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The Betlehemes jatek

Christinas Play

by Raymond J. Pentzell


The St. Stephen's Abauj Betlehemes troop at Monoky's Cafe. The Oregs, with their axes, are in front. The Betlehemes creche is in the center.


Few Toledoans are aware that an ancient Hungarian folk play is performed every Christmas season in the streets and houses of the Birmingham neighborhood on the city's East Side. After living and teaching in Toledo for a number of years, I learned of its existence from a student in a theatre history class who appeared singularly unimpressed by the mysteriousness of the British folk plays I was discussing.

"Oh, we have all that over on the East Side every year, "he told me."In Birmingham, the Hungarians do it. It's a Bethlehem Shepherds play, but it's got all that boogie-man stuff in it too." Thus I encountered the Betlehemes jatek, a folk Christmas play familiar in every part of Hungary and in the Hungarian communities of Romania, Slovakia, and the former Yugoslavia.

Local Birmingham tradition says that the Bethlehem play has been presented yearly since the arrival of the Hungarians in the 1890s, and under informal parish sponsorship from the time St. Stephen's Catholic Church was founded in 1898. The scripts, as well as performance elements, provide virtually indisputable internal evidence of an unbroken oral tradition reaching directly back to Hungary.

Birmingham residents call the play the Abauj Bethlehem play, but no records or traditions survive that point to any specific town of origin. Photographs of Toledo performances survive from the early twentieth century. The Bethlehem play is no synthetic "folkloristic" revival staged by sentimental Hungarophiles. Residents can recall only a few odd years (for example, once during World War II) when none of the three available troupes "came out."

Two troupes, called the Elso and Masodik ("first"and "second"), are formed from St. Stephen's congregation. Each is organized by ties of family and friendship. The lines of succession to the roles are guarded by the transmission of performance coaching and the inheritance of costumes.

Continuity is taken most seriously by the troupe leaders, who normally succeed to the coveted role of principal Oreg, the demonic "old man." The third troupe was made up of parishioners of St. Michael's Byzantine Catholic Church, formerly just three blocks from St. Stephen's. They claimed a tradition of performance from the founding of the parish in 1914, but actual memories or records of a St. Michael's troupe extend no further back than the 1930s.

The community's rationale for maintaining the custom was, in part, the collection of Christmas donations to the Church, since each performance ended in a quete. But it is important to note that laymen alone assigned and played the roles, that the troupe leader was also a player, and that costumes, properties, and whatever memoranda pass for scripts were made and kept by each player's own family. Scripts, however, were mimeographed in full by St. Michael's troupe, though not St. Stephen's. A parish's clergy officially did no more than "encourage" the performance or, in some years, merely permitted it.

In the early and mid-1970s, the Birmingham community underwent a renewal of pride in its identity and traditions which grew out of the successful collective political action first mobilized to oppose plans for building an expressway overpass through the neighborhood.

One by-product was a resurgence of participation in the nearly moribund Bethlehem plays among the adults of St. Stephen's. In 1973, interest was so low that St. Stephen's did not send out a troupe. In 1974, St. Stephen's mounted a full-strength adult troupe (Masodik) of fluent Hungarian speakers. In 1976, the Elso troupe, dormant since 1970, was revived. Aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a documentary film was made in 1976, produced by Peter Ujvagi.

A Betlehem troupe at full strength consists of eight young men: three shepherds, two angels, and about three oregek, "old ones."In both of the St. Stephen's versions, three shepherds and one oreg have speaking roles; only two of the shepherds had lines, in St. Michael's version. Even in a skeleton cast, however, there will be two angels who carry the Betlehem and sing and more than one oreg. Residents remember performances with as many as a half dozen ore-gek, since the character is popular and fun to play.

The costumes of the shepherds and angels are almost identical—flowing white blouses with loose, uncuffed sleeves resembling an acolyte's surplice and full, ankle-length white skirts, sometimes trimmed at bottom with lace or fringe. An older tradition, still maintained by some players, substitutes white gatyak (the broad, skirtlike culottes once worn by Magyar plainsmen) for the skirts.

