While many people around the world prepare for Christmas starting on Advent Sunday, Croatians have their unique traditions and celebrations that make the holiday season even more special. Today we will explore some of the distinctive Croatian holiday traditions, from St. Catherine’s Day to Epiphany, offering a glimpse into the country’s diverse customs and celebrations.
St. Catherine’s Day (Sveta Kata) – November 25th
While the majority of Croatians commence their Christmas preparations on Advent Sunday, there are some regions where the festivities begin earlier, on St. Catherine’s Day, which falls on November 25th. This tradition, known as Sveta Kata, lasts for an entire month, though it is not widely practised throughout the country.
Advent Sunday (Prva adventska nedjelja) – 4th Sunday before Christmas Day
Prva adventska nedjelja, or Advent Sunday, marks the start of the Advent season in Croatia. On this day, the first of four candles in the Advent wreath is lit. In the past, Croatians used to create their own wreaths from evergreen branches, symbolising eternity. This custom added a unique touch to the Christmas preparations.
St. Nicholas’ Day (Sveti Nikola) – December 6th
Croatians love giving and receiving gifts, and this tradition begins on Sveti Nikola or St. Nicholas’ Day, celebrated on December 6th. Children clean their boots and leave them on the window sill, hoping for St. Nicholas to bring them sweets. However, those who have not been well-behaved may find sticks instead. St. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, a hairy demon who leaves sticks for the misbehaving children, allowing parents to discipline them.
St. Lucia’s Day (Sveta Lucija) – December 13th
In some parts of Croatia, children traditionally received gifts on St. Lucia’s Day, while others celebrated on St. Nicholas’ Day. In the past, no gifts were exchanged on Christmas Day. Nowadays, many Croatian children have the opportunity to receive presents on St. Nicholas’ Day, St. Lucia’s Day, and Christmas Day, creating a win-win situation for the young ones.
Christmas Wheat (Božićna pšenica) – December 4th
On December 4th, mothers or daughters plant wheat grains in a round dish known as božićna pšenica, or Christmas wheat. The height of the wheat is believed to predict the prosperity of the coming year. By Christmas Eve, the tall, green wheat is tied with a ribbon in the colours of the Croatian flag: red, white, and blue. This tradition harkens back to a time when agriculture was the main economic activity.
Christmas Eve (Badnjak or Badnji dan) – December 24th
Christmas Eve, known as Badnjak or Badnji dan, is a crucial part of the Croatian Christmas celebration. Families light a log, the badnjak, on Christmas Eve, with some regions, like Dalmatia, sprinkling it with wine before lighting. The badnjak is meant to burn throughout Christmas Day, although this custom is mainly observed in rural areas. The traditional Christmas Eve menu includes bakalar (cod fish paste), fritule (deep-fried doughnut balls), or uštipci (traditional pastries with raisins).
Decorating the Christmas Tree
The tradition of decorating Christmas trees in Croatia began in the mid-19th century. Before that, homes were decorated with flowers and fruits, such as apples, plums, and pears on Christmas Eve. Children were responsible for decorating the homes, often using paper ornaments. Eventually, evergreen trees became the norm, adorned with gilded walnuts and hazelnuts. Christmas candles, symbolising snow, were placed on a round plate where Christmas wheat grew. Luxury ornaments were a privilege reserved for the wealthy.
Christmas Day (Božić) – December 25th
On Christmas Day, the traditional Croatian dinner includes a variety of dishes, such as sarme (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice), roasted meats, sausages, bacon, pancetta, cheese, pršut (prosciutto), or kulen (spicy pork sausages). The meal is complemented by an array of cakes traditionally baked on Christmas Eve.
New Year’s Eve – December 31st
New Year’s Eve in Croatia is a festive and cheerful occasion. Families may celebrate at home, join open-air events on city squares, or partake in private celebrations at restaurants and hotels. In the town of Fužine, a unique tradition has emerged, celebrating New Year’s Eve twice – once at noon to bid farewell to the old year, and again at midnight to welcome the new one. This tradition, which began in 2000, has grown over the years, attracting thousands of visitors from Croatia and surrounding countries. The noon celebration includes local sausages, mulled wine, and live music.
New Year’s Day – January 1st
Like Christmas, New Year’s Day is celebrated within families with a feast of traditional foods, including sarma, roasted suckling pig, roasted turkey with mlinci, and various desserts. In coastal cities, it’s customary for people to take a swim in the Adriatic at noon on New Year’s Day, often wearing Santa hats.
Epiphany (Bogojavljenje) – January 6th
Epiphany, known as Bogojavljenje or Sveta tri kralja (Holy three kings), marks the end of the Christmas season. On this day, people typically take down their Christmas trees and decorations. In some parts of northern and northeastern Croatia, groups of three boys, known as zvjezdari, betlehemari, or svjećari, visit homes to receive gifts. Zvjezdari carry a Bethlehem star made of cardboard, and they may be accompanied by others singing occasional songs.
Croatia’s holiday traditions offer a unique glimpse into the country’s rich cultural heritage. From the early celebrations on St. Catherine’s Day to the Epiphany festivities, these customs reflect the diversity and warmth of the Croatian people. Each tradition, whether it involves lighting a badnjak or planting Christmas wheat, adds its own special touch to the holiday season, creating a vibrant array of celebrations in this beautiful European nation.