Easter in Croatia – Traditions and Customs
Easter in Croatia
Easter represents a very special time for many Christians in Croatia when they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is described in the New Testament as having occurred on the third day of his burial after his crucifixion by the Romans at Calvary. It is regarded as one of the holiest Christian holidays in Croatia.
It is the culmination of the whole week period which is referred to as the Holy Week, when Christians commemorate all the following events that led to the resurrection of Jesus. It includes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus. This entire period is also the final week of the Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer and penance, when people spiritually prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter.
As the upcoming holidays are approaching, there are many traditions and customs which Croatians have developed to follow the religious observance and celebration of Easter.
In this article, it is explained how Croatians celebrate Easter and we point out some main Easter traditions and customs in Croatia. You are encouraged to peruse our special Easter article, so you may easily embrace yourself into the Easter spirit in Croatia when planning your trip to Croatia for Easter.
Easter is referred as a moveable feast. It means that Easter does not fall on a fixed date. Instead, the date for Easter is determined on a lunisolar calendar which is regulated by the positions of both the Moon and Sun.
In Croatia, Easter falls on Sunday between 22nd March and 25th April according to the Gregorian calendar. Based on what date Easter falls, it will reflect on the dates for other related Christian holidays which coincide with Easter, for instance Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Feast of Corpus Christi (Croatian: Tijelovo). This year, Easter is celebrated in Croatia on the 21st of April.
Easter Dates – Eastern Orthodox
While this article mainly focuses on how people in Croatia celebrate Easter according to Roman Catholic traditions, it is also significant to mention when Croatians, who are of Eastern Orthodox faith, celebrate Easter. According to Eastern Orthodox traditions, the dates for Easter are determined by observing the lunisolar calendar and the Julian calendar. Therefore, Easter may fall between 4th April and 8th May, according to the Gregorian calendar. Sometimes, it happens that both Easters fall on the same date which allow for all Croatians to celebrate Easter as one.
Holy Week in Christianity is a term given to the week just before Easter. It is the final week of Lent, a forty-day period of fasting, prayer and penance when people spiritually prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter. It is also a time when Christians commemorate all the following events that led to the resurrection of Jesus.
Through this period, many people in Croatia show this by performing religious rituals and ceremonies. For instance, going to church regularly, attending mass, doing confessions, reading texts from the Bible, chanting Christian hymns and performing the Passion of Christ through traditional live Passion processions. Also, they carry out traditional Easter preparations which involves food preparations and painting Easter eggs.
Palm Sunday is a Christian holiday when people commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is the first day of the Holy Week. The day is celebrated by the blessing and distribution of palm, olive or rosemary branches which represent the palm branches the crowd scattered in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.
In Croatia, Palm Sunday begins with a pretty custom of people washing the faces with flowers. This tradition is related to the celebration of spring, youth and new life. Young girls would collect spring flowers and put them in the family’s wash basin. Often the entire house would be decorated with spring flowers. In the morning, people take their olive or palm branches to church to be blessed. Afterwards, they would bring their blessed branches back to their homes as a blessing souvenir for their families.
In the following days during the Holy Week, from Monday to Thursday, people continue with their Easter observances by performing religious practices which slowly culminate towards Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Holy Thursday and Good Friday
The biggest peaks of the Holy Week before Easter are on Thursday and Friday generally known as Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
On Holy Thursday, people observe the Last Supper when Jesus Christ and his twelve disciples gathered around the table to share bread and wine together before Jesus is betrayed and crucified. It is also when Jesus consecrates the bread and wine (the body and blood of Christ) and establishes the Holy Communion.
Around Croatia, people traditionally commemorate this day by doing religious rituals like going to church, attending mass and preparing themselves for the Passion processions which are held on Good Friday.
On Good Friday, people commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. It is regarded as a fasting day which traditionally involves the abstinence of meat and substituting it with fish and other seafood. Therefore, people usually eat dried cod prepared in a codfish stew with potato which is locally known as bakalar.
Although no mass is held on Good Friday, the day is still observed with many religious rituals and customs. One of the most significant happenings on Good Friday is the Passion procession.
The Passion procession is a public religious ceremony where people commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus by following a designated path that depicts the 14 Stations of the Cross.
In the procession, there is a cross bearer who plays the role of Jesus carrying the cross and a group of people who walk beside the cross bearer, reciting passages from the Bible, singing Passion hymns and giving support to the cross bearer in need.
