This year, a record 34,000 rockets were fired from 250 launch pads, including two iconic bridges, seven river barges and sixty-five pontoons. The attraction, which was made even more memorable by a grandiose light and laser show, building projections and a total of 896 drones, was more than just spectacular entertainment. It was an unapologetic and self-confident celebration of Hungary’s thousand-year statehood and Christian religious traditions – which is precisely why it has been targeted by the Left.
August 20 has been officially celebrated in Hungary for over 250 years. In 1771, Maria Theresa, the Habsburg queen of Hungary, declared St. Stephen’s Day, dedicated to the founding king of Hungary as a Christian state, a national commemorative day. 120 years later, in 1891, it became a non-working public holiday under the auspices of Franz Joseph I. Although the first-ever St. Stephen’s Day fireworks took place as early as 1829, it was not until a century later that large-scale celebrations on August 20, complete with the raising of the national flag, a ceremonial procession and rockets fired from Gellért Hill, became firmly embedded in the Hungarian festive calendar. The highlight of this period was without doubt the World Eucharistic Congress of 1937, featuring the most impressive fireworks display of the decade, complete with a boat parade and a 50-meter cross illuminated by Bengal light atop Gellért Hill on August 20.
After the Second World War, however, the Communist regime stripped the holiday of its national and religious character. First rebranded the “Feast of New Bread”, it later became the holiday of the People’s Republic, meant to celebrate the country’s Soviet-type constitution adopted in 1949. In 1954, the Communists decided to abolish August 20 fireworks, which were instead held on April 4 – “Liberation Day”. After the 1956 Revolution, the use of pyrotechnics was banned completely, and August 20 fireworks were to return only ten years later, in 1966 – not long after the 1963 declaration of a partial amnesty for political prisoners of the revolution. In a sense, the reintroduction of fireworks was a powerful symbol of the less violently oppressive political climate and more bearable living conditions that characterized Hungary from the mid-1960s, which also resulted in a major boost to both domestic and international tourism in the Pearl of the Danube.
In subsequent decades, the increasingly elaborate August 20 fireworks became a trademark of the Budapest summer. “The intricate and colorful festivities in Budapest were crowned by a firework display over Gellért Hill,” reported one enthusiastic newspaper article in 1975, adding that “the colorful spectacle was enjoyed by millions of people on television and hundreds of thousands of Budapest residents from both banks of the Danube, with light bombs, rockets and firecrackers being launched from a total of 1,200 platforms. The sky over the capital was lit up by four giant searchlights and ten tons of explosives in all colors of the rainbow.”
With the transition to democracy, historic traditions – including the Holy Right procession – were revived and in 1991, the first democratically elected National Assembly declared St Stephen's Day the official public holiday of the Republic of Hungary, in addition to March 15 and October 23. Hungary’s new Fundamental Law, having entered into force on January 1, 2012, also establishes St. Stephen’s Day as one of the country’s official public holidays. And while annual fireworks during the Kádár era and in subsequent years may have been a memorable experience to the hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists who lined the banks of the Danube each year in the late hours of August 20, recent displays have gone far beyond mere entertainment. This year’s Fire and Lights show, for example, brought to life the fateful historical events and genesis of the Hungarian nation, with the decisive moment of King St. Stephen offering the Holy Crown and his kingdom to the Virgin Mary at the center of the story. The fireworks show, accompanied with music and narration, recalled the birth of the nation, the “blood oath” and the Hungarian Conquest of 896 A.D., Christian-Pagan wars and the sentiments that defined the past and present of Hungary: faith and hope.
This explains why, in recent years, the progressive media and opposition politicians have been spearheading an angry campaign of cynicism and demagoguery against August 20 fireworks. While opposition parties and journalists have every right to make their opinion known on any issue of their choice, their arguments against the traditional August 20 fireworks frequently border on the absurd. After the government was forced to cancel August 20 celebrations in 2020 due to the pandemic situation, András Fekete-Győr, then leader of the liberal Momentum party, said for example that the cabinet had “backtracked” due to popular pressure and claimed that “fireworks endanger the lives of thousands of animals”. In 2022, Jobbik indirectly accused the government of celebrating the anniversary of the Romanian invasion of Transylvania in 1916 when bad weather caused the annual fireworks display to be delayed to August 27. And this year, a Socialist politician argued that the government should cancel fireworks and direct the proceeds to buy firewood for those in need. Others have claimed that the fireworks and other August 20 celebrations are an insult to victims of the pandemic or the war in Ukraine. And anti-government media outlets routinely strike a cynical tone or omit reporting altogether when it comes to August 20 fireworks – defying the 4.5 million Hungarians who watched this year’s show according to a recent poll.
Nevertheless, it is clearly left-wing Budapest mayor and failed prime ministerial candidate Gergely Karácsony and his associates who are most keen to position themselves as anti-fireworks activists. This year, for example, Karácsony wrote on social media that “it’s time to abandon the harmful addiction” to fireworks, citing unnecessary stress caused to animals and the health risk caused by allegedly carcinogenic materials released during the fireworks display. Benedek Jávor, Karácsony’s man in Brussels, also called for an end to August 20 fireworks, branding the tradition “increasingly out of fashion” and a “circus” in a video uploaded to social media. And opposition MP and key Karácsony ally Bence Tordai blasted festive fireworks as “damaging to our health, harmful to the environment, terrorizing animals and obsolete”, falsely suggesting in a recent television appearance that the state-of-the-art fireworks show is a direct health risk to spectators.
Behind this is a strange aversion to anything large-scale and distinctively Hungarian in character. From Hungary’s 2024 Olympic bid to St. Stephen’s Day fireworks, the National Hauszmann Program and, most recently, the World Athletics Championships, left-progressive killjoys never miss a chance to ridicule or sabotage Hungary’s impressive accomplishments, which they prefer to label overpriced, outdated and provincial. While organizing Europe’s largest fireworks display is clearly no cheap endeavor, they would do better to at least try to understand the millions for whom it is an uplifting highlight each year.