Customs and foods in different regions of Croatia are as diverse as dialects. But one thing is the same – love of family, tradition, and the celebrations that bring them together.

Croatia is a Catholic country with many traditions rooted in Catholic practices, feasts and culture. Christmas season begins with Advent starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and lasts through the Epiphany on January 6. Sveti Nikola Dan, December 6, is the traditional start of gift-giving season for Croatians who love to give gifts! Christmas Eve (Badnjak), Christmas Day (Božić), and the day after (Sveti Stjepan Dan), are the most festive days of the month. The New Year is celebrated with music, dancing and fireworks. Celebrations last through the Epiphany (Bogojavljenje) on January 6, and many decorations stay up through January 7 in respect for the Christian Orthodox Christmas. 

Light years away from the glitz and commercialism of the US, Christmas in Croatia is family time. The smell of smoke rising from wood burning fireplaces reminds you that families are together at home. All generations are cooking and baking traditional foods. Outside the chilly north bura wind brings out boots, scarves and puffy jackets – as well as hanging thighs of pork left out to dry into pršut!

You won’t see many decorations on houses. Instead towns and cities are decked out in lights, and shop windows celebrate the magic stories and memories of Christmas. Some like Opatija have parks filled with lights and handmade decorations, while others like Dubrovnik wrap the stone pillars and doorways of the Old City with real greenery, fresh oranges and red bows. Little tents and stands line up to sell kuhano vino, traditional deep-fried fritule (prikle) powdered with sugar and cinnamon, grilled sausages and homemade treats. Listen for tamburica music, and voices of happy friends singing together in konobas and homes. Firecrackers (along with the occasional crack of celebratory gunshots) are heard around town and in the hills. 

And then there’s Zagreb, aahhhh Zagreb, where the whole city comes alive during Christmas Market! There is food and drink everywhere, friends and families, decorations and lights. There are different themes up and down every street, a live Nativity in front of the Cathedral, and outdoor music from street-corner accordian players to bands on stages. Zagreb won Best European Christmas Market three years in a row. It is pure Christmas magic.

ADVENT WREATH: Just as Lent is a time of personal preparation before the joyous Resurrection, so Advent is four weeks of preparation before the coming of the promised Messiah. The four weeks are represented by the four candles on the evergreen Advent wreath, formed in a circle to represent eternity. Beginning on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, one candle is lit each week. Sometimes the candles are on little wreaths on the table at home, and sometimes in huge electric displays in the center of town.

WHEAT GRASS: Called Božićna pšenica, Croatians will plant wheat seeds in little pots on Sveta Lucija Dan, December 13. The wheat will grow a couple inches high by Christmas Day, representing the birth of Christ, and a candle is placed in the center representing Sv. Lucija because she wears a wreath of candles on her head. Tradition says she wore it when bringing food to the Christians hiding in the catacombs, and today it represents the coming light of Jesus’ birth. Pšenica decorates the Christmas tables in Croatian homes.

CHRISTMAS TREES: Croatians traditionally get their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve, and sure enough, when we were in Zagreb, a tiny Christmas tree lot appeared on the 23rd! However many families today bring their tree home earlier so there is more time to decorate. The tree stays up all 12 days of Christmas until the Epiphany on January 6. 

CRÊCHE: The crêche doesn’t appear in churches until Christmas Day, to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Some tell the story of the nativity with beautiful village scenes, animals and figures. Large crêches are often out in town squares. In Croatian homes, it is placed under the Christmas tree. A creĉhe from the 17th century, the oldest in Croatia, is located at the Franciscan Monastery on the tiny island of Košljun at Krk.


Christmas Eve is called Badnjak (Badnji Dan, Badnja Večer). It is a busy day of cooking and baking, preparing the home for guests, wrapping presents and decorating the Christmas tree. Traditionally Croatian towns and cities give a free meal (usually bakalar and potato soup) and a glass of wine to absolutely everyone in the central town square. In places like Dubrovnik, Badnjak is the day to see and be seen as the main street Stradun is filled with families wearing their best, women in sky-high heels and men in suits. Surprisingly absent are last-minute shoppers, as many shops are already closed for the season. In the evening, families traditionally enjoy a simple fish dinner like bakalar before going out together to Midnight Mass (Ponočka). 


