Christmas in Croatia used to be celebrated only at homes until a few years ago. During socialism it wasn’t a popular business to be outspoken about one’s religious beliefs and practices.
This year, we are huddling at home for different reasons. Hopefully, we can be with our closest family members. And if we can share this special time with the loved ones, staying in may just be a way to rediscover our tradition.
Croatian Christmas Traditions
When we think Christmas, we think of merry-making at Christmas markets. Meeting friends over a glass of mulled wine, swaying and dancing together in the rhythm of an upbeat live music.
Until this year, there was plenty of alfresco fun all over Croatia. And Zagreb Advent was a trail-blazer when it came to winter fairytale joys. This year, the twinkling decorations are still there. After all, Christmas light is the symbol of life and renewal, in the darkest month of the year.
But, instead of enjoying crisp December weather, we’re staying in – remembering some ancient ways of celebrating Christmas.
First off, we celebrate with food and bonding. If you’ve ever experienced Christmas in Croatia, you know that we do plenty of eating and hanging out together.
Croatian Christmas food is made to fill you up. But what is prepared and when, how it’s eaten and why, all have their peculiar logic.
The most important principle to understand is that we do cycles of fasting and feasting. This is a time-tested ritual that has nothing to do with trendy diets. But, just like them, it gives us a great tool to enjoy our food without piling up extra blubber.
Croatian Christmas is at home
The traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Croatia was at home. This is what our grandparents and their grandparents did.
They went to the Midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but Christmas day was reserved for the family alone. In a way, this year we have the opportunity to get reminded of that too.
Boxing Day, or Štefanje (St. Stephen’s Day) in Croatian, is when people went round to wish Merry Christmas to extended family and friends. It was a day for visiting each other.
In rural areas, this meant long walks to a friends’ house. So, why not use this day to do a walk in the countryside? You’ll see in the guide below that people also rode horses to do rounds in a village. You can choose any means of sport to move around in the fresh air.
This year, we have the opportunity to explore our heritage, to understand how Christmas in Croatia used to be celebrated.
We can practice long family bonding and cooking and baking delicious food. And talking about food, Croatian holiday sweets also reflect our traditional understanding of Christmas. We make them tiny, we decorate them with care and we make many different kinds.
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If you want to know what Croatia Christmas really looks like, scroll through my Ultimate A-Z guide to Croatian Christmas!
A for Advent
Advent wreath with 4 red candles is a common decoration in people’s houses and in cities. One by one candle is lit on 4 Sundays preceding Christmas.
B for Bakalar (dry cod stew)
Dry cod stew is eaten on Christmas Eve. It’s a fasting food originating from Dalmatia but today we eat it all around Croatia.
C for Christmas Tree
We decorate it at homes and outdoors, and sometimes much sooner than Christmas. It usually stays on until Epiphany, the 6th January, but if the kids insist – much longer again!
D for Detox on mountain top Sljeme
We hike to the Sljeme mountain top in Zagreb to burn off the calories we piled up eating. There we treat ourselves with beans and sausage.
E if for Eating, lots of eating
We eat and eat. It has nothing to do with being hungry. It’s just how things are. Scroll down to learn more about Croatian Christmas foods.
F is for Fooling around at the Funicular
The charming Tomićeva street – home of the Zagreb Funicular – becomes one of the loveliest Christmas hubs in Zagreb. Its theme is back to the 1930s.
G is for Getting together
We spend all the festive times with the extended family.We eat and drink together, but it’s not uncommon to stay on for an afternoon nap on their couch too!
H if for Hand-made Produce Fair
During December you can buy fabulous hand-crafted souvenirs at market stalls around cities. Look for home-cured meets and home-brewed brandies!
I is for Ice-skating
The awesome large ice-skating rink at Tomislav Square is one of the top highlights of Zagreb Advent. The atmosphere is just breathtaking.
J if for Joy of Gifts
We exchange gifts but they don’t have to be big. In families with lots of children, adults sometimes get a small symbolic item, like a chocolate.
K is for Kissing and Hugging
We kiss and hug a lot. Unless someone is very close to you, we usually shake hands first and then kiss them on the cheeks – left, then right side.
L is for Loafing Around
Between Christmas and New Year everything stops: it’s the time for no to-do lists. We just loaf around, and eat, of course!
M is for Midnight Mass
Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is magical. Many people go out, the city is vibrant, attracting even those who are not devout Catholics.
N is for St. Nicholas
St Nicholas is celebrated on 6th December. We buy small presents to each other (if we were good) and a symbolic spanking branch (if we were bad).
O is for Open-air Concerts
December open-air concerts in Zagreb are a must-see. There is something on every night, culminating with large concerts on New Year’s Eve.
P is for Pork
We eat roast pork on New Year’s Day. The symbolism behind it is that a pig pushes forward with its snout just like you should in the New Year – no looking back.
Q is for Queueing for Sausage and Mulled Wine
If you stay out enjoying the city atmosphere, you’ll want to warm up with some mulled wine and a sausage. You’ll be queueing to get that!
R is for Red, something red
We believe red at Christmas brings luck. We often give each other red apples and we wear a red item.
S is for Snow
Croatia in winter usually means snow. And so we are often lucky to enjoy a white Christmas. But no mater how much snow we get, our city transport rarely fails. Let’s hope Croatia turns white this year too!
T is for Turkey
We eat turkey (or any other bird) on Christmas Day. Birds flick dirt with their legs backwards, pushing away all that is bad away into the past. That’s what we should do too.
U is for Urban Fairytale
Advent in Croatia used to be celebrated only at homes. It’s nice to have the cities liven up at this time of year.
V is for Visiting Friends
Christmas Day is for the family, but after that people visit their friends to exchange greetings. In villages, dedicated greeters go round with a live band or on horses – a custom still kept.
W is for Walking Around the City
We walk around the city to enjoy the atmosphere and to get a break from all the eating and lying around.
X is for Xenon Lights Decorations
They come on in late November and in Zagreb are just lovely!
Y is for Yummy Cakes and Biscuits
There isn’t one Christmas cake but many cakes and biscuits. Some people bake 10 different kinds. You can never say no to them when you visit.
Z is for Zrinjevac
Zrinjevac park in Zagreb must be the nicest place in Croatia at Christmas. There is open-air music, eating and drinking and a souvenirs fair.
So, Sretan Božić – which is how we say Merry Christmas in Croatian!