Christmas customs are an important part of Croatian tradition. Although Croatia is a relatively small country, it has a surprisingly large number of customs and traditions, which also vary from region to region.
Here's a general overview of the most important customs in Croatia during Christmas time.
Sveta Kata (St. Catherine's Day)
In some parts of Croatia preparations for Christmas celebration begin on 25th November and last for an entire month, although this isn't a very common practice. Preparations for Christmas usually commence on Advent Sunday, as is customary in many western Christian churches.
There's an interesting proverb in those parts of Croatia that practice the beginning of Christmas time on St. Catherine's Day:
Sveta Kata zatvara vrata ("St. Kate closes the door"). This refers to another related custom: no weddings nor any other larger celebrations are held at this time of the year!
4th Sunday before Christmas Day
Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the season of Advent. It is interesting that this season lasted for 6 weeks up until the 16th century. On this day, the first (of four) candles in the Advent wreath is lit. In the past, Croatians used to braid their own Advent wreaths from evergreen branches in such a way that there was no beginning nor the end in the wreath, which symbolizes eternity.
Generally, Croatians love giving gifts and Sveti Nikola marks the beginning of the gift-giving season in December.
On the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, children polish their boots and leave them on the window sill, hoping that St. Nicholas will bring them gifts, usually sweets. But those children who weren't good, polite and obedient to their parents get sticks instead! St. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, a hairy demon. While Nicholas rewards the good children, it's Krampus who leaves sticks for the children who behaved badly so that their parents can discipline them!
- St. Lucia was the one who brought gifts in southern and north-eastern Croatia,
- while children in central and northern Croatia used to receive gifts on St. Nicholas' Day.
- no gifts were given or received on Christmas day
Nowadays, December has become a kind of a paradise for children in Croatia, who now usually get presents on St. Nicholas' Day, St. Lucia's Day AND on Christmas Day!
But, grown-ups have their customs on this day, too! Mothers – or, sometimes, daughters – plant wheat grains, usually in a round dish, which is known as Christmas wheat (
božićna pšenica). What's more, people in some regions plant Christmas wheat even earlier – on St. Barbara's day, 4th December, so that the wheat could grow even taller before Christmas.
It's believed that the taller the wheat grows, the more prosperous the coming year will be. This tradition dates back to times when agriculture was the main economic activity and is connected with fertility cult. By Christmas Eve, the wheat, now hopefully tall, green and beautiful, is tied with a ribbon in red, white and blue – the colours of the Croatian flag.
In Slavonia, people observe the weather on each following day until Christmas, which falls on the 12th day from St. Lucia's Day. It is believed that the weather on each of these days shows what the weather will be like on each of the following months in the upcoming year.
The Croatian name for Christmas Eve is derived from the word
badnjak – a log lit on Christmas Eve in the evening (
Badnja večer), usually by the father of the family. In some regions (e.g. Dalmatia) the log is sprinkled with wine upon being lit, but again, each region has its own local variations. Traditionally, this is the most important part of an entire Christmas celebration. The
badnjak is usually cut on Christmas Eve in the morning, but this custom is also prone to regional interpretations. However, the log is supposed to be burning during the whole Christmas Day. Nowadays, the custom of lighting a
badnjak has remained only in rural areas, for obvious reasons.
Croatian Christmas meals
The traditional menu for Christmas Eve includes cod fish (
bakalar in Croatian), prepared in one of the two possible ways:
uštipci – traditional Croatian doughnut-like festive pastries, usually containing raisins, are also served.
These delicacies are usually not eaten before evening; people wouldn't normally eat at all before dinner time.
Decorating Christmas trees
Decorating Christmas trees wasn't a custom in Croatia until the mid-19th century. Before then, homes were normally decorated on Christmas Eve with flowers and fruits, mostly apples, plums and pears. Children were usually in charge of decorating their homes on Christmas Eve. Apart from flowers and fruits, children used to make paper ornaments.
When Christmas trees were first introduced, at first deciduous trees were used. Evergreen trees came later on. Trees were first decorated with gilded walnuts and hazelnuts.
Christmas candles have always been an important Christmas ornament and they were usually placed in the middle of the round plate where Christmas wheat grew. Later, trees were also decorated with small pieces of cotton or paper, symbolising snow. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury of possessing special Christmas ornaments or figurines back then.
On Christmas the dinner typically consists of
sarme (cabbage rolls, stuffed with meat and rice), all kinds of roasted meat, domestic sausages,
slanina (bacon) and
panceta (pancetta), cheese and
pršut (prosciutto, typical for Dalmatia) or
kulen (a type of spicy pork sausages, typical for Slavonia) as well as all sorts of cakes, baked on Christmas Eve.
Also referred to as
Sveta tri kralja (Holy three kings),
Bogojavljenje represents the end of the Christmas season. On this day, people usually take down Christmas trees and decorations.
In some places in northern and north-eastern Croatia, there is a tradition that groups of 3 boys, called
zvijezda meaning star, named after the Bethlehem star made of cardboard that they carry with them) or
svijeća = light; candle) go from house to house and people give them gifts.
Zvjezdari are sometimes accompanied by other boys who sing occasional songs.