Christmas is the day to stay home with your family. The family gathers at the table in the early afternoon lasting well into the evening. The meal is a multi-course feast, featuring various roast meats, often turkey with a pasta called mlinci and pork with potatoes, vegetables and Francuski salata, as well as traditional dishes like sarma depending on the region. There are different kinds of homemade rakija, local wines, plenty of coffee, fritule, keksi and lots of other sweets. After dinner there is singing accompanied by guitar, tambura, accordian or piano! 


The day after Christmas is the day to go out to visit friends and even more family. Every home must have some leftovers as well as fresh cooked foods and plenty of sweets to entertain guests. Back in 1957, author Ivo Jardas described the traditions in the Kastav area near Rijeka, and wrote “…the spirit of Christmas would spread all around the village. Neighbours started visiting each other in the early morning. Adults were offered some homemade rakija, while children got an apple or an orange. Girlfriends and sisters used to knit new woolen socks or wrist warmers (zapesnice), which they gave as a present to their boyfriends or brothers.”  


New Years Eve, called Silvestrovo after the feast day of Sveti Silvestar I, is celebrated with fireworks at midnight, while music, dancing and celebration can last well into the morning. On New Years Day, the traditional meal is pork; I’ve been told the pig runs away from the butcher the same way the old year runs away from the new!


The Epiphany on January 6, called Bogojavljenje or Sveta Tri Kralja, is the end of the Christmas season. Trees and decorations often stay up one more day in respect for the Christian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. When Christmas decorations are taken down, Karneval decorations start going up, and Croatia is celebrating again until the beginning of Lent and Easter season!

Najljepše želje za Božić i sretnu Novu godinu

from our family to yours!

Whether it’s a jar of homemade fruit jam waiting for you when you’re leaving a house, a little souvenir to remember your visit, or a fresh cooked lunch in a family home… Croatian giving is “od srce” – from the heart.

The gifts are not expensive, showy or pretentious – these are traits Croatians are not. They are usually handmade or homemade, often sharing homegrown fruits or herbs, some homemade rakija, occasionally a craft lovingly handed down by the precious hands of a baka. 

Don’t expect to “go dutch”, “potluck” or help with the dishes in Croatia; if you are a guest, you are taken care of. An old embroidered cloth has the saying, “A Croat gladly receives his guest and shares with him everything he has.” 

All these things show a natural generosity of spirit that I have never experienced anywhere else. Call me cynical, but in America, giving seems to have an underlying thread of cost or payback. “This is free because I’m expected to buy something.” “They brought a really expensive wine the last time, I’d better step it up.” “Is something handmade appropriate?” These kinds of concerns add to holiday stress and shove our shopping budgets out of control. What if we could leave a little container of homemade soup at someone’s door, just to say “I’m thinking about you”?

If you buy products from an artisan, you might be given an extra one as a gift with a whisper of “za tebe”. If you have dinner in a restaurant, you may be given a small glass of rakija after you’ve already paid your bill. If you stay in a family house, you might find wine, cheese or fruit waiting in the frig, or be given a wrapped thank you when you leave. 

And some day, like me, you’ll take the huge leap across the pond to live in Croatia full-time. I’m not talking a week in a holiday home, I’m talking investing yourself in another culture. And you’ll be in for another surprise… no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to outgive your family, friends and neighbors. It may be some fresh-cut herbs from your neighbor’s garden when they catch you out for a walk. You may find a small container of a cooked specialty like sarma, grah or juha waiting by your door. Your neighbor will offer their time to help you with a translation, phone call, or paperwork. The lady from the vegetable market or bakery will add a little something to your bag with a wink. A heart is a symbol of Croatia, and no wonder – it symbolizes the generous hearts of its people.