The procession is held every year on Good Friday and it is one of the longstanding Easter traditions in Croatia. Every place organises its own procession following the traditional routine by incorporating local customs. Each one is a unique sight to experience. However, the most outstanding and well-known Passion procession in Croatia is the “Following the Cross” Passion Procession on Hvar.
“Following the Cross” Passion Procession on Hvar
The “Following the Cross” (Za Križen) Procession is regarded as unique expression of special piety and an important part of island’s religious and cultural identity, which has lasted more than 500 years.
The procession is organised through the whole island of Hvar. It starts in the evening of the Holy Thursday and continues onward through Good Friday.
It consists of six processions which start at the same time in six parishes: Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirče, Vrbanj and Vrboska. All processions move clockwise which pass through every village on the island.
For instance, the Cross of Jelsa goes to Pitve, the Cross of Pitve goes to Vrisnik, the Cross of Vrisnik goes to Svirče, the Cross of Svirče goes to Vrbanj, the Cross of Vrbanj goes to Vrboska and finally the Cross of Vrboska goes to Jelsa
At the head of the procession is the cross bearer who carries a heavy cross as a symbol of prayer or gratitude. He is followed by a group of chosen people which include his assistants, candle and lantern carriers, procession leaders and singers. All are dressed in white tunics.
The group stops in front of churches and chapels in every village where they are greeted by priests and other locals who await them with songs and prayers before returning to their parish church before dawn.
During the procession, many worshippers and pilgrims join the procession group and walk along them. They usually carry candles and rosaries while singing old Passion songs which are considered to be the oldest in Europe. The most impressive part is when singers (kantaduri) chant the song “Lamentations of the Virgin Mary”, an octosyllabic Passion text from the 15th century that is sung as a dialogue.
At the end of the procession, the cross bearer makes a full run with the cross towards the parish church where he throws himself in the embrace of the priest who is waiting there with the locals.
At this point, the entire village is united in a song at one place, both physically and spiritually. After the song, it is customary for the cross-bearer to bless the gathered people with the sacred cross he carried all night. This is when the “Following the Cross” Passion procession is completed.
Because for its unique form, the procession was enlisted as UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.
Another unique tradition which occurs before Easter is the arrival of zudije. The zudije are a group of costumed soldiers who represent the guardians of the tomb of Christ. The group consists of 12 guards who are led by the commander named Judas as the 13th guard. The name zudije probably derives from the Greco-Roman word which means a Jew.
The roles of zudije are played by young men who dress up as Roman soldiers and whose task is to guard the tomb as described in the New Testament. Their service starts in the evening of the Holy Thursday when they start guarding the altar, where a carefully decorated tomb is set. They continue to guard the tomb through Good Friday and Holy Saturday up until Easter Vigil at midnight. Then, the zudije fall to the ground upon hearing the bells tolling announcing the resurrection of Christ during the Holy Mass.
The tradition of zudije is predominantly nourished in the region of Dalmatia. The beginning of this tradition dates back to the mid-19th century. One of the oldest traditions of zudije can be found in the parish St. Elias in Metkovic where they were established in 1857. Today, each part of Dalmatia has its own customs.
In order to preserve and promote this special Easter tradition, there is the Vodice Festival of Žudije. The festival was established in 2001 in the small town of Vodice near Sibenik. It had stayed in Vodice until 2006 when organisers decided to move the festival annually elsewhere. The festival is held each year in another place in Croatia where the people would have the opportunity to embrace traditions from different Croatian regions. However, every six years, the festival moves back to Vodice. This year, the festival is organised in the village of Promina Oklaj just a 45-minute drive from the town of Sibenik.
Once the Holy Week has passed, Easter Day comes. It is the day when Christians in Croatia and around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Easter Day begins on Sunday, at midnight, with the traditional Easter Vigil when people attend the Holy Mass until the early sunrise to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The day then continues in the morning. It is when most families in Croatia wake up to start celebrating Easter.
Once they are awakened, they greet each other Happy Easter (Sretan Uskrs in Croatian) and sit around the table to have their traditional Easter breakfast. The tables are filled with food which has been previously blessed in the churches in the early morning. These foods include bread, ham, cheese, chives, salt, Easter eggs, occasional Easter pastries and cakes, as well as other custom foods and sweets.
As soon as the people have filled up with food, many families go to their local churches to attend the Easter Sunday Mass and spend quality time with their loved ones during the morning.
