Bethlehemes Jatek performed for the very last time at St. Stephen's Church in Toledo on Christmas Eve in 2007. In the Birmingham section of East Toledo, Ohio, on Christmas Eve in 2007, the Hungarian tradition of performing the popular neighborhood Bethlehem Play came to a sad end. It was called "Betlehemes Játékok" in Hungary, then filtered down to be called the "Betlehemes játék" in Toledo. It was also known as Abauj Bethlehem so does this folkloric "Mummers" holiday play originate from Abauj county ?
The performances of the Betelehemes Jatek started with the immigration of the Hungarian immigrants from North Central Hungary to this iron mill section of Toledo. This custom Christmas sketch was basically portrayed for merriment purposes, not spiritual, and it was done in two churches: St. Michael's Byzantine and St. Stephen's Catholic. The Hungarian Reformed Church on Bakewell did not do this Christmas play. An article in the Toledo Blade sums the plot of the 15 minutes theatrical as when the performers, all men, age range from 13 to 50 years old, walk down the aisle at the start of Christmas eve mass "as soon as the bells stop tolling" and "the 15-minute play features a folkloric story of a group of angels, shepherds, and "oregs" or mean-looking old men. Basically, the gist of the story is that the shepherds are scared out of their wits and try to convince the oregs to go to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus .
I love reading about how the neighborhood men that kept the tradition in style. The performers were quite flamboyant in furs, red clothing, heads of wooly horns on the ogres while wielding swords. They played the roles close to their heart by merriments and street carousing all day preceding the the religious Christmas mass . An interview with Barb Nyitray from the book 'Roots in Birmingham' reminisced about the festivity preceding the Christmas play : " When we were children, there were three acting troupes called 'BETHLEHEMES'. The boys would go around to different homes ( if they were let in) and to the neighborhood bars . Volunteers who were able to read the Hungarian dialog were in the plays . They would all go around the neighborhood before Midnight Mass. My mother said that when she was young , the players would ride around on horses. What was funny about this was that every kid waited for the event , yet when the day came for these acting troupes to go around, the kids were so afraid . The actors wore cowbells . The performers were dressed as shepherds who wore fur vest and masks and had tails tied with cowbells and carried axes . They were suppose to chase the boys and kiss the girls . Sometimes, they would get carried away with their roles and it was really scary. When I was small , I can remember hiding behind the Christmas tree when they came to my Dad's bar despite the fact that they were my Uncles and cousins ! My friend and I were terrified when we heard those cowbells - yet we loved it ! We waited for it every year "
One of the performers that loved to act in the Bethlehem plays was John Gocsik who lived at 12 Magyar Street in Birmingham "When I first started, I was a shepherd. Later, I played a devil. There were eight of us who wore hats painted red, white and green. We had ribbons hanging on our heads too. They had red, white and green stripes which were the Hungarian national colors. On Christmas Eve, the first place we would stop was the Catholic Church , then the Reformed Church. There was always good wine for us for us to drink when we would do this ."
The play also went into the community to continue it's mischief as John Gocsik relates - "We would put on the show at every beer joint and butcher shop in the neighborhood. I was a devil and wore red baseball pants, boots and a sheepskin coat with the lining turned inside out. I wore a mask with duck feathers sticking out. We would chase girls. They knew who we were. There were two of us and we carried a bag, a whip and an ax made by my Uncle who worked at Unicast. When we went to the grocery store, I would walk in and go behind the counters and steal big salamis. Then I would steal hams. This was tradition. The grocers expected this and would have the meat waiting for us. We kept the meat, and after the holidays, we would use it at the big party we would throw for the players ".
Apparently, the motive for keeping the play going at the three churches was charity. John Gocsik continues " Nobody got hurt ; it was all in fun. Then, on Christmas Day, we would visit the houses of all the parishioners. The Protestant people used to ask us to come in too. We used to collect about $900 annually for the small troop .........and it was all donated to the church ."
Before the Bethlehem players ( Bethlehemes Jatek ) performed for the last time at St. Stephen's Church on Genesee Street, a film crew from the Smithsonian Museum filmed the local group's presentation in 1976.
As for the roots of this play, it still seems to be playing out among children in Hungary :http://www.szekelyhon.ro/magazin/betlehemes-jatekot-vittek-ajandekba.
A website that still has the story of this Toledo Christmas tradition up :
1) ROOTS IN BIRMINGHAMS Edited by Dr.. John Ahern ( with Randy Nissen,Joyce Hutchinson,Julie Noone, Kathy Wilson,Judy Shoemaker) . Birmingham Cultural Center.Urban Affairs Center.University of Toledo. March 1997.
2) BIRMINGHAM: Reflections on Community Diane F. Britton & John F. Ahern ,Project Directors.Toledo, Ohio 1993,
3) A Hungarian Christmas Mummers' Play in Toledo, Ohio Raymond J. Pentzell.Educational Theatre Journal.Vol. 29, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 178-198. John Hopkins University Press.