Winning hearts around the world is the ongoing story of Malena and Klepetan, a pair of white storks from eastern Croatia. 

In 1993, in the middle of the Homeland War, a janitor named Stjepan Vokić found a female white stork while fishing; she was shot in the wing and unable to fly. So Stjepan took her to his home in Brodski Varoš, a village in southern Slavonija, and brought her back to health. He named her Malena (meaning Little One). Every year, Stjepan makes a nest for her on top of the schoolhouse for the warmer months; when it is cold, he has made her a home in his garage, and sometimes brings her in his house to watch tv. Since she can’t fly to hunt, he brings her fresh caught fish.

The weather in Slavonija is Continental, with warm, rainy summers, and cold winters often accompanied by freezing temperatures and snowfall. About 1500 pairs of white storks are residents of Slavonija throughout the Spring and Summer, where they build nests and mate. The females lay an average of four eggs, and both mom and dad care for the chicks and teach them to fly. Then each year in August, the white storks make a dangerous month-long, 8000-mile journey to South Africa with their chicks in search of warmer winter weather. However since Malena can’t fly, she stays behind with Stjepan in Brodski Varoš.

In 2001, a male stork started visiting Malena. Stjepan named him Klepetan. Since then, Klepetan has returned from his migration to Malena faithfully each Spring, dirty and exhausted. And each year Stjepan has a bucket of fresh fish waiting to welcome him home. However in 2019, he returned early and, because the weather was still too cold, their eggs literally froze. Klepetan unexpectedly left the nest, and Stjepan thought he died. Everyone waited until Spring 2020 – and Klepetan returned!

A quick look at the map will show how dangerous the migration is, particularly over such countries as Lebanon where migratory birds are routinely shot. So Stjepan wrote a letter to the President of Lebanon, telling him about Malena and Klepetan, sending him one of Klepetan’s feathers, and asking for support for the laws protecting migratory birds. The President responded favorably by placing his daughter in charge of the campaign, and Stjepan’s story went viral. Here is a video about the historic letter, as told by Stjepan himself…

This year, 2021, is the 19th year that Klepetan has returned to Malena. Over the years they have had 66 chicks together, raised them during the Spring and Summer, then Malena has watched them fly away with Klepetan. And the entire country hopes for his return. But there is more to this story than Klepetan’s faithfulness – and that is the kindness and devotion that a retired janitor has shown to a little injured bird. Their story has become immortalized in articles, videos, and now a movie.

When you visit Slavonija during Spring and Summer, you will see elegant white storks in their huge nests on rooftops and platforms. Watch carefully and you might see little chicks popping their heads up. They are preparing for their dangerous annual migration to their winter home in South Africa.

UPDATE… Not long after we posted this story, Stjepan Vokić sadly announced to local news that Malena passed away. He said she fell coming down from her nest, and he cared for her in his home for about 10 days. Malena and Klepetan didn’t have any chicks this Spring. Stjepan said he will continue to be there for Klepetan, and said “Ostajemo Klepo i ja”, which means “We remain Klepo and I”.

Croatians love family, tradition, and celebration! Holidays are joyous times when all generations get together to make and enjoy traditional foods at home. 

Uskrs (Easter) is a happy ending to the 40 days of Lent, filled with the hope of proljeće (spring). Food preparation begins the day before Easter, or sooner for decorating eggs, baking breads, and smoking or roasting meats. The feasting begins Easter morning. Traditionally, the first meal of Resurrection morning cannot be eaten until the food is packed up and taken to church to be blessed by the priest. Only food that is sure to be eaten should be blessed, so onions must be peeled and eggs shelled. 

Different regions have different customs, but here are some traditional foods which will be on Easter tables this year in Croatia…

DIMLJENA ŠUNKA (SMOKED HAM): There are different types of smoked ham, from small rolled hams to full shoulders with skin, depending on the size of your gathering. Boil the day before with carrots, celery, and onions, or whatever you prefer for soup stock. Boil for about an hour, then return to the fridge so it’s ready for the table on Easter morning. Remove the vegetables and freeze the flavorful stock to add later to sauces. Serve with hren (horseradish).