St. Stephen's players have wide shoulder sashes crossed on their chests and backs, waist sashes, and bows at their necks where the wide ribbons that secure the hats are tied. Old photographs show various ways of distinguishing angels and shepherds by sash color. In recent times the Elsö troupe is distinguished only by hat color, as all sashes are red. The Masodik troupe keeps the angels in red; the First Shepherd's sashes are white with red edging; the Second has a red waist-sash and green shoulder-sashes; the Third has a green waist-sash and red shoulder-sashes.

At St. Michael's, the angels' crossed shoulder sashes were pink (right shoulder) and pale blue (left), while those of the shepherds were red (right shoulder) and green (left). Neither bows nor waistbands were worn (they are absent as well in one older photograph of a St. Stephen's troupe).

All troupes wore tall, brimless hats of shiny cardboard, about sixteen inches high, painted or appliqued with paper and foil and hung with ribbons fastened at the top. At St. Stephen's the hats are in the shape of truncated cones, colored in various combinations of white, red, green, blue, and gold, with large crosses, stars, and rosettes emblazoned on the front.

Two old photographs (1913 and c.1914) show the hats to be fully conical, about two feet tall. The St. Michael's players' hats were more nearly cylindrical, painted in broad horizontal bands of Hungary's colors—red, white, and green; near the top, on the red band, a small Byzantine cross is painted in gold. Shepherds of both churches carried straight poles, about five feet long and an inch and a half in diameter, with "jinglers" (as on a tambourine) nailed to the top. At St. Michael's the poles were painted in foot-wide bands of red, white, and green; at St. Stephen's red and white are customary.

The two angels carry between them the Betlehem, a model church with a wide portal, inside which are the figures of the creche. Money collected at performances is sometimes kept in the Betlehem; in fact, the 1973 St. Michael's Betlehem held no figurines, only a cigar box. An old (pre-1920) photograph of a St. Stephen's troupe shows the two angels holding cavalry sabers. No one I spoke to remembered any hint of this practice.

The "white-clad" shepherd costume, common but not universal in Hungary for these roles, is derived from that of the angels, in direct descent from frequent practice in medieval liturgical drama.

Oreg means "old one" or "old man." It is used in a strictly denotative context and also familiarly. A different form of the Hungarian word for old, regos, is the categorical name of Christmas waits, variously costumed carolers and pranksters (originally shamanic) not appearing in plays. The oregek of the Toledo Betlehem plays are recognizably demonic, particular variants of the wild-man or fur-demon mummers known throughout Europe, although in the play script the Old Man's lines suggest that he is no more than a deaf, cranky, lazy, blasphemous old shepherd.

The players I spoke to explained the apparent paradox in a variety of ways.

"He is supposed to be a pagan who worships the devil and acts like one"

"He is really the devil, the old one, come to tempt the other shepherds."

"The word öreg—old man—sounds something like ördög—devil. And he's just a rotten old funny bastard."

Oreg players improvise their own costumes with some exuberance, but always within certain bounds. An oreg in Toledo will always wear a full bag-mask made of fur and a fur vest or jacket; he will always brandish a real (but blunted) ax, painted red and white, and have a pouch or satchel slung over his shoulder; one or more cowbells will be tied to his belt or his legs.

Certain other traditions are not so binding: white duck trousers (or baseball knickers) stuffed into canvas army leggings or high boots, a red sweater or sweatshirt under the fur jacket, a small cross embroidered somewhere on the fur (or painted on the cowbells). Some oregek wear sheepskin jackets (or jacket liners) turned fur-side-out; most construct or inherit shaggy jackets cut from old fur coats, to which are sewn tails, old mink collars, and ragged strips of any kind of pelt.

Bag-masks show considerable variety, with yarn embroidery around mouth, nose, and eyeholes, and pieces of cheap wigs or contrasting fur sewn on as mustaches, beards, or general decoration. Many oregek sport horns or long ears—turkey feathers rising out of knots of fur, fox or raccoon tails. Sometimes the bag-mask itself is shaped rather like an inverted trapezoid; stuffing pushed into the two upper corners is enough to provide bulbous "ears."

