Christmas Traditions in Croatia: Modern Guide Through Holidays
Hello, December, the most wonderful month in a year! Even though in Croatia Christmas is celebrated on December 25, preparation for festivities starts several weeks earlier. More particular, holiday season starts with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. According to the Christian tradition, it is a time of preparation for Christ’s birth. Four weeks symbolize four millenniums from the foundation of the world to the birth of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday families light candles on Advent wreaths, one by one. Traditionally, the wreath should be made from evergreen springs, but today there are different types. Everybody can buy or make the wreath according to their taste. This year I got shocked by the prices of wreaths (I saw some for even 500 kunas ~65€ or $71) so I made my owns (check them out on our Instagram profile – here & here).
Beginning of Advent is the time when Christmas markets appear all around the cities (especially in Zagreb – there is wonderful Advent in Zagreb manifestation), with numerous stands selling Christmas decorations, handmade items, and winter comfort food. You can find different decorations for your house, licitar hearts, nativity scenes and other. Also, you can heat yourself up with scented mulled wine or shots of rakija and try some sausages and fritule (kind of fritters, like little donuts, but better!).
December 6 is known as Saint Nicholas day (Sveti Nikola). The night before kids and some grown-ups clean their boots and place them next to the window. In the morning, boots are found full of candies and other presents. But be careful! If you were a bad boy or girl, Sveti Nikola will not visit you. Instead, Krampus (Nikola’s bad companion) will put his switch in your boot. They are always colored in gold or silver and decorated with colorful ribbons and even Christmas bells or other decorations. I still remember how they thought us about St Nicholas in school. I was the first or second grade of elementary school and when I came home, I explained to my mom how he is not alive anymore and that is not possible for him to bring me presents. 🙂
On December 13, the day of Saint Lucia (Sveta Lucija), we plant Christmas wheat as a symbol of fertility and new life. You can take a simple plastic plate or any pad you have, fill it with soil or cotton wool and sprinkle the seeds on the top of it. Green shoots of wheat represent the hope in the awakening of nature which will take away the winter in a couple of months and bring the new life. It is said that density and height of the wheat symbolize how successful will be the upcoming year for you. Right before Christmas, you can cut the wheat a bit to look nicer as well as decorate with a candle and (or) a ribbon (people often use the one colored as Croatian flag). When holidays end, you should give it to birds, no throw it.
Approximately a week before Christmas, we start to bake Christmas cookies and cakes. Croatians are known to always make too much food and a huge variety of it. It would be a shame for the family to have only 2 or 3 types of cakes! Each Christmas we have at least 10 different types of cookies, cakes, rolls, cremes, … All homemade, nothing bought. Some of the traditional cookies would be vanilin kiflice, makovnjača, orahnjača, bajadera, mađarica, čupavci, kuglof, linzer cookies and lots of different vanilla cookies. Every year dad gets *mad* because he, poor, needs to eat all “da se ne baci” (in order not to be thrown). A few years ago he started to complain even before mom started to make them, so she got upset and decided not to make any that year. Christmas without cookies?? Still pretty young I decided I needed to save the Christmas! I took out mom’s cookbooks and found the recipes. I think those were one of the first cookies I made in my life. And they were such a failure that in the end mom needed to save the day. 😀 Years after I learned how to make them under her’s guidance. I needed because there is something magical about it. Nothing says better Christmas is just around the corner than the warm house which smells like cookies.
Besides tons of cookies, on Christmas eve day we usually eat a fish meal (often cod), which is followed by meat meal on Christmas day. Christmas lunch (we don’t eat so many heavy dinners here) often includes turkey with mlinci (purica s mlincima) or some other bird. In that way you leave all the bad for the “old year” behind you, they say. Typical Christmas dessert would be cake like makovnjača (roll with poppy seeds), orahnjača (walnut roll) or kuglof. Days between Christmas and New Year’s are filled with similar food as well as sarma (rolled cabbage filled with minced meat) and francuska salata (Russian salad) so it is very common for people to gain weight hehe.
Christmas tree is bought only a few days before Christmas and it is decorated on December 24. Most people still use real trees, some even the ones still alive in the pot. They do not start to sell them until mid-December so it is not possible to put the decorations on before it (as Jaime wants). Only if you like fake trees. I do not. They don’t make your house smell nice. They do not fall down after I while and you don’t get pine needles stick into your slippers. It is always a joy to decorate it while mom is finishing the last cakes. House smells like cookies, Christmas songs are playing on a radio and we are putting on gold and red decorations. If you smell your fingers afterward, they will smell like Christmas as well.
Presents are brought on Christmas night while everyone is sleeping by Santa Claus (Djed mraz ili Djed božićnjak) and placed under decorated tree. Kids are allowed to open them only on Christmas morning. In some parts of the country, kids are told presents are brought by Baby Jesus. Lots of people attend a night mass to welcome Jesus. Christmas day, as well as St Joseph’s Day (December 26, which is a holiday as well), are usually spent with family, enjoying each other’s company and some good food.
New Year’s Eve, December 31, is a normal working day. When the night falls down, numerous citizens in Croatia are starting to get ready for “craziest night in a year”. Contrary to for example Mexicans, a big number of Croatian people do not welcome new year together with their families. Lots of us go to party and New Year’s Eve is the biggest party in the country. When the clock strikes midnight, we congratulate to each other with a kiss and a hug and wish a happy new year. I must say that last 5-6 years I missed a party and stayed at home. This year, I’m looking forward to adapting some of Jaime’s traditions and enjoy the warmth of our home as well.
The first day of a new year we have a feast with baby pork, baked potato and Russian salad (odojak s pečenim krumpirom i francuskom salatom). That’s when everybody makes new year’s resolutions, decides to start going to the gym, stop smoking or lose some weight.
Holiday season in Croatia ends with Epiphany (Sveta tri kralja) when all the decorations are taken down and priests visit each house to give their blessings. Families take down Christmas trees as well and they are “traditionally” thrown out on the streets. Christmas vacations for lots of people who enjoyed it since December 24 end. The magic stops suddenly. Until next December!
Sretan Božić svima!
(eng. Merry Christmas Everyone!)
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