PINCA BREAD WITH COLORED EGGS: A sweet bread with raisins, sometimes rum, or orange or lemon peel, and sprinkled on top with chunks of sugar. A cross is cut into the top before baking and a colored egg placed on top afterwards, or it is braided and baked with colored eggs woven into the strands of dough. 

MLADA LUK (GREEN ONIONS/SCALLIONS or SPRING ONIONS): The smell of fresh green onions permeates the marketplace at Easter time. These were an Easter tradition in our American home from my Nona—why was I surprised to learn they’re also a tradition here in Croatia?

mladi luk at the farmers market

FRANCUSKA SALATA: A cold mix of cooked peas, carrots, potatoes, and sometimes pickles, all chopped into small cubes and mixed with mayonnaise.

Complement your feast with espresso and tea. And that’s just breakfast! Take a breath, have some sweets, and get ready for a late lunch…

Start with JUHA (SOUP). This can be a fresh clear soup or broth.

PEČENJE JANJETINA (ROASTED LAMB): Roast with potatoes, vegetables, and herbs. Don’t forget to top with fresh rosemary sprigs from your garden, or sprinkle on Ćurin herbs from the Dalmatian island of Hvar, to fill your home with a sunny Mediterranean aroma. Serve with hren (horseradish).

MAKOVNJAČA or ORAHNJAČA (POPPY SEED ROLL or WALNUT ROLL): These are the dessert breads that you might remember your Baka keeping on the table so you would never go hungry.

SALATA (GREEN SALAD): Fresh mixed greens and veggies. Don’t forget the mlada luk.

Serve with wines.

PISANICE (EASTER EGGS): In the countryside of Croatia, eggs were traditionally decorated with colors found in nature, like natural vegetables, berries, or roots. One traditional decoration is to press pretty leaves and herbs against the shell, wrap tightly in a thin cloth or piece of stocking, and then hard-boil the eggs in a pot filled with red onion skins covered with water; when done, remove the cloth and leaves to reveal pretty botanical prints.

As on Christmas, families stay home on Easter Day, and visit friends and neighbors on Easter Monday. When visiting, bring a colored egg as a gift for each person in the home. 

You’ll be able to find detailed recipes online—search for the Croatian name to find more authentic recipes and photos. Sretan Uskrs, from our family to yours!

Ivo Jardas (1888–1978) was a teacher, author, and an ethnographer of the Istria-Kvarner region of Croatia. His invaluable work, Kastavština: Građa o narodnom životu i običajima u kastavskom govoru (Kastav: Material on folk life and customs in Kastav speech), 1957, not only describes the stories, customs, holidays, songs, and even crafts and occupations of the people who lived in the Kastav area of Istria-Kvarner, but it presents them in their local Čakavian dialect.

Ivo Jardas was born in the village of Marčelji near Kastav in 1888, and died in Zagreb 1978. Marčelji is still inhabited today, and has a population of approximately 2,000. Jardas lived in the United States from 1903 to 1908 as a worker and miner; however, he returned to his homeland and graduated from teachers’ school in 1913. He worked in many schools around Croatia, and started collecting materials on the culture of the Istrian people. It is said he went “village to village, house to house, old man to old man” to learn the stories and oral traditions of the local people.

In 1957, Jardas published Kastavština. This book forever seals an important look at the culture and dialect of a distinct European ethnic group, and reflects the lives of people in villages all over Croatia during the first half of the 20th century. There is an interesting story in the book about zapesnice (hand-knit woolen wrist warmers) and Christmas traditions.

A few Christmases ago, a dear relative gave us some beautiful hand-knit zapesnice along with a copy of their story. We were so touched by this personalized bit of local history that we found zapesnice from Kastav to offer in our store.

