In addition to the well-known betlehemezés*, the custom of kántálás, or chanting was also popular at Christmastime. The chanters would go from house to village house asking, ”Would you like some angelic rejoicing?” Whoever answered with ”yes” would be entertained with Christmas carols, either under the window or in the house. In return, they would receive walnuts, apples, pastries, pretzels. Nowadays they might get some money too. Then they would proceed to the next house.
People would strew hay under their window on which the children would stand while singing. Afterwards, that hay would be placed in the henhouse to improve egg-laying by the hens.
Different age groups would go around at different times of the day. The children would start around noontime, young people in the afternoon, and the married men and other grown-ups late at night.
The number of kántáló songs exceeds by far all our other holiday-related songs. Verses of season’s greetings and rhymes requesting donations were often added.
Kántálás was also called mendikálás (derived from the Latin word for begging). This seems to indicate that, centuries ago, it was the mendicant (begging) monks or perhaps students who used this method to collect much-needed funds.
In Somogy County, the custom is called bölcsőcske (little cradle), because the singers carry a small cradle with them and stand or kneel around it.
Some Transylvanian villages would have held dances at Christmastime that would last several days. These were introduced by kántálás, which continued with offering good wishes to the Stephens and the Johns (December 26th and 27th, respectively) for their feast days.
In the Kalotaszeg region, the dance lasted four (nowadays only three) days. It began with kántálás on the morning of December 24th, in front of the church after the church service, with the invitation of the girls. The young men chosen for this task asked each girl by name. The actual dance began on the afternoon of the first day of Christmas. It continued on the 26th, ending on December 28th, feast of the Holy Innocents.
(Source: Karácsonyi ünnepkör, by Kerkay Emese
and: Kézikönyvtár, Magyar néprajz VII)
*Betlehemezés usually involves the carrying of a miniature church by children or grownups, dressed as shepherds, angels, Mary and Joseph, and the retelling of the Christmas story. Frequently, one of the shepherds is portrayed as being hard of hearing, giving rise to comical misunderstandings.