Once the morning has gone, the Easter lunch awaits. It is commonly known that Croatians love to throw a real feast for any occasion. Easter is no exception. At Easter lunch, there is an abundant of food which vary from region to region. Nevertheless, the most common dishes you may find on any Croatian table involve: roasted lamb, veal or turkey, roasted potatoes, salads, radishes, spring onions, horseradish, baked bread and many cakes and pastries.
However, the feast does not stop here, it continues onto the next day on Easter Monday, when people visit their extended families where you can expect plenty of food.
One thing that you cannot miss when mentioning Easter are Easter eggs. Easter eggs are one of the most common customs shared in many countries as in Croatia. They are decorated chicken eggs which are displayed on Easter. There are many ways for decorating your eggs for Easter. However, the most usual way to decorate the eggs is by painting them in various colours.
In Croatia, there is an old tradition of colouring the eggs in natural dye using different plants and vegetables what will give the desired colour. For example, the red colour is acquired by soaking the eggs in beetroot juice. Red onion peels will give the eggs a shiny orange-brownish colour. The green colour is won by dying them with green vegetables and herbs. Blueberries will give the eggs a nice bluish or purple colour and oak leaves would give the eggs a rustic brown colour.
However, nowadays, it is very common to use artificial food colours to paint Easter eggs which saves you trouble dealing with the natural colouring method. It is also becoming a custom to buy delicious chocolate Easter eggs and bunnies which you may find in all supermarkets and specialised confectionery stores around Croatia.
When the coloured Easter eggs are ready and set on the table for Easter, the real fun begins. There is a traditional Easter game called egg tapping or egg fight. It is normally played in the morning during Easter breakfast amongst close family members or between relatives when visiting them on Easter Monday.
The rules of the game are simple. Each player holds a hard-boiled egg and pecks on the egg of another participant with the aim of cracking the other’s eggs without breaking its own. The winner is the player whose egg remains unbroken for the entire game. As a reward, the player gets to taste a slice of victory in his mouth. Nonetheless, if other players get their eggs broken, it does not mean their participation was fruitless. Because, as reward they get to eat their eggs earlier than the winner. Therefore, everyone wins.
Sirnica – Traditional Easter Sweet Bread
For Easter, there is plenty of food with both savoury dishes as well as traditional Easter cakes and pastries.
Looking at Easter cakes and pastries, there is one thing that is a staple food amongst people in Dalmatia. It is called sirnica or pinca. It is a traditional Easter sweet bread that is similar to a brioche or challah. The bread is a yeast-filled dough which is made with milk, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla sugar and salt. The top of the sirnica is cut as a cross and sprinkled with sugar. Into the sirnica, you can add rum, citrus zests like lemon and orange, a touch of cinnamon and even dried fruit to get extra sweet aromatic flavour.
You can either make the sirnica yourself or buy it at local supermarkets and pastry shops in Croatia. If you decide to buy sirnica, we recommend you to visit the small pastry shop “Tradicija” in Split, located just a minute walk away from Pjaca. It is one of the most popular pastry shops in the city. It is renowned for making the best sirnica in Split. They are so delicious, that just before Easter, there is always a line of people waiting to get their hands on the delicious golden nugget.
When the sirnica is on the table, it is best served with a little bit of butter. Delicious!
Easter bonfires are another unique Easter tradition. This tradition is very popular in the northern rural parts of Croatia. It involves making a huge bonfire in the evening of the Holy Saturday just in time before the Easter Vigil. The villagers would gather around the fire, which symbolises the light of Christ, to sing Easter songs and celebrate the early hours of Easter.
Easter Monday is the day after Easter Sunday. In many countries like in Croatia, the day is declared as an official holiday. Therefore, many people in Croatia visit their families and friends to continue celebrating Easter with them. It occurs in the same manner as on Sunday with plenty of food, egg tapping and of course many laughs and loves amongst each other.
In conclusion, Easter represents a very special time for many Christians in Croatia when they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is period when we remember that through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and evil forever, providing us with a new life and hope. During this time, many people in Croatia show their Easter observance through various traditions and customs which have deeply entwined into the celebration of Easter.
After reading this article, we hope you have learnt how people in Croatia celebrate Easter and understood some of Easter traditions and customs in Croatia. Also, we encourage you to embrace yourself into the Easter spirit if you are staying in Croatia this Easter.