Christmas in Croatia: Christmas Traditions in Croatia
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Ho, ho, ho, Christmas is near! It is the special magical time of year we are looking so forward to and when we can get together around the table to spend time with our families and friends and exchange gifts, listen to and sing Christmas carols and enjoy in delicious comforting holiday feasts. With Christmas, we also think about the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, jolly old Santa Claus, lushly evergreen Christmas trees, colourful Christmas decorations as well as traditional and modern Christmas carols.
Christmas is celebrated by people from all around the world and this, of course, includes Croatia. Therefore, in this blog, we decided to make a special Christmas blog where we will explain all Croatian traditions and customs that occur around and on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Preparations for Christmas
Croats have always treasured Christmas and they developed a large number of customs and traditions related to this holiday. As we are moving toward December, people start to slowly prepare themselves for Christmas and winter holidays. Many major cities and towns decorate their centres and main squares with the usual kind of Christmas decorations and organise Christmas Fairs so that citizens may feel the spirit of Christmas. In certain parts of Croatia, preparations for Christmas begin on the 25th of November which is attribute to St. Catherine. However, in general, Christmas preparations in Croatia start on the first Advent Sunday.
In Croatia, Advent or Advent Time is the season before Christmas which consists of four Sundays and weeks. It is used as a way of preparing and remembering the true meaning of Christmas, that is the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.
Advent starts on the fourth Sunday from Christmas which may fall between the 27th of November and the 3rd of December and ends on Christmas Eve. It is traditional in Croatia to have an Advent wreath made of straw or evergreen twigs with four candles which can be handmade or bought. The first candle is lit on the first Advent Sunday which usually symbolises the official start for Christmas preparations while the remaining candles are lit on every following Sunday leading up to Christmas. Sometimes, a fifth candle is added in the centre of the Advent wreath which is lit on Christmas Day.
With every week passing towards Christmas, you can sense the emerging magical charm and heart-warming atmosphere of Christmas and the increasing sweet anticipation for Christmas. During Advent, there are two dates which are always considered precious to families and children in Croatia and represents the traditional start of Christmas gift giving. These are Saint Nicholas’ and Saint Lucia’s Day.
Saint Nicholas’ Day – 6th December
On the 6th of December, people in Croatia celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day. In Croatia, Saint Nicholas is a very beloved saint amongst family and children before Christmas because of his legendary habit of secret gift-giving.
It is traditionally the night before, that children clean and polish their shoes and leave them in the window in anticipation of Saint Nicholas coming and leaving them with presents in their shoes.
Saint Lucia’s Day – 13th December
Just a week after Saint Nicholas’ Day comes Saint Lucia’s Day. In Croatia, Saint Lucia is another well-celebrated saint amongst family and children before Christmas. On this day or the night before, people traditionally sow the Christmas Wheat. The Christmas Wheat is planted on a special plate, platter or bowl which should grow in time before Christmas. On Christmas Day, the grown wheat is then tied with a ribbon and used as a decorative piece on the dining table with candles sticking out from the middle.
It is also customary on Saint Lucia’s Day for parents to give to their children presents, usually in the form of something sweet (e.g. chocolate, candies and biscuits).
Christmas Eve (Badnjak)
In Croatia, Christmas Eve is celebrated on the 24th of December. Marking as the end of Advent and the culminating anticipation for Christmas, Christmas Eve is a special time before Christmas when, traditionally, families gather together to participate in the final preparations for Christmas.
During Christmas Eve, the Christmas tree is set up and decorated with beautiful colourful Christmas decorations which also span throughout each and every home. Because, Christmas Eve is traditionally taken as a fasting day which involves the absence of meat, people usually eat fish which includes dried cod prepared in a codfish stew with potatoes (bakalar). Also, on the table, you may find special homemade Christmas pastries and cakes which help to get through the entire day of fasting, such as fritule, a doughnut-shaped pastry flavoured with rum and lemon zest and sprinkled with powdered sugar; poppyseed or walnut rolls; angel wings biscuits and vanilla crescents.
As evening arrives, families come together to enjoy the rest of the day warming up around the fireplace and patiently waiting for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, there is an old tradition of placing a big yule log, called badnjak in Croatian, in the fireplace and letting it burn overnight, all the way through Christmas Day. What is more, the word badnjak in Croatian also refers to Christmas Eve, because of the tradition of people staying up until midnight and awaiting Christmas Day. This is customary done either by visiting local churches and attending the Midnight Mass or waiting inside of their cosy homes and greeting to each other Merry Christmas (Sretan Božić) and celebrating the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ.
Finally, and at last, it is Christmas. In Croatia, Christmas or Christmas Day is celebrated on the 25th of December. On Christmas Day, like everywhere, people excitingly wake up in the morning to exchange to their loved ones “Merry Christmas”, open their presents and enjoy a lovely family Christmas breakfast. After breakfast, they usually decide to spend quality time amongst their families inside their homes or attend the Christmas Mass at local churches and celebrate the Birth of Jesus.
