We’ve been eager to light up that first Advent candle and begin our Christmas countdown. Twinkling lights, bustling Christmas markets, shopping frenzy… All familiar and by now commercial elements are here.
But real preparations for the December bread and circuses begin much earlier. The bounty we show off at and around the Christmas table has a long genealogy. And it involves a carefully managed system of fasting, feasting and fattening up.
Christmas countdown has one basic rule. The weight of people and the weight animals that people eat move in opposite directions. During Christmas countdown, people fast, and animals are fattened up. Come Christmas Day, people feast on fattened animals only to – briefly – end up as fat as their food.
You might be wondering: why is this deep-rooted tradition important if you’re only visiting Croatia?
Well, if you join Croats at their Christmas table, you’ll parachute only at the feast time. There’ll be so much scrumptious, irresistible food which you’ll gobble down over a few days. And the result? You’ll fatten up and feel guilty. Your hosts, on the other hand, have been preparing for a long time to eat just as much as you, with the opposite outcome. They’ll be happy and won’t get fat – at least not in the long run.
Call it a diet, a clever weight management approach, or the culture of eating – this meticulous balance between fasting and feasting, control and going all out, is the proven way to count down to Christmas.
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Christmas countdown: ‘booking’ your animal
To properly celebrate the birth of Christ and the coming of New year, you need two animals: a bird and a pig. A bird – usually a turkey – uses its feet to toss dust and dirt behind itself. A pig, on the other hand, roots forward with its snout. We learn from animals how to embrace the wisdom of change: how to leave this year’s dust behind and root forward into the new beginnings.
Of course, if you’re buying just meat in a supermarket, without getting to know the animal, you miss out on much of this wisdom. Your Christmas table genealogy also loses a few threads. Which is why many Croats still ‘book’ their animals months before the first Advent candle is lit up.
Even city dwellers pull connections to find someone who knows someone who keeps turkeys. The top choice is always zagorska purica [Zagorje turkey]. The only indigenous breed, grown outdoors on the rolling Zagorje hills, zagorska purica has won the hearts and palates of many – including Winston Churchill. The legend says that Churchill wrote a letter in 1946 to thank the ‘Jajex’ exporting company for ensuring he had the much beloved Zagorje turkey on his Christmas menu. Unfortunately, the letter has gone missing, but if you happen to know where it is, there’s a 1,000 Euro reward up for grabs.
It takes 8 months for the turkey chick to grow into the Christmas roast. You ‘book’ the bird even before it’s hatched – around early April. Though turkeys are grown for the sole purpose of being feasted on, there’s a logic, even an art, in how they fatten up.
Zagorje turkey roams outdoors and eats only organic food. The juiciness of its meat comes from a healthy, fit lifestyle. There is nothing quick and easy about this turkey. In the old days, even getting it to the market was a symbol of its merit. Turkeys hiked all across Mountain Medvednica, from Zagorje to the Zagreb market, prodded only slightly with the farmer’s stick.
Piglets are ‘booked’ in October because they need less time to get ready for the New year’s celebration. Unlike turkeys, they are in fact fattened on purpose, but not without control. A sign of a masterful farmer is getting the pig diet just right so that the roast ends up with fragrant crackle, not sickly fat. ‘Booking’ your piglet means you can inquire about its progress. You work in a team, weaving that genealogy, and not just buying a piece of packaged meat.
Fattening a piglet just right is no small thing. Piglets are adorable and love to eat. It takes a firm hand not to succumb to their charming grunts.
This happened to my Mum when she was a child. Her parents were fattening a New year piglet with mashed potatoes and milk – an expensive menu at the time of scarcity. My Grandma fed the piglet just right, but my Mum gave it more of the same when no one was watching. Poor piglet got so fat, it died of a heart attack. The whole family starved and grieved, and my Mum was in the dog house for months. As I said, it’s an art to fatten the piglet just right.
Even the lean cod fish – the fasting meal on Christmas Eve – requires proper treatment. First it’s salted and dried so it shrinks. Then, 48 hours before cooking, it soaks in water to double in size. If the cod meat can’t sop up enough olive oil once it’s cooked – the fish is of low quality.
Christmas countdown: fasting and dieting
According to the Christian tradition, Advent is the time of giving of yourself. It can include giving away your riches to charity, or giving up rich food through fasting.
The commercial take on Advent has clouded this sacred and wise Christmas countdown. Now people travel to best Christmas market destinations throughout December. Or they go out in their own cities to eat and drink for the whole month. This steady crescendo of feasting only pushes you out of balance.