Since World War II, the angels have usually been thirteen to sixteen years old, and the shepherds and oregek young men between seventeen and twenty-five. After 1974, both St. Stephen's troupes were reconstituted with players emerging from "retirement/The Elsö players, led by Joseph Karocki, were then mostly in their late 20s or early 30s; the more polished Masodik troupe, then led by Stephen Pompos, were made up primarily of men in their 40s.

Since then, of course, the roles have passed on to a newer generation. Many older local men remember continuing their roles into their thirties and pre-war photographs bear this out. It used to be assumed that a performer would quit when he got married, although there was never a strict rule governing this; married men simply were assumed to have less free time during the Christmas holidays.

The players' ages may be important to the question of the traditionalism of the Toledo versions of the play. In present-day Hungary, many variants, chiefly those in cities, larger towns, and suburban villages, are done entirely by children and adolescents, and in some places—for example, Mezokovesd, Borsod County—by girls. Young adult-male troupes, evidently the older tradition, have been retained primarily in the more remote rural areas, notably among the Szekely people of the Transylvania mountains.

In both Toledo churches, the players form a procession at the beginning of the Christmas Midnight Mass. Shepherds and angels proceed up the center aisle in full costume, hats on, the angels carrying the Betlehem. The oregek, however, do not wear their fur masks and generally keep some steps to the rear.

All sing folk carols, first at the back of the church and then during their slow march: "Mondjatok Mag Jo Pasztorok, Miket Lattakok?" ("Tell us, good shepherds, what have you seen?"); "Szent, Szent, SzentVagy, Nagy Ur Isten" ("Holy, holy, holy are you, great Lord God"); "Istengyermek, kit irgalmad kozenk lehozott" ("God's Child, who through suffering has been brought to us"); "O gyonyorii szep, titokzatos ej" ("O wondrously beautiful night of mystery"); and "Ha kimegyek ajtom ele"("If I step outside the door"). At St. Michael's, the procession was usually followed by a performance of the play before the altar, but this had not been the case at St. Stephen's until 1976, when such performances became customary.

No particular spiritual benefit is thought to derive from participation other than the virtue of earning money for the Church. Players and former players are unanimous in denying even the vaguest superstition of good luck in performing the play, unlike many mummers in England and elsewhere. As in most American Christmas customs, the chief objectives are the fun of celebration and the maintenance of a group-identifying tradition.

Traditionally, at least through the 1970s, the scenario was as follows: In late morning or early afternoon of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the players take to the streets. They know roughly which houses they will perform in, on the basis of past welcomes, awareness that family parties will be going on, or simply by mutual agreement. Some householders, but not all, have given them explicit invitations, and they in turn may have given the residents an idea when to expect them. Scheduling is expected for performances at the corner taverns, sites of great applause and generous donations on Christmas Eve.

On the street, the shepherds and angels walk in a group, with some dignity, though not solemnity. Occasionally they sing the carols used in the church procession. As the shepherds mark their steps with their poles, the jingling becomes rhythmic. The oregek meanwhile, race up and down the blocks yelling and waving their axes, with their cowbells clanking, in uproarious attempts to frighten children and kiss girls.

It was customary through the 1950s for the oregek to pilfer groceries from the shops; all food was dutifully donated to the convent, though wine always mysteriously vanished by day's end. The neighborhood children pelt them with snowballs (the angels' and shepherds' hats are also fine targets), and occasionally more dangerous projectiles, so that it sometimes takes a particularly cool-headed oreg to avoid a brawl.

In 1972, an oreg was detained by the police, and a parish priest spent some time overcoming non-Magyar skepticism before the oreg was given back his "dangerous weapon" and let out of the police car with a warning. In 1975, a St. Michael's oreg was struck with his own ax, luckily without permanent injury.

At the door of a house or bar, one of the shepherds or angels announces their presence. There is no separate runner or envoy as in many versions in Hungary. Shouted welcomes greet them. The angels enter and place the Betlehem on a table or chair. The shepherds follow, beating the jingling poles rhythmically on the floor. The oregek remain on the porch peering in the windows and doorway while cracking jokes, or in bad weather, they slink or leap into the room and roam around the edges of the gathering, growling, kissing girls, and jocularly insulting audience members.The shepherds and angels arrange themselves in a rough semicircle in the center of the space and, to the tapping of the poles, sing a song which the oregek may join in singing if they feel like it. The play proper has begun.

