Celebrating Christmas has been a prominent festivity among Croats dating back to
the ninth century when Croats accepted Christianity. A noteworthy document from 879 is a
letter of Pope John VIII in which he recognized the Croatian state under Prince Branimir.
Traditionally a holiday when families get together, for Croats Christmas is also the time
to remember the role the Catholic church has played in the development of Croatian
national identity. Faith, along with culture, identity, language and beliefs, preserved
Croatian national identity during the centuries-long strife when the nation was divided
among and ruled by different peoples. Crushing that faith as a means of conquest was a
tactic different invaders used over the centuries. The most recent attempt occured
in 1991 in the Homeland war, when the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries demolished
over 1200 churches across Croatia in an attempt to erase symbols of Croatian identity and
culture. Although valuable cultural heritage was destroyed, they failed to subjugate the
Croat nation. Instead, Croats emerged as victors and succeeded in establishing a sovereign
and independent Croatia for the first time in a thousand years.
Traditional Christmas Foods
Much of the Christmas festivities are centered around the table and food. As it is
customary in Catholic countries, most Croats do not eat meat on Christmas Eve; instead
they eat fish. Traditionally on the Dalmatian coast, this meal has consisted of
dried salted codbakalar.
On St. Lucy's Day (December 13), wheat grains are planted in a round dish or plate and are left to germinate. By Christmas Eve, the sprouted tender green shoots about eight inches high are tied with a red, white and blue ribbon, the Croatian trobojnica. A candle is usually placed in the center of the wheat. In the Gorski Kotar region of Croatia, a small glass with water and oil is placed in the center of the wheat, on which a floating wick (a dusicafrom the word for soul, dusa) is placed. Its glow can be seen through, rather than above, the wheat. The glow represents the soul within each of us.
Decorating the Home
At Christmas, Croatian houses are decorated with greenery: ivy, holly, branches of oak or maple, fir or evergreen trees. Preparations for Christmas, including decorating the Christmas tree, begin on Christmas Eve, called Badnjak. The word "badnjak" itself comes from the word for a yule log, which is brought in and placed on the hearth. Straw, upon which wishes are made, is brought into the house, and candles are lit for the departed. According to tradition, Croats spend Badnjak awake, burning candles and lighting the yule log.
Many families decorate Christmas trees with the Licitar hearts. This unique Croatian decoration is made of edible materials, although it primarily serves as decoration. The dough, mostly shaped in hearts, is colored red. Colorful designs are added to it, including sayings and little mirrors. The Licitar hearts originated in Sestine, near Zagreb where they continue to be produced, although the tradition has spread across Croatia.
The Christmas table is also set on Badnjak. It is covered with one or several ornamented tablecloths, under which straw is laid. In the spot where the straw is underneath the tablecloth, Christmas bread is positioned on top of the cloth. Pastry plaits decorate the bread, dividing it into four sections. Although the fruits and nuts, which are set on the table vary in each region, they include walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, apples, figs, and other dried fruits. Wine and brandy are set on the table as complimentary drinks.
The Tradition of Gift Giving
Although gifts are given on Christmas day, this is not the main gift-giving day for Croats, who view Christmas day more as a holy day of spiritual celebration. Children in Croatia receive gifts from saints, depending upon where they live. In southern and northeastern Croatia, St. Lucy traditionally brings gifts to children, while in northern and central Croatia, St. Nicholas brings gifts. The celebration of St. Nicholas Day (December 6) as the main gift-giving holiday of the Christmas season stems from the European Catholic church. In North America and Western Europe, the Evangelical church transferred this tradition to Christmas day, transforming St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. Although Croatia has also adopted the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas day, these gifts are said to be brought by the baby Jesus. During Communist rule in Croatia, when religious holidays were not officially acknowledged, presents were given on New Year's Day by a figure known as Father Frost, although many families privately celebrated the traditional Christian holidays.
Croatian tradition, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, children polish a pair of boots and
place them on a window sill for Saint Nicholas to fill; however, what they are filled with
depends on how well behaved the child has been. Children are reminded that instead
of candy, fruit and gifts, their boots could be filled with switches, which may be put to
Here are recipes for two dishes traditionally served in Croatian homes at Christmas time.
Fry bacon in its own fat. Add onion and saute five minutes. Remove from heat and drain
excess fat. Allow to cool slightly, combine with ground beef, chopped ham, rice, egg, 1
teaspoon paprika, salt and pepper, remove large outer leaves of the cabbage, place filling
in each leaf and roll up from center to outer edge. Tuck sides into center to hold roll
Dalmatian Pot Roast
5 lbs. beef top round
Last Revised: August 07, 2015
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