Art by Rozália Vasmatics Tuttle
Szaloncukor Adorns our Christmas Tree
Judit Vasmatics Paolini
As young children in Hungary we eagerly awaited the arrival of the angels who always brought a beautiful Christmas tree, year after year. The fir tree was never artificial! Adorning its branches were szaloncukor (candy), apples, candles and angel hair instead of tinsel and garland. Furthermore, sparklers gingerly appeared here and there; everyone was fascinated by the vibrantly bursting stars whenever one was lit.
When my family came to America we were surprised to see our neighbors’ Christmas trees up and beautifully decorated weeks before Christmas Day! To our surprise, we discovered that the angels didn’t bring their trees. No, our neighbors decorated the trees with tinsel, garland and lovely ornaments. These trees even had colorful lights shining brightly weeks before Christmas!
However, there were no presents! I thought surely the angels will bring them; but I was told, “No, Santa Claus will bring them on Christmas Eve.” I found this amazing because in Hungary St. Nicholas visits children with gifts of delicious chocolates – not on Christmas Eve but on December 6th. In time, I understood that Santa Claus is not St. Nicholas whose arrival children so eager await in many European countries, as I did in Hungary.
In America, the angels continued to bring our Christmas tree—always a delightful evergreen and its branches adorned with szaloncukor. In addition, it also had tinsel, garland, lovely ornaments…However, the szaloncukor tasted quite different! Oh, Mom was so clever!
My parents would take great delight in seeing their grandchildren’s Christmas trees laden with szaloncukor! Some of them make szaloncukor as cleverly as Mom had in December of 1957 when we celebrated our first Christmas in Connecticut. She bought chocolate candy, white tissue paper, and aluminum foil. Mom patiently cut strips of tissue paper just the right size and shape. She cut the aluminum foil which she placed on top of the each tissue paper. She also cut strips of white thread. Once the preparations were ready, Mom carefully placed the chocolate inside the white tissue paper with the foil on the outside and carefully rolled the tissue and tin foil around it. Finally, she wound the thread around the tin foil and the tissue paper! The szaloncukor was ready to adorn our Christmas tree!
When our Nagymama (grandmother) came to the USA in the mid 60’s, she made szaloncukor as she would have when living in Hungary. Wow! It not only looked like szaloncukor but also tasted like it! Long after Nagymama was gone, my sister Róza set forth with great enthusiasm and made szaloncukor like our Grandmother! Oh, it was so much work, for though the ingredients were simple enough, she had to practice, practice and try again until the consistency of the mixture was just right. That year she made szaloncukor as gifts for everyone in our family – brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews...no one was left out. And what a delightfully scrumptious gift it was!
In Budapest, my brothers, sisters and I sang Mennyből az angyal during the Christmas holidays. However, growing up in the USA, we struggled remembering the words! Then, one summer, Mom returned from a trip abroad with a book containing Hungarian Christmas carols. Even today, we so proudly (and some with tears) sing Mennyből az angyal on Christmas Eve—a Hungarian tradition which is so dear to us, the Hungarian side of us! The American side of us enjoys singing Silent Night.
Boldog Karácsonyt! Merry Christmas!
Taking a closer look at szaloncukor, one realizes that it is a very popular sweet which annually makes its appearance during the Christmas holiday season in Hungary. However, it is not the only European country where people string this delicious candy wrapped in colorful foil and hang it on the branches of a Christmas tree. It is also well-liked in Slovakia and Romania. Here too children young and old are delighted with the szaloncukor adorning a lovely evergreen. Oh, this scrumptious sweet must be eaten! Children – like my brother, sisters and I when were oh so young – very cleverly unwrap the foil, remove the candy and rewrap the foil ever so gently. Someone, unsuspecting, may reach for it ready to indulge their taste buds, but sadly discover the foil is empty!
Szaloncukor is a fondant (a thick paste made of sugar) and is usually covered in chocolate. The French began to make fondants during the medieval period and in time it made its way to Hungary.
The tradition of stringing szaloncukor as decoration on Christmas trees started in the 19th century. It’s worth noting that szaloncukor came from the German word Salonzuckerl which literally means sugar in salons. When we look at the word “szaloncukor” more closely, in Hungarian “szalon” means parlor and “cukor” means sugar. At the time, people placed the Christmas tree in the parlor where they received guests and surely savored the sugary treats. Today, many people living in the US have Christmas trees throughout their home; however, it is most often placed in the living room where one entertains. And some Hungarian Americans delight their guests by offering this yummy candy!
Over time, szaloncukor evolved and is no longer made using only fondants. Today, szaloncukor is made of various delectable sweets which include jelly, walnuts, marzipan and hazelnut – just to name a few.
Recipe for szaloncukor using walnuts:
3 cups walnuts—shells removed
2 tbsp. of rum
2/3 — 3/4 cup of powdered sugar
Zest and juice of a half lemon
Zest and juice of a half orange
Toast walnuts in a dry pan. Using a food processor, finely chop the walnuts. Place the walnuts into a mixing bowl and add the rum and powdered sugar. Zest the lemon and zest the orange. Squeeze out the juices. Add the zested lemon and zested orange into the mixing bowl with the walnuts; also add the juices from the lemon and the orange. Mix all the ingredients in the bowl together. Add more powdered sugar if needed to thicken. Cover and let it rest overnight in a cool place. The next day, when the walnut mixture is cool and firm, make tiny balls and place them on wax paper. Finally, each ball is ready to be wrapped in tissue paper with colorful foil.
Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Association Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Eitorial Board.