The most popular Christmas custom is the Nativity Play (Betlehemezés), which was known throughout the entire Hungarian linguistic region until recently, and was played even in the cities. The earliest of the Nativity Play records speak of mystery plays in the church, going back to the 11th century, but later these were ousted from the churches, and in the 17th to 18th centuries were performed in schools and by religious societies. It appears the custom became standard only in the 19th century, at least in the form and by the name known currently.
Generally children would play in the Nativity Play. A runner from among the players goes ahead of the rest, asking for admission to enter the houses. On an affirmative answer the participants come in. Two “angels” bring in the church-shaped Nativity, and they are followed by King Herod, Joseph the father, Mary and the Child, and two or three shepherds who lie down in front of the Nativity. Only when everybody has settled down will they start to pretend awakening and begin songs the content of which changes by regions.
Generally after such an introduction comes the brief description of the birth of Christ, then Joseph tells how he tried without success to find lodging, and then the shepherds render homage in front of the infant Jesus. A comedy follows, the humorous rivalry and squabble of the shepherds, and after the performers have been given food and drink, the players sing their blessing together:
Hurry, Goodman, if you would,
Give us speed for go we should.
May God give you every good,
You, your house and neighbourhood.
Nativity players began to prepare fore their performance at Advent, when they learned the poems and songs, and went about in the village often for ten days, certain groups of them even going to neighbouring settlements.