Christmas in Croatia: how to celebrate holidays in the Croatian way?

As soon as summer is over, and the long warm afternoons are replaced by short cold days, everyone slowly begins to look forward to the winter holidays. Croats love Christmas time and everything that comes with it. Preparations for the Christmas holidays in Croatia begin four weeks before Christmas, and the festive atmosphere continues until the Feast of the Three Kings. During this period, schools and colleges do not work, and most people go on vacation and spend more time with their loved ones. With frequent gatherings accompanied by delicious dishes, homemade cakes, and quality wine, the most common side effects of these cozy holidays are good memories, a lot of laughter, and a scale showing a few pounds more.

Step one: get a nice wreath

In Croatia, preparations for Christmas begin with Advent, which marks four weeks before the holiday. You will most easily recognize that it has begun with the Advent wreath: already on the first Sunday of Advent, tables in many households are decorated with this evergreen wreath. Although there are many versions, the most common is the one in which the wreath is made of evergreen twigs and surrounded by four candles. While twigs represent a life that never ceases, the wreath reminds us that the life cycle flows, that things are always repeated, and that previous events condition those that follow. Candles representing hope, peace, joy, and love are lit gradually, one by one, every Sunday until Christmas.

Advent is the time of the year filled with various household chores, such as choosing the Christmas menu, cleaning and decorating the home, baking cakes, etc. In this period, the custom of helping the ones in need is also emphasized. By ones in need, we do mean not only the sick and poor but also the old and infirm who are near us. That is why many Croatians during Advent help old neighbors with chopping wood, buying them groceries, cooking and bringing lunch, or just visiting them and making company. In this way, we nurture the spirit of kindness and togetherness.

He is making a list and checking it twice

Advent is especially thrilling to children as this is the time of the year when they are given gifts several times. It all starts on December 6th with the feast of St. Nicholas. The tradition of giving presents for the day of St. Nicholas has its roots in a legend that says that during his lifetime, this saint helped a man who didn’t have any money to marry his three daughters. To give his daughters a dowry, Saint Nicholas took the bag, filled it with gold coins, wrapped it in a cloth, and secretly threw it through the window. In the memory of this unselfish act, while the children are sleeping, their parents silently leave them gifts, trying not to wake them up. In the morning, the parents claim that the gifts were left by Saint Nicholas.

Surprises are left in boots that the little ones, visibly excited, have polished and left on the window the night before. All those who were very good all year round, in the morning, will find a reward. While it might vary, gifts for St. Nicholas are somewhat more modest than those that children will receive for Christmas and usually include sweets and a toy. If there is a stick in the boot, Croatian parents will confirm that it was left by a Krampus – an evil creature of black hair with a tail and horns which accompanies St. Nicholas. Tied with chains, he rattles, scaring children and leaving sticks for all those who have misbehaved and need to improve their behavior in the upcoming year.

St. Nicholas is followed by the feast of St. Lucia, a custom that also contains gifting of the children. According to the legend, Saint Lucia was poor, so in her honor, parents left symbolic presents to their children. In the past, those were dried figs, walnuts, and apples, while today, children receive sweets. Originally left in woolen socks that used to be made in almost every household, presents nowadays are left in industrial socks or boots. In addition to gifting the children, the inevitable Croatian Christmas tradition on Saint Lucia’s day is the sowing of Christmas wheat. Wheat symbolizes life and calls for fertility in the coming year, so it is often believed that as wheat grows in a pot, so will your success next year.

Last-minute decoration

While most of the houses by this time are already decorated, if you want to stick to the old Croatian traditions, save your Christmas tree decorations for Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve, or Croatian Badnjak, is the day before Christmas. From the early morning, it is accompanied by a hectic pace trying to finish up all the preparations: from cleaning and arranging the home to baking meals and cakes for the upcoming days. When everything is done, the Croatian Christmas tradition requires gathering the family for dinner, which will be followed by a midnight mass.

If you are curious about the Christmas Eve menu, we must say that it largely depends on the region that you come from. In Dalmatia, meatless meat on Christmas Eve is obligatory, and that’s why most households and restaurants prepare cod making it one of the top-notch dishes. For all the sweet tooth, there are the inevitable fritters (fritule), gingerbread (medenjaci), and peppers (paprenjaci) that are made by traditional Croatian recipes making these sweets Croatia Christmas cookies.

Being loud to scare the spirits

While Christmas is most often celebrated with family members, and the whole experience is fitted for children, New Year in Croatia is often seen as a holiday that belongs to adults and is celebrated with friends. Nowadays, a midnight party is almost inconceivable without fireworks. The custom of the loud farewell can be associated with the symbolism of scaring and casting out evil spirits in the coming year, characteristic of pagan cultures that were incorporated into the Christian tradition. The noise is there to drive away the old year and all the bad that happened so that it doesn’t happen again.

One of the most beautiful customs of New Year’s Eve that remain on the islands like Vis and Korčula is caroling. Carols are festive songs sung by small groups that wish their loved ones a prosperous New Year. Mostly performed by children, they are also sung on Christmas Eve and Epiphany. For their effort, singers are rewarded with food, and nowadays mostly money, helping little singers to earn some pocket money this way.

Epiphany: the end of the Christmas holidays

After the New Year comes to the feast of the Holy Three Kings, which also marks the end of the Christmas holidays. In traditional culture, the feast of the Holy Three Kings is also called the Epiphany because, on this day, the water is blessed in churches. Traditionally blessed water was taken to the homes to bless living spaces. The original purpose of this custom was probably to exorcise evil spirits because in many parts of Europe, the twelfth night or Epiphany, as the last of the twelve mystical days after Christmas, was considered the most suitable for such a ritual act.

As this holiday marks the end of the Christmas cycle after Epiphany, the Christmas decorations are removed and carefully stored, waiting for the next year. After the Christmas holidays, a new cycle begins, the time of the carnival, bringing us the end of the winter, an awakening of nature, and a new beginning.

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