Each of the troupes has a different version of the play, though all are similar. St. Stephen's players learn their lines by rote from fathers and older brothers, and while written speeches are used to aid learning, they are saved, if at all, only by the players' families. A troupe leader knows the whole play by heart, as do the more experienced players, and at the few preliminary run-throughs, newcomers are helped over lapses of memory.

At St. Michael's, however, while rehearsal procedures were similar, there were written texts, one in Hungarian and one in English, which had been repeatedly mimeographed and distributed. Copies were kept both at the church and by individual families.

No one now remembers who first set down the St. Michael's play in writing, but informants agree that the script has not changed since the 1930s. It is not clear how much liberty the St. Michael's players felt they could take with their speeches. In the mimeographed script, dotted lines indicated places where the Oreg is free to add comic lines.

The St. Michael's troupe I accompanied in 1973 kept to the Hungarian script verbatim, but they were quick to point out that no one among them was fluent enough in Hungarian to trust himself at improvising. For the required ad-lib points, the Oreg had memorized condensed versions of speeches from one of the St. Stephen's versions.

The St. Michael's players were prepared to act the play in either Hungarian or English at the audience's request. The mimeographed English version, in a more pompous and awkward style than the Hungarian, was not a close translation. When the 1973 troupe played in English, they virtually ignored it, opting instead for a combination of direct translation and wild ad-libbing. In English, both the written script and the performers' version substituted carols familiar in America (O Come All Ye Faithful, The First Noel, Silent Night) for the Hungarian songs.

Ad-libbing is not the best term for some of their digressions, for a number of unwritten lines are themselves considered traditional. Of note is the name Pedro, by which the Oreg was addressed in performance; it does not appear in either the St. Michael's or the St. Stephen's Hungarian versions, or in the "official" English script of St. Michael's.

When asked, "Why Pedro?" the players' answer was simply, "That's his name. It's what he's always called when we act in English." It is possible that the name results from a inside joke, the point of which is now forgotten. It is at least equally probable that Pedro's origin lies in genuine Hungarian tradition. In scattered towns in the North-Central region from which Toledo's Hungarians first emigrated, the counterpart of the Oreg is called Kecskes Peti (Goatherd Pete), the proper name itself possibly a borrowing from Slovak tradition.

In Toledo, Peti may have been contaminated with the Hungarian word pedro ("twisting, turning"), although this is a mere conjecture. The name Peter for a wild-man or Christmas Percht is common: Pedro Serrano, Peter the Wild Boy of Hannover, Black Peter (Spanish-costumed) who accompanies St. Nicholas into Amsterdam, among others.

Neither of St. Stephen's troupes performs in English. The plays are somewhat more informal than the St. Michael's script, full of nonsequiturs, slang, and dialect. By the same token, St. Stephen's players less often feel the urge to improvise; their respect for the plays' presumed authenticity works against this. The St. Stephen's Masodik script is the longest and seems to contain the greatest number of parallels with older, native Hungarian Betlehem plays.

This is not to say that it is more authentic than the other two; all show ample evidence of faithful descent— each, probably, from a different Hungarian village. St. Stephen's Elsö and the St. Michael's variants have essentially the same plot as the Masodik play, but both omit a most interesting sequence: the sudden "falling asleep" of the Oreg soon after his entrance.

Except where noted, Alex Helm and E. C. Cawte's remark about the older British mummers' plays holds for the Toledo Hungarian performances: "For the most part they stood in a semi-circle: as needed, each stepped forward, uttered his lines in a loud voice with no inflections, and stepped back."

This is not done with mechanical rigidity, however, and lines are spoken, not intoned. There is no goal of "ritualizing" the speech, as the better actors, those more comfortable in Hungarian, speak with as much expression as they can muster within the limits of an artificial loudness and stilted physical movement.

The translation that follows is based on the text used since 1974 by Stephen Pompos' troupe and its successors, the same script that those returning players learned and played in the 1950s. It was transcribed and translated literally for me by Peter Ujvagi.



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