Christmas season in Croatia


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. All generations are cooking and baking traditional foods. The smell of smoke rising from wood burning fireplaces reminds you that families are together at home. 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!

Markets sell dried Norwegian cod, called bakalar. It must be reconstituted in a multi-day process, and is traditionally served in restaurants and homes as patés, soups and stews on Christmas Eve. It is quite a sight the first time you see it, headless dry carcasses about two feet long standing on their tails in big baskets. 

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 accordian players on street corners to bands on stages. It won the Best European Christmas Market three years in a row. It is pure Christmas magic.


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.


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.


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. 


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). 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. There are presents, playing music and singing. 


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 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!