Luckily, those who don’t fast for religious reasons, diet for the aesthetic ones. In preparation for the big all-out Christmas feast, Croats will start losing weight as early as mid October. They’ll purposefully cut down on calories so they can fit into their favourite festive outfit, or – come Christmas – fit the festive food in their tummies.
Some will go an extra mile and book a week-long spa detox to preempt the joy weight they’ll gain when the feast begins. Whatever the reason for the pre-Christmas slimming, the balance is here. As animals fatten, people slim for one single purpose: so the feast can be enjoyed without limits.
Christmas countdown: house purging
Fasting cleanses the body and purifies the soul. One week before Christmas, it’s time to purge the house. While Croatian men have been taking up more household duties, generalka [thorough cleaning] remains the women’s turf.
A regular house cleaning means tidying up dirt you can see. Generalka, on the other hand, involves unearthing dirt you cannot see or polishing whatever is not in plain sight.
In this obsessive ritual, no stone is left unturned. Floors are scrubbed, ceramic tiles are scraped, grout between ceramic tiles is brushed, carpets are dusted, sofa upholstery is cleaned, windows are polished, curtains are washed, kitchen cabinets and wardrobes are wiped (inside and outside), furniture pieces are moved so underneath can be reached, small things such as plug sockets, light switches, chair legs, radiator pipes are unsmudged… and more.
Christmas house purging is sometimes called generalka generalke [the thoroughest of thorough cleaning] and it pushes even the hardiest of women to the limit. To cover every house detail, they begin cleaning as early as a week before Christmas.
They do it for two main reasons. One is religious – so that when Christ arrives on Christmas, the house is spotless and worthy of His arrival, and all the dirt collecting throughout the year is left behind.
The second reason is family and friends who will also be visiting. No house proud woman wants the gossip about her home spreading around. And family and friends are inclined to gossip about a random smudge they may discover while enjoying her hospitality.
On top of that, exhausting herself through and through makes her fasting (or dieting) more successful. Cleaning burns a lot of calories!
Christmas countdown: the bake-off
Baking Christmas cakes and biscuits is actually a competition. A few weeks before Christmas, women will starts exchanging intel. How many types they will bake, where to get best walnuts or cheapest chocolate, how to store the biscuits…. Then a few days before feasting, the bake-off starting gun goes off.
In those short couple of days, women compete against time, against other women in the variety they make, against themselves to outdo their last year’s record and against family members who steal biscuits before it’s time to savour them.
The bake-off is the final leg of the fasting period. Women give of themselves the skill, the stamina, and above all, the love. It’s not the quantity of pastry that counts, but the number of different types and their petiteness. Christmas biscuits must be as diverse and as tiny and intricate as possible. This is the right way to greet Christ’s arrival and to dispel any doubts about the woman’s culinary inadequacy.
Biscuits will first be eaten on Christmas Day, but their real role shines through shortly afterwards. When family and friends come to visit, this is what they’ll be greeted with. There is absolutely no way you can say NO to biscuits. Trying one type isn’t enough. If there are 10 varieties on a plate, you need to try at least three. Comment how great they are, ask for a recipe, say mmmm… And never refuse a biscuit-filled doggy bag.
The right way with Christmas biscuits is to give some and take some. And to continue eating them until Epiphany – 6th January.
Christmas countdown: Christmas Day
After the cod stew or carp – the last lean meal on Christmas Eve – the feast may begin. Fattened animals are roasted and slimmed down people begin the 13-day fattening cycle. This is what keeps the festive balance in place.
Enjoying delicious food may seem effortless, but even that comes with rules and consequences. People-feeding, just like animal-feeding, needs to be approached with mastery. The fundamental guideline is to discard all control and limitations. If fasting was about cutting corners, counting calories and giving things up, feasting requires full-on galore. This is not as easy as you might think.
For one, food is not plated in portions, but served in large quantities. You should never stop after one helping. Meals merge into each other. With each arrival of new guests, more food is brought out. And biscuits, of course, can’t be refused. There is little daylight outside so walking off your calories is restricted. Even the toughest tummy will suffer during the 13 days of such indulgence.
Still, you simply must do it. Why? Because going all out, and giving up on control, is the only way to balance out your two basic desires: the one to attain the spiritual and the other to enjoy the material.
Christmas countdown: after party
The New Year’s pork roast takes a few days to be eaten. Biscuits dwindle away by Epiphany. Now tired of too much merrymaking, we begin the final balancing act – New year resolution to lose the joy blubber.
In most cases, it works. As long as there is a new feast on the horizon, we never feel deprived.
You too can do the Christmas countdown wisely and guilt-free. Feed your animals with love, give of yourself in Advent and then go all out for 13 days of feasting.