Once the morning as gone, the magnificent Christmas lunch awaits. On Christmas Day, you can expect a true food feast. Of course, there is a range of different Christmas dishes that vary from region to region, but one thing is for sure, the food is phenomenal. Depending on part of Croatia, the typical types of food you may find on Christmas are cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and rice (sarma), sausages, roast meat (e.g. pork, lamb, turkey), aside with roasted potatoes, Olivier salad or Mlinci (flatbread strip soaked in fat). Possibly, your plate will be overflowing with bacon, ham, prosciutto and other cured meats, a huge variety of different cheeses, freshly baked bread and, of course, million types of traditional Croatian Christmas biscuits, pastries and cakes.
However, the feast does not stop here, it continues onto the next day on Saint Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day, when people visit their extended families and throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas where you can expect plenty of food.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Just in the middle of the Twelve Day of Christmas falls New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. This is the time when Croatia throws a big party to celebrate the coming New Year. The entire country becomes a gigantic dance floor where people all over Croatia sing and dance to famous Croatian musicians performing on prominent squares and streets, inside fancy hotels, restaurants, cafes and night clubs. Although the main celebration starts in the evening, the whole day is packed with entertaining events that will certainly fulfil your schedule, if you are planning to visit Croatia on New Year’s Eve.
The first thing to mention is the newly tradition of celebrating New Year’s at Noon, organised in every major city. Held in the early daytime, this kind of celebration provides families with children and elderlies a chance to party and enjoy in fantastic music, food and drinks. Also, it helps people to rehearse their countdown and practice their singing and dance skills before the evening celebration of New Year’s Eve. One of the best places to celebrate New Year’s at Noon is in Fuzine, a picturesque town situated in Gorski Kotar, not far from Rijeka or Zagreb, where it originally started.
Besides, the new traditions, in every place in Croatia, you can find different entertaining events which cherish the old traditions and customs. For instance, in Split, there is a very special tradition where the locals gather up in the courtyard of the Iron Gate of the Diocletian’s Palace near the famous Cipriani’s Palace and singing together while in Dubrovnik, there is the famous custom of kolendavanje where people would walk through the streets, passing from the door to door, singing festive songs and wishing everybody a Happy New Year.
When the day has passed, here comes evening and the main celebration. In every town and village, there is an elaborate entertainment programme which usually includes concerts of famous musicians with additionally customs. All restaurants, cafes and nightclubs in every major city are opened all night and provide its own programme with fantastic music, delicious food and refreshing drinks. These events are free, so well worth joining and taking in the atmosphere and good vibes. During the evening, as is everywhere around the world, there’s a countdown for midnight and a firework display. That is when people start celebrating and greeting each other Happy New Year. Later, when people have drunk their champagne, the party continues on, all the way until dawn.
When New Year has arrived, on New Year’s Day, after the long night of partying, people tend to rest, warm up next to the fireplace and enjoy the entire day spending time with their family and friends. For those who did not have enough of New Year’s Eve party, there are some interesting events happening on New Year’s Day, like concerts in Dubrovnik, the traditional New Year’s sport competition in picigin and annual custom of people jumping in the freezing cold waters.
Like on Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is typically celebrated with plenty of food. On the table, you can find the same dishes as on Christmas, like cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and rice (sarma), sausages, roast meat (e.g. pork, lamb or veal), aside with roasted potatoes, numerous types of cured meats (e.g. prosciutto, bacon, ham), a huge variety of different cheeses, freshly baked bread and, of course, million types of traditional cakes and pastries.
After New Year’s Day has passed, there are just few days until the end of Christmas season which finishes on Epiphany or The Three Kings’ Day.
Epiphany (The Three Kings’ Day)
In Croatia, Epiphany or the Three Kings’ Day is the day when people celebrate and remember the visit of the Three Kings or Magi to baby Jesus. Celebrated on the 6th January, for Croatians of the Roman Catholic faith, it marks the end of the Christmas season when people traditionally remove their Christmas decorations and Christmas trees, while for Croatians of the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, it represents Christmas Eve with Christmas Day celebrated on the 7th of January.
In some places in northern and north-eastern Croatia, there is a special tradition where groups of 3 boys, called star men (zvjezdari in Croatian, which derives from the word zvijezda, meaning star, because of the Bethlehem star made of cardboard that they carry with them) would go from house to house and sing occasional songs. As reward, the locals would give them gifts.
In conclusion, Christmas is celebrated all around the world. It is one of the most joyful times in the year. Each country bears its traditions and customs. So, does Croatia. By reading through this article, we hope you will learn more about Croatia through its Christmas traditions and customs, which influenced and entwined by Christian, locally old and widely modern traditions, make them so unique and special.
Thank you for reading our Christmas special article.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!