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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