Christmas in Croatia
Cestit i Blagoslovljen Bozic
Svim na zemlji mir, veselje... Peace, joy to all on Earth...
Croatian christmas

Croatian Christmas, detail of the painting of Ljubo Babic

December 7, 1992
Designer: Ljubo Babic
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Christmas postage

December 1, 1994
Designer: D. Popovic


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.
            Due to different geographical and historical influences varying Christmas customs have developed over the centuries, such as variations in carols, sayings, dishes, and decorations. Thus, when traveling through Croatia at Christmas time, you will hear different carols and be offered a wide array of foods, but all Croats will wish you a Merry Christmas in the same way—Sretan Bozic.

  Traditional Christmas Foods

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 cod—bakalar.
            For Christmas dinner, the main course may be roast suckling pig, turkey or any other meat, depending on the region of Croatia.  The central part of the Christmas tradition, however, is the fresh Christmas Eve Bread, or Badnji Kruh, made with honey, nuts and dried fruit. The Christmas Braid is another Christmas bread.  The dough, made with nutmeg, raisins and almonds, is braided into a wreath and glazed.  Many place wheat with candles in the center of the bread and use it as a centerpiece for Christmas dinner. It is left on the table until the Epiphany (January 6), when it is cut and eaten.

            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 dusica—from 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

 Grains     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.

            According to 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 use!
The Christmas festivities officially end on the Epiphany, when priests visit their parishioners to bless their homes. Families take down Christmas trees and decorations on that day as well.

Here are recipes for two dishes traditionally served in Croatian homes at Christmas time.

Stuffed Cabbage
2 heads pickled cabbage
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. smoked ham, chopped
1/4 c. smoked bacon, chopped
2. tbsp. flour
1 c. uncooked rice
2 tsp. paprika
1 onion, chopped
1 egg
2 tbsp. oil
1 lb. smoked ham hocks or pork ribs
salt and pepper to taste

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 together.
Cut remaining cabbage into strips. Add another half pound of sauerkraut, if desired. Place half the sauerkraut in the bottom of a large pot. Arrange cabbage rolls over sauerkraut. Add smoked ribs or ham hocks. Cover with remaining sauerkraut. Heat oil and brown flour in it. Add a teaspoon of paprika and water to make a thick roux. Cook for 5 minutes. Pour roux over cabbage rolls. Add water to cover cabbage and simmer over low heat for 1/2 to 2 hours until rice is fully cooked. Do not stir cabbage rolls while cooking. Instead, shake pot occasionally to prevent sticking. Transfer to warm serving dish.

Dalmatian Pot Roast

5 lbs. beef— top round
10 oz. smoked bacon
20. oz onion
8 oz. parsley root
5. oz carrots
4 cloves garlic
10 oz. peeled tomato
10 oz. fresh celery
8 prunes
3 quarts dry red wine
2 tsp. mustard
10 oz. olive oil
bay leaf, rosemary, thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Wash and drain meat. Cut bacon into match-like sticks. Chop onion and garlic.  Cut vegetables into small strips. Pierce beef with sharp knife and place garlic into and around meat. Place beef into large pan, cover with wine. Add chopped onion, thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, pepper, and cubed celery to meat. Cover pan and refrigerate for 12 hours.

Heat oil and place beef (only) into pan with oil. Brown meat briskly and remove from pan. Add contents from marinade into oil and fry briskly. Add browned meat, peeled tomatoes, prunes, and remaining items into pan. Mix and cook for 2-3 hours from a higher to lower temperature during cooking time. Remove meat and slice. Strain juice from pan and use as sauce.

Traditional Meals

Christmas Eve:

  • cod fish—bianco and brudetto
  •   bakalar—bijeli i brudet
  • smelts and salted sardines
  •   girice i slane srdele

Christmas Dinner:

  • stuffed cabbage
  •  sarma
  • turkey with Zagorje noodles
  •   purica s mlincima
  • suckling pig
  •   odojak
  • Dalmatian pot roast
  •   pasticada
  • walnut roll
  •   orahnjaca
  • poppy seed roll
  •    makovnjaca
  • fritters
  •   fritule
  • assorted Croatian cookies
  • dried figs with walnuts
  •   suhe smokve s orasima
  • grappa
  •   loza

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Last Revised: August 07, 2015

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