Here is the story quoted from the book, along with an English translation as provided by a friend:

Drugi dan za Božićen zovu va Kastafšćine “Stipanja”. Kako san već rekal, na Božić se saki doma drži, ne gre sused susedu, a za »polažajnika« Kastafšćina ne zna. Pul Marčeji bi bil rug i špot, ki bi šal na Božić va tuju kuću. Stareji reču još jutro dece: »Deca, danas ni krijanca poć po tujeh kućah, danas se j’ doma«.

Ale na Stipanju j’ se drugačije. Na Stipanju j’ po sen sele pravo božićno veselje. Već rano jutro gredu susedi jedan g drugemu. Ki god stareji pride va kuću, mu ponute žmujić rakije. Dece se da jabuko ale naranća. Frajarica frajaru i sestra bratu da nove kalceti ale zapesnice, ke j’ sama splela od zelene, črjene al modre vuni.

Zapesnice su pet šest unač duge, Mladići nimaju rukavic, pak prek presti na puls navuću zapesnice, a neki reču i pulsi. To njin tepli ruku za pestun ale puls, pak deju:

»Ako j’ puls gorak, gorka j’ sa ruka.«

Zato se i zovu zapesnice, aš se nose za pestun.

“The day after Christmas is called Stipanja (St. Stephen’s Day) in the Kastav region. On Christmas Day people stay at home with their families. They don’t visit their friends or neighbors and the ‘first-foot’ is unknown to Kastav’s region. In Marčeji, if anyone went to someone else’s house, other than your family’s, people would mock you or tell you off. On Christmas morning adults would warn their children not to visit their neighbors and friends because they had to stay at home.

“But on St. Stephen’s Day everything was different—the spirit of Christmas would spread all around the village. Neighbours started visiting each other in the early morning. Adults were offered some homemade rakija, while children got an apple or an orange. Girlfriends and sisters used to knit new woolen socks or wrist warmers (zapesnice), which they gave as a present to their boyfriends or brothers. They only used green, red or blue wool yarn.

“Zapesnice were 14 or 15 centimeters long, and young men used to wear them instead of gloves. They would warm the hands, as it was said:

“‘If your wrist is warm, the whole arm is warm.’

“That is why they are called zapesnice, because you wear them on the wrists.”

Some of the products we carry at DOMA Trading are from a medieval hilltop city called Kastav. The word “city” may give the wrong impression to an American, who might think Boston or Atlanta or LA. This city has a population of only 2,000 residents in the medieval core, and a total population of around 10,000 including surrounding villages.

Kastav embraces a hilltop which is 365 meters above the Kvarner Bay of the Adriatic Sea. There are sweeping views of the mountain of Učka, the Opatija Riviera, the city of Rijeka, out to the Kvarner islands. You can climb to one of the few remaining medieval towers to enjoy incredible 360° views, and understand the reason this hilltop was chosen long ago by the prehistoric Illyrians, the Romans, and the Greeks, all the way through medieval and modern times. To read more about Kastav, visit our page in Croatia and Its Regions.

Some portions of the medieval walls and a few of the original nine defense towers still remain. Many stones have fallen over the centuries and much is now covered in evergreen ivy. It is said the ivy is a witness of passing time. According to Slovnik Kastafskega Govora, the Dictionary of Kastav Speech, an old name for Kastav is Bršjanovac, from the Croatian word in local dialect bršjan meaning ivy. Although many places in the world have become covered in ivy over the years, not many have celebrated it in song:

Na brege je zrasal,
z bršjanon obrasal,
moj Kastav.

Situated on a hill,
overgrown with ivy,
my Kastav.

Kastav is a beautiful city with ethnographic museums, where you can wander on ancient cobblestones through winding medieval streets and pathways, to discover a treasure of photo-worthy sites. Be sure to call ahead to the tourist office if you want to visit one of the museums because they’re not always open on schedule. A visit during one of the cultural events like Karneval or Bela Nedeja will definitely draw you in to the rich history that lives here.

Visit our store to find handcrafts from Kastav, celebrating its traditions and the famed ivy-covered medieval walls.

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: