To me, Christmas is more than opening presents and decorating a tree. For me, it has, and forever always will be about tradition. Being Croatian, it was important for my parents to pass down their traditions from their homeland to my brother and I. It’s about getting together with friends and family. It’s about faith, charity and spreading love. It’s no joke when they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of year because it truly is. Christmas is a very special time of year, not just for Croatians but for Catholics and Christians worldwide.
As I child, I was always amazed by my parents’ stories of their Christmas celebrations in Croatia. My parents grew up in the inlands of Dalmatia, in a small village called Ruda in the municipality of Otok, located by nearby Sinj. The Christmas my parents experienced was very different than the one I had: there was no tree, there were no presents, but there was a home full of family, faith, food and love. During the Christmas season, hay would be laid throughout the house and children would receive special treats such as oranges, figs and if they were very lucky, chocolates. Certainly this was a humbling experience!
The Christmas season officially begins four Sundays before Christmas, called Advent. Most Croatians will place a wreath in their homes with four candles which symbolize hope, faith, joy and peace.
Feast of Saint Nicholas – December 6
On the Eve of Saint Nicholas day, children will leave boots by their front doors in hopes that Saint Nicholas will visit them and bring them a treat. However, if the child was naughty, then they will receive a lump of coal from Krampus instead!
In the Croatian diaspora, it is common for local Croatian Catholic parishes to present a Saint Nicholas luncheon or banquet, with children performing a special Christmas recital for their loved ones. Other traditions include the sale of ornaments, baked goods and pšenica bowls during these events.
It is quite common for Croatians to bake traditional bake goods during the holidays, specifically štrudla od jabuka (apple strudel), breskvice (peaches), Mađarica (Hungarian lady) and orahnjača (walnut roll). My mom’s orahnjača is my absolute favourite (and I promise to share her recipe and test it out again!) and is great with coffee in the morning.
The Feast of Saint Lucy – Blagdan Svete Lucije
Another special Croatian tradition is the planting of wheat (pšenica) in commemoration of the feast of Saint Lucy. The planting of wheat during the Christmas season symbolizes new life. Once the wheat has grown, most Croatians will tie it together with a red, white and blue ribbon (the colours of the Croatian flag) and/or place a candle in the middle. Typically, this plant is then the main centrepiece for the dinner table on Christmas day.
Christmas Eve – “Badnjak”
I remember the sight of a bakalar (cod fish) hanging in my parents’ fruit cellar. Its basically a dried-up cod fish used to make a bakalar stu with potatoes. This tradition is specific to Dalmatia as well as parts of Istria. Croatians, like most Catholics in Europe will enjoy a special fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Although fasting on Christmas Eve is not mandated by the Catholic Church, it is a tradition Croatians, and other Europeans, share. One of my fondest memories growing up is my mother and my late uncle cooking this wonderful bakalar stu together. We would then attend midnight mass (polnoćka) together and enjoy Croatian Christmas carols. Following this, we would come home to the smell of sarma (cabbage rolls) and fresh figs. Sometimes, people will get together after midnight mass to celebrate over drinks and music.
Christmas Day – “Božić “
The big day arrived, it is Christmas day or Božić! It is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. If you did not make it to midnight mass, then most Croatians will attend mass on Christmas day. For most Croatians, Christmas day is the day when we get together with close family and friends over a big feast of cabbage rolls, schnitzels and much, much more. On Christmas day, presents are exchanged with loved ones and stories are shared with young ones.
The days following Christmas…
The Christmas season does not just end on Christmas. For many Croatians, the Feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr (Blagdan Sv. Stjepana Prvomučenika) and the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist (Blagdan Sveti Ivan Apostol i Evanđelist) is celebrated on December 26th and December 27th, respectively. If your name is a variant of Stephen or John, traditionally, a celebration would be held in your honour of your name-sake day (or imendan). I like to call it Christmas day parts 2 and 3.
The Christmas season traditionally ends on January 6th – the feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, to commemorate the day when the Three Wise Kings visited baby Jesus.