Christmas traditions can be as varied as the ornaments on a tree: some have been handed down for generations, some are new takes on old ideas, some are quirky or just-plain silly—but they all have special memories attached. These can change from region to region or home to home.

Some folks keep their doors open all season to anyone and everyone who wants to share in the festivities. For others, Christmas is a time to huddle together with family. According to ethnographer Ivo Jardas (1888-1978), who was an expert in customs of the Istria-Kvarner region, Christmas Day in Kastav was a time just for family.

In his book Kastavština, Jardas explained that people were to stay at home on Christmas Day. On Christmas morning, adults would warn their children not to go visit friends or neighbors. In some neighborhoods, if anyone went to visit someone else who wasn’t family, they would be told off or even made fun of.

But the day after Christmas was a whole different story. On St. Stephen’s Day, or Stipanja, as it is called in Kastav, the whole village would come together. Early in the morning, people would start making the rounds of their neighbor’s houses. Adults would be greeted with homemade rakija, and children would be given a piece of fruit. Sisters and girlfriends would knit wool zapesnice (wrist warmers) or socks for their brothers or boyfriends and give them as presents. 

It seems the whole village would have been feeling the warmth, inside and out, on St. Stephen’s Day. We tend to think that’s a pretty nice balance, having quiet family time and then extending the celebration another day to spend with everyone else!

The DOMA Trading Christmas Collection

Last year, my mom and I spent our first Christmas together in Croatia, and let me say that we were not disappointed. In fact, I’m starting to think that it is her Croatian DNA that’s made her such a fount of holiday magic all these years! It’s hard to single out favorite moments when you’re in such a whirlwind of festivity, but here are some things we really love about Christmas in Croatia.

Christmas in Croatia is Beautiful

One of the things that shocked us, starting our Advent explorations in Zagreb, was the extent of the decorations. Not gaudy, just gorgeous. The whole city center was turned into a glowing wonderland, with different decorative themes down every side street, from the main square to the upper town and all around. The decorations were so well thought out too: there were different areas geared more toward kids or youths or adults; outdoor sets constructed like living rooms, complete with heaters and couches (one even had a bookcase), so people could enjoy their food and drinks in a homey setting right out on the street; and even festive frames and archways set up at the best viewpoints for people to take photos in. Did I mention Christmas trees everywhere?!

Out on the coast, the decorations weren’t so extensive but they were still magical. Opatija, whose signs read, “Najljepši Advent uz More” (the Most Beautiful Advent by the Sea), really lived up to its slogan, tapping into the quietness of the seaside atmosphere while offering a festive setting that was pretty as a picture.

Christmas in Croatia is Musical

In Zagreb, there were stages in the main areas with a mix of contemporary bands and traditional dance groups, and then there were little stages on the side streets where local bands were playing—I even ran into a friend who was performing in town (it’s always reassuring to see other musicians working!). Add to this the evocative voices of the choir in the balcony at midnight mass, Christmas concerts all over the place, and the mini-musical that was the live nativity scene being performed several times a day outside the Zagreb cathedral, and there was music to be enjoyed everywhere.

Christmas in Croatia is Cheerful

Both in Zagreb and out on the coast, there were booths set up with vendors selling food and hot drinks—from mulled wines to hot gin, and of course cider and cocoa—and there were always people out in the cold, huddled around tables, enjoying their treats and conversation. But as the nights grew long, did we ever see a sad drunk girl with makeup running down her face, or beer-filled beefcakes puffing their chests out and getting ready to brawl? Not a one. Just friends and families enjoying nice evenings together underneath the twinkling lights. Add to this all the kids out with their parents, young couples holding hands, and even ice skating rinks bringing smiles and laughs to young and old alike, and people just seemed happy.

Christmas in Croatia is Delicious

Hot sarma in the park? Yes, please. A nice bowl of grah to enjoy while we checked out the craft stalls? Oh yeah! If there’s one thing we weren’t lacking for last Christmas, it was delicious things to eat. Between the public feasts and meals with friends, we enjoyed at least three kinds of bakalar (traditionally prepared cod fish dishes), all kinds of traditional eats, and more homemade desserts than we could keep track of.

Christmas in Croatia is Homemade

Since we started going back to Croatia, we’ve connected with some wonderful people whom we’re lucky to call family, and made some awesome friends. Well, when you have friends and family in Croatia, they often show up with gifts—particularly when it’s Christmas. Homemade liqueurs, homemade cakes and cookies, homemade jams, homemade decorations, homemade hand warmers…homemade everything. There’s just something about gifts made by the hands of the people you love, and they made our Christmas that much more special.

Christmas in Croatia is Sacred

One of our unexpected highlights of last Christmas was the live nativity scene that was staged outside the cathedral in Zagreb. In the midst of all the glitz and glow, here was a story played out like a homespun musical, with a cast of angels and shepherds and wise men and a poor young family, reminding us all that Christmas is about the coming of Jesus to save the world, and that everyone—from every nation and language, both old and young—is welcome to come to Him for the free gift of salvation. This wasn’t just a stale recitation, it was a story told with joy and celebration, singing and dancing, pointing the way back to the true heart of Christmas.

Christmas in Croatia is Togetherness

The common thread that seemed to run through all the Christmas celebrations we experienced in Croatia was togetherness: people enjoying the company of their families, friends, and even complete strangers. Whether out on the square enjoying the festivities or gathered in homes for quiet celebrations—whether huddled under outdoor heaters with drinks in hand or huddled into the pews of a crowded little seaside church at midnight—whether walking, talking, singing, eating, dancing, listening, or sharing…everywhere there were people together. And then there was the serving of the Christmas Eve meal out on the main square, where everyone, rich or poor, was welcome to come to the table and enjoy a meal together. It was like the love and kindness and reconciliation that gave birth to that first Christmas found a place to land here, in a spirit of togetherness that shone even brighter than all the gleaming lights and decorations.

