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

Anyone who has had kids or even been a kid in the US has witnessed the phenomenon of the annual “it” gift—the one everyone rushes out to buy so their little squealers have the “right” thing under the Christmas tree—the one that turns soccer moms into fierce competitors, to the point of fist fights breaking out when two people grab hold of that one last box. But everyone also knows that the next year there’s gonna be another “it” gift that everyone’s fighting over, while the last year’s prize sits collecting dust on a shelf (if it ever makes it off the floor).

Though the toys get more expensive as we grow older, the concept doesn’t change that much. One neighbor pulls up in an impressive new car; a few months later, three other neighbors pull up in cars that are just that much more impressive. The problem is, if we ever catch up with the Joneses, we will only find a new set of Joneses down the street who are even further ahead. Who needs that?

One-of-a-kind gifts are a great way to stay out of that cycle. Nobody will be disappointed that someone else got a better model if there is no better model. Quantity also tends to cheapen things. Have you ever been laughed at for using a 3-year-old iPhone? That’s only because they release new ones alllll the time. Imagine if your 3-year-old iPhone was the only iPhone that ever existed—that thing would still be amazing, wouldn’t it?! One-of-a-kind gifts are impervious to obsolescence.

One-of-a-kind gifts also leave more room for thoughtfulness. From their very creation, extra care and attention have gone into their making. Maybe the craftsperson makes a series of designs on a theme; each piece can have its own intention. The designer has a chance to show their true creativity, to provide more of a personal touch, and to better connect with a variety of people.

As the giver, when you pick out a one-of-a-kind gift for a friend or loved one, you have a chance to decide what they might like better, or to show them that you appreciate their nuances and individuality. “This one with the hearts all over it reminded me of you because you are always wearing hearts.” “This little house with the flower reminded me of spending time with you in your garden.” “I found this traditional piece that’s just like what your grandfather would have worn in his village.”

Whether it’s something simple and sweet or you tap into a deeper memory or sentiment, there’s nothing like a one-of-a-kind gift to tell someone, “There is no one else like you!”

There’s something pretty special about a season where we get to focus on what other people might want instead of just looking after ourselves. Life can be consuming and time travels quickly—but, if all else fails, we have Christmastime to pull us back out of our own heads for a while. 

Of course the season of giving can turn into a season of stress if we buy into the American big-box, high-dollar mentality (seriously, who actually gives someone a Lexus for Mother’s Day or fills their stocking with diamonds?). But we have a way to keep the focus on people rather than things: with conscious gift giving.

Conscious gift giving is about blessing other people while extending the good past our own circle. Some people like to give experiences instead of things, opting for memories over accumulation; even better when the experience is something the giver and giftee can do together. Others shop for eco-friendly gifts that can improve or at least reduce their impact on the environment. For others, the real gift is knowing something has been given to someone in greater need on their behalf. One of my go-to humanitarian organizations puts out a gift catalog every year where you can pay for seeds, chickens, livestock, wells, or whatever need most speaks to you, and make your gift in the name of a friend or loved one.

Another great way to make an impact with your giving is to make sure that the gifts you’re buying have been made by people who were treated well and paid fairly. I’m sure we all know by now that mass production doesn’t necessarily equate to massive good. Instead of feeding that trend, we can seek out gifts that have more of a personal touch, with clear supply chains or even direct interaction with the people making them. There are a lot of people in this world doing beautiful work, who only need a chance to make a living.

By buying handmade, cottage industry, or bespoke gifts—supporting creators, craftspeople, farmers, growers, or artists—we can give not just smiles or sweet sentiments, but also life-changing support to those who need it.

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