975-1038) was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarian Conquerors in the Carpathian Basin and the first Christian king of Hungary crowned by Pope Sylvester II. He had fought for the unity of Hungary against pagan Hungarian warriors as well as for the independence against the Western European Christian troops. Finally, in 1000 AD, he founded the Kingdom of Hungary, which soon became an integral part of Europe as a well-organized, modern and independent country.
The founding of the new country included the creation of both government and ecclesiastical institutions. Szent István established the county system of public administration, which was organized around the Hungarian castles. He had law books written, which covered both ecclesiastical and secular laws in accordance with the Western European practice of the time. He minted his own silver denar, the Lancea Regis [the King’s Spear], which became popular throughout Europe. The most important elements of his tax system were the tithe paid to the churches and the market duties, one-third of which went to the county chief and two-thirds to the king. The king established ten dioceses (Bihar, Csanád, Eger, Erdély, Esztergom, Győr, Kalocsa, Pécs, Vác and Veszprém), thereby laying the foundation of the Hungarian Christian church organization. The Archbishop of Esztergom became the leading cleric of the Hungarian Church. The king also founded several monasteries for the Benedictine order, providing them with significant financial support. To help organize the religious life of the country, the king invited prominent Western church figures.
During his reign, Szent István celebrated the foundation of the kingdom on August 15, which is a major feast day of the Roman Catholic Church, the Assumption Day. He convened the National Assembly to Székesfehérvár on this day and held a Royal Legislative Day. Towards the end of his life, he offered his country to the Virgin Mary for protection. According to legend, he did this because of the tragic death of his son, Szent Imre (1000-07 – 1031). King Szent István died on August 15, 1038.
At the initiative of King Szent László (c. 1040 – 1095), King István was canonized by Pope Gregory VII. Szent István, together with his relics locked in a silver box, was placed on the altar of the Székesfehérvári királyi bazilika [Royal Basilica of Székesfehérvár] on August 20, 1083. Since the reign of King Nagy Lajos (1326 – 1382), August 20 has been a church holiday. Besides being a religious holiday, in 1771, Queen Maria Theresa (reign: 1740 – 1780) declared this day a national state holiday. She also arranged the transfer of the Szent Jobb [Holy Right], the mummified right hand which allegedly belonged to the saintly king, from Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) to Buda. After the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the celebrations were banned, because Szent István was a symbol of the independent Hungarian state. It was in 1860 that the celebrations could resume. During communist times, instead of banning the celebrations, the day was converted into the Constitution Day of the People’s Republic of Hungary. They simply timed the promulgation of the new socialist constitution for August 20 in 1949. Old traditions were revived after the fall of Communism in 1989.
Celebrations in Budapest
The celebrations in Budapest begin with a series of state ceremonies on Kossuth tér [Kossuth Square]: the raising of the national flag, speeches by dignitaries, the swearing-in of new military officers and air-force demonstration. The Országház [House of Parliament] opens its doors to visitors who can marvel at the splendid interior of the building including the Szent Korona [Holy Crown]. Many of the state awards are given on this day, like the Magyar Szent István-rend [Order of St. Stephen of Hungary]. In the afternoon, a Celebration Mass is held in front of Szent István Bazilika followed by the Procession of the Szent Jobb along the surrounding streets.
There are two festivals linked to the holiday. In Várkert Bazár [Castle Garden Bazaar], a gastronomy festival is held called Magyar ízek utcája [Avenue of Hungarian Flavors] where the current year’s New Bread of Szent István’s Day and Cake of Hungary can be tasted besides many other national specialties. Whereas, in Budavári Palota [Buda Castle], an artisan’s festival is held called Mesterségek Ünnepe [Festival of Folk Arts] where the visitors can enjoy folklore programs, learn about traditional crafts and buy exquisitely made handicrafts.
In the evening, the celebrations are closed with Festive Fireworks over the Danube River. Hundreds of thousands are gathering on the banks of the river to watch the colorful show of lights.
Celebrations in Székesfehérvár
In Székesfehérvár, the state foundation celebrations are part of the Koronázási Ünnepi Játékok [Coronation Celebration Games] held in the historic downtown. It is a series of events, which commemorate the great figures of the former coronation city. Each year the celebrations are themed around a different Hungarian king. The main attractions of the events are the giant puppets depicting historical figures from medieval times. Part of the events is the Koronázási Szerartásjáték [Coronation Ceremony Play], which brings to the stage the coronation and life of the monarch chosen for that year.