A Magical Festival to Scare Off Winter



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Portraits From Hungary’s Busojaras Festival

CreditHenry Bourne


On a recent Sunday morning in Mohacs, Hungary, a buffet was set out in the parking lot of an apartment building. But more lavish than the pastries and meats on display was the attire of those eating them: Men wore oversize shearling coats with cowbells chained around their waists, and women lifted lace hanging from black eye masks to have a bite. Hand-carved horned masks and maces were propped neatly against a wall and a taxidermied fox was tied to a pitchfork in such a way that it seemed to be giving the middle finger to everyone in the vicinity. The men and women were members of the Kecskeszarv Busocsoport (Goat Horn Buso Group), and they gathered to prepare for another day in the six-day-long Busojaras Festival, which culminates each year on the Tuesday before Lent.

The festival is rooted in the local Sokci community, an ethnographic group of mostly Croatian Slavs. According to legend, when the Ottomans occupied Hungary in the 16th century, the townspeople fled to the nearby marshlands where they met an old Sokci man who promised that they’d soon return to their homes. He told them to carve masks and prepare for battle. When the masked, sheepskin-clad townspeople reappeared in the midst of a winter storm, the Ottomans thought they were facing demons and fled before sunrise. As a result, Busojaras has come to symbolize a way to scare away winter itself — and it’s no longer just Sokci people who participate. Now, every February, tourists flood Mohacs to take in the spectacle.

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Left: townspeople march through the streets in costume. In remembrance of the second Battle of Mohacs, wreaths like the one carried here are laid beneath a commemorative statue in Szechenyi Square. Right: teenage Busos hang out Sunday after the processional into town.

Credit
Henry Bourne

Busos wear masks carved out of willow and dyed with animal blood; no two are the same. Groups made up of family and friends get together during the year to plan, and, during the festivities, eat, prep, costume and process together. The town council supports the festival by providing Buso groups with funding to assemble their elaborate costumes. “As a Buso, you cannot be recognizable,” said Aron Rozsahegyi, who has been part of the group since 1992. “Fully dressed, you feel this sense of freedom and the force of history rising within you.” Oliver Rozsahegyi, the group’s founder, works at a local auto repair shop, but he also carves masks in his free time. “I find that you can tell who has carved a certain mask because it always looks a little bit like the carver,” he said. (His own mask looks vaguely like him.)

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Busos crossing the Danube.

Credit
Henry Bourne

Szilvia Dallos grew up in Mohacs before female Busos were accepted as participants in the male-dominated tradition. Now, she delights in donning the furry sheepskin and disappearing beneath a mask. “Oh, you have try this,” Dallos said while we chatted, producing a water bottle filled with a murky liquid, which turned out to be 50-proof schnapps mixed with honey, fruit and nuts. It was 10 a.m., and I asked if people really start drinking so early. “Well, mostly you’re drinking the whole week through, so in that sense it’s not really early,” she explained, laughing. In Mohacs, I ate the exact opposite of what people mean when they use the term “liquid diet”: goulash, soup, stew, “Grandma’s broth” and a number of other dishes on the color spectrum between beige and dark brown.

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Even for Busos who’ll wear their masks for most of the day and night, face paint is common. Becoming unrecognizable is of paramount importance during Busojaras. When social mores were stricter, the anonymity of the festival granted townspeople the ability to go a bit wild without fear of reproach from the church.

Credit
Henry Bourne

During the festival, Buso groups flooded the town from every direction — and some even crossed the Danube in small boats. Farm tractors covered in animal skins pulled carts filled with children throwing corn kernels and candy to the crowds. The Busos were mesmerizingly otherworldly, but I found it equally exciting to catch one with his mask up, wiping a sweaty brow and texting a friend.

Dallos described the festival as “cheeky” and phallic symbolism presented itself in excess, with penile-shaped gourds proffered to the crowd as drinking devices and decorative penises appearing on tractors. During their procession, the Busos continually engaged with the crowd in a way that was flirtatious but also a bit frightening. One Buso grabbed my hand, pulled me onto the street and gave me a bear hug. Suddenly, I was in a Buso sandwich and the two jumped up and down merrily for a moment before releasing me. (Turns out, that’s a very popular move.) Onlookers leave having been gently whipped, hugged or teased by the Busos.

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Throughout the festival, dozens of folk music and dance groups perform, like this one at Szechenyi Square. During the year, children learn the songs and dances at school.

Credit
Henry Bourne

Judit Hegedus, who works with the local tourism board and has an allergy to sheepskin (“I like to study the Busos, but I don’t want to be hugged by one,” she said) explained that the origin story of Busojaras is more grounded in myth than reality, but that the festival itself has become a deeply rooted tradition. In the beginning, a small group of Sokci Busos would go door to door, wishing health and prosperity on their neighbors and enjoying the pre-Lent excesses of drink and food together. Today’s much larger procession begins each year at Kolo Square in the old Sokci neighborhood and is repeated twice: Once on the weekend for tourists, and again on Tuesday for townspeople.

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In Szechenyi Square, a massive bonfire takes place and an effigy of winter is burned.

Credit
Henry Bourne

Without the hordes of people, Tuesday’s parade illuminated the intricacies of contemporary costuming. There were necklaces strung with popcorn and garlic cloves; wagon spokes adorned with bones; and one Buso carrying a modified IV tied to a broomstick delivering schnapps through a tube to his mouth. Women pushed vintage strollers with swaddled baby Buso masks. While nearly everyone spent the day imbibing, the whole scene was somehow also very family-friendly. Children weren’t too scared of the Busos, who greeted them with the seriousness of a government official seeking re-election.

After processing through the town to the central square, a gigantic bonfire was lit and more revelry began. The mood tipped from festive to feverish as flames leapt three stories in the air. An effigy representing winter burned slowly, and eventually disappeared. Walking back to my car across town, I ended up a few feet behind a lone Buso, his cowbells clanging loudly. It had grown dark and there was suddenly a chill in the air, but spring had definitely arrived.

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