When we were planning to spend Christmas in Croatia, we knew it would be special (how could it not be?!), but we had no idea just how incredible it would be. If you’ve been considering making your own trip over for the holidays, I have one word for you: Go!

The DOMA Trading Christmas Collection

Christmas was always a big deal in our family. Our parents went out of the way to make everything—I mean everything—a special memory. We had our favorite foods, our favorite music, a healthy share of typical festivities, and a handful of silly little traditions kept just between the four of us. 

One of our holiday “rules” was that no Christmas decorations could come out until December 1st. That week between Thanksgiving and December felt like the longest week of the year—oh, the suspense! But finally the day would come and we’d pull the dusty decoration boxes down out of the attic, excited it was finally time to put our Santa hats back on and start opening windows on the Advent calendar. Some time around the 15th or 20th, we would pick an evening and spend hours scouring Christmas tree lots for just the perfect tree to bring home. Once it was cleaned up and decorated, we could spend just as many hours sitting in front of the tree, in a room that was lit only by twinkly colored tree lights, taking in the beauty and profound magic of the moment.

Over the years we’ve been pulled apart geographically, but I know there’s still some of that Christmas magic tying us all together, no matter where we are.

My mom (Deni) and I had been talking for several years about one day making it to Europe’s famed Christmas markets. I think we always assumed we would go to Germany or Austria—but then we started hearing rumors about this wonderful Christmas celebration in Zagreb. So when I visited her in Croatia last Christmas, we made a point of spending a few days in Zagreb.

We had no idea what we were in for!!

It would take way more than a simple blog post to convey the beauty, the wonder, the warmth and utter magic that were waiting to be enjoyed. First, there were decorations (those lovely decorations!) covering blocks and blocks and blocks of the city, from Jelačić Trg up to Gornji Grad, down Ilica and out to the cathedral. We wandered and giggled and lit up like little kids every time we rounded another corner and found a new pocket of themed decorations, all wrapped up and dripping with colored lights.

But even better than the material things was the fact that there were people everywhere out enjoying them—warming up with hot drinks in the upper town, filling up on sarma or grah down in the park, browsing the craft stalls, bundled up listening to music at the outdoor stages, crowded around the live nativity scene to hear the story of Jesus’ birth, sharing Christmas Eve bakalar with literally anyone in the city willing to make their way to the main square for this traditional meal.… The city felt full of the kind of Christmas spirit you only hear about in movies, and we soaked it in till we dropped!

After the extravaganza that was Advent u Zagrebu, we retreated to the coast for Christmas Eve dinner with friends and midnight mass. It was so much quieter and more subdued (doesn’t the sea always have a calming effect?) but the spirit was still there—and it went on for many days. Warmth that even the icy air couldn’t expel. Brightness to defy the darkest days of the year. And a kind of joyful togetherness I had not experienced since I was a little kid, before life got complicated and the four winds began to gently sweep us all apart.

I have no doubt that our first Christmas in Croatia was somewhere in our minds when we were laying the foundations for DOMA Trading. We met so many dear people selling beautiful things, and our hearts were stirred to share these treasures—with people who might not be making the trip back to Croatia, with people who just need a little reminder or touch from home, and with those who are excitedly dreaming up their next visit. It’s not even about the things, it’s about the people behind them—and the people many of us have left behind. Sometimes we just need a little something to hold onto, something frozen in time, that passes from one hand and one home to the next. A little thread, a little memory to help us all feel closer.

Sretan Božić, from our family to yours.

The DOMA Trading Christmas Collection

Tamburica music is popular in cultural traditions across Central and Southern Europe, and is a symbol of traditional Croatian folk music. Tamburica, or tamboura, refers to a family of wooden lutes—stringed instruments with long necks, frets, and deep, round, hollow bodies. The original tamburica body was pear-shaped, but today there are also guitar shapes. The tamburica is plucked or strummed, by hand or with a plectrum. Legends of the origins of this type of instrument vary: some say it derives from the ancient Greek pandoura; others say it was brought by the Turks to Bosnia and then to Slavonia with the spread of the indigenous Šokci people. The music may be instrumental or accompanied by singing that traditionally tells stories of love and village life.

Many varieties of tamburica instruments were made in Croatia and Serbia, including the samica, also called dangubica, which is said to be the original tamburica from Croatia. Its pear-shaped body is carved from a single piece of wood with one small, round sound hole. It has either two or four single strings or two double strings, which are played by hand; one string may play the melody while the others are strummed as drones. The samica is normally played solo, and not as part of a tamburica orchestra.

The prima, also called prim or bisernica, is a smaller instrument with small, decorative sound holes in the body. It has three or four double strings, which are plucked and strummed rapidly with a plectrum. The prima plays the main melody, and can be played solo or as part of a tamburica orchestra.

A tamburica ensemble may consist of three to forty players with a variety of instruments, from the tiny prima to the hefty berda, which resembles an upright bass, each playing different parts and harmonies. There seem to be differing opinions on whether the first ensemble in Croatia was formed in 1842 in Đakovo or in 1847 in nearby Osijek. Since 1961, Osijek has hosted the International Tamburica Music Festival to promote performance and original composition. 

Here’s a fascinating video of an artist who built primas in Indiana: