A sampling of programs offered on the Day of Culture
The idea of a Day of Culture was first proposed by piano virtuoso Fasang Árpád (1942-2008), to ”arouse awareness of our ability to draw on our one thousand-year heritage, and of having reason to be proud, since this nation contributed so much to European and world culture.”
But why is it observed on January 22nd ? The answer is that Kölcsey Ferenc completed the eight stanza text of the Himnusz – the Hungarian national anthem - on that day.* The subtitle of the Himnusz – ”From the stormy centuries of the Hungarian people” – referring to our long history – explains the importance of the connection with the Day of Culture.
Let us look at the full text: The first stanza asks God to bless the Hungarian people with good cheer and plenty, to protect them when fighting the enemy, and after the ill fate which has torn at them for a long time, may they have a merry year, for this people has already atoned for the past and the future.
Next, Kölcsey enumerates the natural blessings with which the country is endowed, and goes on to enumerate God’s punishments for the people’s sins over the centuries. He mentions the Mongolian invasion, the Turkish yoke, internal strife, oppression, destruction and killing, the tears of orphans, from which freedom did not spring.
Finally, he begs God to have pity on the Magyars who, as he said in the beginning, have already atoned for the past and the future.
In other words, the Himnusz reminds us of our long history. It is in this context that the Day of Hungarian Culture is connected with Kölcsey’s anthem.
Concerts, exhibits, theater performances, book signings, are all part of the program on the Day of Hungarian Culture, not only in today’s Hungary, but also in the neighboring countries which, due to the "Treaty" of Trianon, acquired large Hungarian populations. It is also the day when cultural and educational awards are presented.
Who was Kölcsey Ferenc? His family could trace its ancestry back to Ond, one of the Seven Chieftains who led the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. He was born in 1790 in Szatmár County, south of Nagykároly (part of Romania since the 1920 ”Treaty” of Trianon), and lost both parents early on. He became blind on his right eye as a result of either chickenpox or smallpox (depending on your source), and also lost his hair. He remained sickly all his life.
He studied at the Reformed College of Debrecen for 14 years, taking every course except Biblical exegesis. Early on, he met Kazinczy Ferenc, the language reformer, whose ideas he fully supported, and who became his literary mentor.
In a later work addressed to his nephew, Kölcsey wrote: ”Be warmly attached to the language of the homeland. Because the native land, nation and language are three inseparable things, and whoever is not enthusiastic about the last, will hardly be ready to make sacrifices for the first two.”
As a lyric poet, Kölcsey tended towards romanticism; but as a literary critic, he was harsh, which made him unpopular is some circles. He was co-founder of the literary magazine Élet és Literatura, and also took part in the establishment of the Kisfaludy Literary Society.
He was celebrated as an orator, both in academic and in political circles. Politically, he favored needed reforms, such as the freeing of the serfs, national unity, making Hungarian the official language of the country (as opposed to the German imposed by the Habsburg rulers).
He died in 1838, as the sources say, from having caught a cold he could not shake. He is buried in Szatmárcseke, just on the Hungarian side of the Trianon-drawn border, where he finished the Himnusz and where he died.
The words of the Himnusz were set to music by Erkel Ferenc in 1844.
*If you think 8 stanzas are too many for a national anthem: the national anthem of Uruguay, set to music in the 1840s by Hungarian-born Debáli Ferenc József, has 13 stanzas! (He also wrote the music to the Paraguayan national anthem.)