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Christmas Culture and Traditions in Croatia and the Former Yugoslavia

Updated on September 14, 2012

Christmas Decorations - What's the Rush

Nativity Set in an Socialist Society

In the Republic of Croatia (Hrvatska) as well as in Europe, you won't be seeing Christmas lights in November. If you have ever lived overseas, especially in America, this may come as a bit of a shock. Christmas somehow arrives just in time - 10-14 days before the actual day, in most cases. Sometimes at the very last moment. (You won't find any Santa Claus dolls with a sign saying "Ten Shopping Days Left"!)

As a forešt (foreigner) - I had always seen glitter peeking out of store windows from Halloween in the US. Here - you won't find it. Until 10 December you won't even have a clue that Christmas is just around the corner. Locals find this commercialism "disgusting". They call it "crass materialism!".

A Catholic country by tradition, the nativity scene can be found in store windows, lights and murals, whether or not the person attends church regularly, if ever. Here, you'll find a blurry line between tradition and belief. It's all part of the package, and that's how most Croatians have come to accept it, take it or leave it.


Advent in Croatia

Advent is a special time.  The TV  news reporters even have the four candle wreath on their news desks - the whole country celebrates.
Advent is a special time. The TV news reporters even have the four candle wreath on their news desks - the whole country celebrates.

During Yugoslavia

According to those who lived here before me, it wasn't always that way. During Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija), going to church was definitely out of fashion, and a nativity scene ("jaslica") was frowned upon. But those days have passed. As far as I can tell, most Croatians go with the cultural flow, regardless if they go to church or not.

Saints Observed At Christmas Time

Saint' Lucy's Day, December 13, provides another opportunity for children to get sweets and treats.  Adults plant seedlings in a small box to prepare for springtime.
Saint' Lucy's Day, December 13, provides another opportunity for children to get sweets and treats. Adults plant seedlings in a small box to prepare for springtime. | Source

Saints Days are part of the Season

Saint Lucy (Sveta Lucija)

Was a wealthy young woman, betrothed to marry into another prominent Syracuse family. No one had expected her to become a Christian and give her belongings to the poor. Like many of her age, she was persecuted when the Diokletian was the August of the Roman Empire. Under a law passed in 303 by the Diokletian cracking down on all Christians as "troublemakers", she and many others were tortured and killed in an attempt for her to renounce her faith. Her feast day is 13 December, and she is the patron saint of the blind and electricians. A fresco of her can be found in the Cathedral in Split.

¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨

Saint Barbara (Sveti Barbara)

An early Christian martyr, Barbara had been locked up in a tower by her father, a weathy pagan. He wished to protect her from the outside world. She had three windows built into her wall symbolizing the Trinity. Her father tried to kill her but she escaped to a mountain gorge where shepherds hid and protected her. One betrayed her as was turned to stone. She was later cruelly tortured and executed by her own father, who was later struck down the same night by lightning. She is a very popular saint in Greece and Eastern Europe, since many of these claims border on the fantastic.

¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨¨

Saint Nicholas (Sveti Nikola)

This treasured saint of children who brought apples and chocolate every December 6 if they were good. And if they were not? There was always Krampus, the Croatian Grinch, who laid in wait to give them their just desserts. Sveti Nicola who really did exist in Asia Minor in the 3rd Century was known for this tradition, and some unlucky naughty children received onions instead of apples, with or without a complimentary switch with the intent to remind their parents to beat their little hineys into shape!

Nikola or Mikule (mee-ku-leh) in dialekt

This is the city seal of Komiža, where Saint Nikola is the patron saint, celebrated on 6 December.  He is the protector of both children and fishermen.
This is the city seal of Komiža, where Saint Nikola is the patron saint, celebrated on 6 December. He is the protector of both children and fishermen.
The Cathedral of Saint Nikola located in Komiža.  He is the patron saint of fishermen and children.  The then-modern church was visited by Pope Alexander in the 12th century.
The Cathedral of Saint Nikola located in Komiža. He is the patron saint of fishermen and children. The then-modern church was visited by Pope Alexander in the 12th century. | Source
The famous boat burning ceremony, which takes place every December 6th in Komiža.   This is a traditional festival and the TV news crews come over to island Vis to enjoy event in the warmer Mediterranean climate.
The famous boat burning ceremony, which takes place every December 6th in Komiža. This is a traditional festival and the TV news crews come over to island Vis to enjoy event in the warmer Mediterranean climate. | Source

