Croatian Traditions: What is Christmas Like in Croatia
Did you know Croatians start preparing for Christmas on November 25th, St. Catherine's Day? Over 85% of Croatians are Catholic, so Advent is significant. During Advent, making an Advent wreath using straw or evergreen twigs is a popular tradition. The wreath symbolises endlessness, while the four candles embody hope, peace, joy, and love, representing different aspects of history and life. Some people even add a fifth candle that's lit on Christmas Day.
Croatians also celebrate other Saints' days during Advent. For example, on St. Nicholas's Eve, children clean their shoes and leave them in the window, hoping to receive chocolates and small presents from St. Nicholas. Naughty kids instead receive golden twigs from Krampus, a giant monster with horns who sometimes travels with St. Nicholas.
On St. Lucia's Day, people often sow wheat onto small plates, and the grassy sprouts that grow, called Christmas wheat, are put underneath the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas trees are super popular in Croatia, and people traditionally decorate them with ornaments in the shapes of fruits. Did you know that an old Croatian tradition is that young men gave their girlfriends decorated apples at Christmas?
In the rural parts of the country, it's still customary to bring straw into the house on Christmas Eve as a symbol of future good crops. While it was expected to light a yule log called a 'badnjak' in the past, very few people have fireplaces. Croatians exchange gifts on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and often attend a midnight Mass service.
Croatians wish each other a Happy/Merry Christmas by saying "Sretan Božić"! Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are mostly celebrated with close family, while friends and extended family visit each other on Boxing Day. On Christmas Eve, it's customary to eat dried cod called 'bakalar' or some different kind of fish as it's considered a meat fast (so you can't eat meat). The main meal on Christmas Day usually consists of turkey, goose, or duck, with sarma (cabbage rolls filled with minced pork meat) being a popular side dish. Croatians also enjoy small cookies and cakes, with doughnuts being a favourite. 'Krafne' are filled with jam, jelly, marmalade or chocolate, while 'fritule' is flavoured with lemon and rum.
The Christmas celebrations conclude on Epiphany (January 6th).
Sveta Kata (St. Catherine's Day)
In Croatia, most people prepare for Christmas on Advent Sunday, following the Western tradition. However, there are some parts of Croatia where the preparations begin on November 25th, also known as Sveta Kata or Sveta Katarina, and last for an entire month. However, this is a rare practice.
Interestingly, there is a proverb in these parts of Croatia - "Sveta Kata zatvara vrata", which means "St. Kate closes the door". It indicates no weddings or large celebrations should be held after November 25th. Therefore, if you plan to marry in Croatia, it's better to have it before this date!
Prva adventska nedjelja (Advent Sunday)
The 4th Sunday before Christmas Day is significant because it marks the beginning of the season of Advent. In Croatia, this day is known as Prva adventska nedjelja. Today, people light the first of four candles in the Advent wreath. In the past, Croatians used to braid their own Advent wreaths from evergreen branches, ensuring there was no beginning or end in the wreath—this symbolised eternity.
Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas' Day)
On December 6th, Croatians celebrate Sveti Nikola, which marks the beginning of the gift-giving season. This day is significant when children traditionally clean their boots and leave them on the window sill, hoping St. Nicholas will bring them gifts, usually sweets. However, those children who misbehave during the year receive sticks instead of gifts.
Krampus, a hairy demon, accompany St. Nicholas. While Nicholas rewards the good children, Krampus leaves sticks for the naughty children so their parents can discipline them. In Zagreb, the city is adorned with Advent decorations, adding to the festive atmosphere.
Sveta Lucija (St. Lucia's Day)
Traditionally, on December 13th in southern and northeastern Croatia, Sveta Lucija brought gifts, while in central and northern Croatia, children received gifts on St. Nicholas' Day. Interestingly, in the past, no gifts were given or received on Christmas day at all. However, December has become a win-win situation for kids in Croatia, as they receive presents on St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia's Day, and Christmas Day!
Božićna pšenica (Christmas wheat)
On December 4th, it's a tradition for mothers or daughters to plant wheat grains in a round dish called "božićna pšenica", or Christmas wheat. The belief is that the taller the wheat grows, the more prosperous the coming year will be. This custom dates back to when agriculture was the primary economic activity. The wheat should have grown tall, green, and beautiful by Christmas Eve. It is then tied with a ribbon in the colours of the Croatian flag: red, white, and blue.
In Slavonia, people carefully observe the weather from St. Lucia's Day until Christmas, the 12th day of St. Lucia's Day. They believe that the weather on each day predicts what the weather will be like in the following 12 months of the upcoming year.
Here's a picture of the božićna pšenica that is growing well!
Badnjak or Badnji dan (Christmas Eve)
On December 24th, Croatian families celebrate Badnjak, their name for Christmas Eve. The celebration involves lighting a log on Badnja večer the evening before Christmas Day. This log, called Badnjak, is usually lit by the father of the family, and in some regions of Croatia, it is sprinkled with wine before being set on fire. The Croatians also refer to Christmas Eve as Badnji dan, and traditionally, lighting the Badnjak is the most essential part of the entire Christmas celebration.
The badnjak log is usually cut on Christmas Eve in the morning, but the tradition can vary by region. However, it is customary to keep the log burning throughout Christmas Day. Nowadays, this custom is practised mainly in rural areas.
The traditional menu for Christmas Eve usually includes Bakalar and cod fish paste. But if the children have a say, fritule or uštipci might also be on the menu. Fritules are sweet, deep-fried doughnut balls, while uštipci are traditional festive pastries that contain raisins.
Decorating the Christmas tree
Decorating Christmas trees became popular in Croatia in the mid-19th century. Before this, on Christmas Eve, homes were typically decorated with flowers and fruits, such as apples, plums, and pears. Children were responsible for decorating their homes with paper ornaments and other decorations. At first, deciduous trees were used, adorned with gilded walnuts and hazelnuts. Evergreen trees only became famous later on.
Christmas candles were always a significant ornament and were usually placed in the centre of the round plate where the wheat grew. Later, trees were decorated with small pieces of cotton or paper, symbolizing snow. Previously, only the wealthy could afford the luxury of unique Christmas ornaments or figurines.
The image shows a Christmas tree on Hvar.
Božić (Christmas day)
On December 25th, Christmas day, the dinner usually involves sarmes, which are cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice and various roasted meats, domestic sausages, bacon, and pancetta. Cheese and pršut, prosciutto typical for Dalmatia, or kulen, a spicy pork sausage regular for Slavonia, are also served. Additionally, various cakes are traditionally baked on Christmas Eve.
On the 6th of January, Bogojavljenje, also known as Sveta tri kralja (Holy Three Kings), marks the end of the Christmas season. It is customary to remove Christmas trees and decorations on this day.
In certain parts of northern and northeastern Croatia, there is a tradition where groups of three boys, called zvjezdari (which means "star" in English and is named after the Bethlehem star made of cardboard that they carry), betlehemari, or svjećari (meaning "candle" in English) visit houses and receive gifts from people. Zvjezdari is sometimes accompanied by other boys who sing songs intermittently.