Boat Burning for Good Luck

In the town of Komiža on Vis Island, the locals follow a curious custom. Every December 6th, an old wooden boat is designated as the offering used to burn as a sacrifice to the sea. No one can remember how the tradition began, but it may be as old as pagan times. Like all sacrifices, a self-chosen one is bound to be a better alternative than the one taken by force. Wooden boats are definitely harder to come by than they once were. Most modern nautical wonders are made of synthetic materials which aren't so nice for burning. Somehow, the residents of Komiža scare up a boat, which ceremonially burns alongside the ancient cathedral on the hill, facing the sea and its neighboring islands - Sv. Andrija, Brusnik and Jabuka (Apple).

This event brings worshipers and photographers from all over Croatia. The Dalmatian weather is almost always seasonably good - sunny and cold, but temperate. The rest of the country, wearing their snow boots in colder climates, watch the event and half curse the lucky Komižans for their California Dreaming winter weather.

Where IS Croatia, anyway?

it's located across the street from Italy, and around the corner from Turkey
it's located across the street from Italy, and around the corner from Turkey | Source

Presents as an After-thought

Yes, there must be presents under the tree, but it hasn't gotten so material here quite yet. The main events? There is the obligatory Christmas concert put on by the school kids and nursery school tots. There must be sweets. A beautiful wreath or two to buy. There are dried figs to eat, dried since the autumn. Midnight mass, even if it means dressing up and being seen, is still an important event. There is the wonderful Christmas dinner, which must be slightly fabulous, and family based. After all, it is Christmas.

Map showing the modern Republic of Croatia (Hrvatska)

Croatia in modern times
Croatia in modern times | Source

Dobar Tek (Good Appetite!)

Pasrate, also known as Fritule, which are traditionally served on Badnjak (Christmas Eve)
Pasrate, also known as Fritule, which are traditionally served on Badnjak (Christmas Eve) | Source
Fishermen's Stew, made of dry codfish (bakalar).  It is served on Christmas Eve with sliced potatoes and a red or white broth.  The fish must be soaked in water for several days before cooking.
Fishermen's Stew, made of dry codfish (bakalar). It is served on Christmas Eve with sliced potatoes and a red or white broth. The fish must be soaked in water for several days before cooking. | Source

'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

The day before Christmas is almost as important as Christmas itself. Its name, Badnjak (Bad-n-Yack) refers to the Yuletide Log, which was an important part of the holiday in Christmases past. The event of bringing in the hugs log to burn the evening before Christmas, sing songs and prepare for the birth of Jesus is in the hearts of many grandmas and granpas who enjoyed delightful moments in material poverty and spiritual richness.

On Christmas Eve, a traditional hot meal of dried codfish stew is eaten with french bread for lunch. It is warm and filling. In towns around Split, there are large tureens of bakalar, as it is called, being served to the citizens of the town as a special way of celebrating the holiday.

The other taste treat traditionally served on Christmas Eve is a fried apple cookie called Pasrate (PA-shur-ah-tee) There are a variety of ways to make it. The recipe below is my favorite version. The whole idea is to make the balls small enough so that they fry evenly and don't remain raw in the center - I use two teaspoons to spoon them out one from the other to avoid the temptation of licking my fingers. (a definite no no!) They are drained and dusted in powdered sugar - simply wonderful.

Comments

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I'm happy you posted this here. It is interesting that there is more of the Christmas spirit there and less of the commercialism we find here in the U.S. I find the simplicity and depth much more charming.

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile imageAUTHOR

      Anastasia Kingsley 

      4 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Many things look unrelated - but other things make perfect sense... after all most Europeans evolved from tribes where ritualism played a large part of life - the welcoming of the seasons, the dispersement of evil spirits, common issues that bonded people together (like they now do, but in a slightly different way). Most traditions now are a bit archaic with no real meaning in the present time, just an opportunity to get together and "eat".

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 

      4 years ago

      It is amazing how different cultures celebrate Christmas.

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile imageAUTHOR

      Anastasia Kingsley 

      7 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      They are tasty and delicious any time of year :) so feel free to make them now, as we sometimes do!

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Wish I'd known about this hub last Christmas. I like the pasrate -- maybe I could've researched that and made some. Voting this Up and Interesting.

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