December 24, 2012
As the Republic of Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country, religious holidays are celebrated frequently and enthusiastically. The two most important Catholic holidays, Christmas and Easter, are held in great regard and are enjoyed with extra fervor.
Since it is now the Christmas season, I’d like to describe to the American-Croatian readers what Christmas is like in my home city of Rijeka, Croatia.
The main Christmas season in Croatia begins around the first of December. Rijeka and most other nearby municipalities begin decorating the streets and main business districts with lights and decorations while the weather is still accommodating. An important date is December sixth, which is the day of St. Nicholas (Sv. Nikolas), more commonly known as St. Nick. This is a special day when the children have their stockings filled with candy and toys if they were good during the year. Also, Christmas music appears on the radio and in the shopping centers at about this time. After this date, decorations are put on display in most other businesses, too. After the second week of the month, shopping centers begin their Christmas season selling campaigns. By mid-December (considerably later than in the U.S.), things begin to look quite like the United States, but scaled down considerably.
The season does entice the entrepreneurial spirit in many Croatians. On the Korzo, Rijeka’s main shopping district, a huge Christmas tree is erected and decorated while small stands, or huts, surround it with local merchants selling their seasonal merchandise.
The goods vary from homemade foods and crafts to toys imported from China. Examples of what some stands offer for sale are: homemade (domači) sweets like candies, cookies, chocolates and figs, and other food products like sausages (kulen and kobasice), honey products, olives and cheese. Some stands sell bottles of locally produced wines and brandies (rakija, travarica, and medica).
Other stands sell clothing (socks, stockings, scarves, gloves and hats), Christmas lights and decorations, and toys for children of all ages. Another seasonal favorite that can be found on the Korzo this time of year are the small grills where vendors sell roasted chestnuts and popcorn, which adds an aromatic dimension to the Christmas atmosphere.
By December fifteenth, salespeople are out at many locations selling freshly-cut Christmas trees. Though artificial trees can be found in almost every store, real trees are far more popular, and it is quite common to see a car drive past with a Christmas tree fastened to its roof. Many Croatians feel that ‘nothing compares to the smell of a freshly-cut pine tree in the home at Christmas time,’ but I also suspect that having to keep a plastic tree in a large box each year in an apartment that has little storage space deters the locals from owning artificial trees.
Over the last several years, my wife’s family has started a Christmas tree plantation (www.bozicna-drvca.com.hr) in their mountain village, Ravna Gora, in Gorski Kotar.
In retrospect, I think this was a good idea, since no one can dispute that Gorski Kotar has an ideal climate for growing pine trees. On the other hand, it also produces a lot of snow, and this year’s harvest was undertaken in knee-deep drifts.
And that job was finished only a day before the biggest snowstorm in decades hit the area. Nonetheless, all the orders got filled, the distributors received their products, and I now see small pine trees strapped to car roofs every day. A disaster was averted, and Christmas was saved!
As Christmas day nears, business and offices parties become frequent. Throughout the week before the holiday, it becomes difficult to find seats at many restaurants which are booked well-in-advance with large groups of organized company parties.
The season reaches its climax with the celebration of a mid-night mass on Christmas Eve or a morning mass on Christmas day. Afterward, it is common for families to gather for a Christmas dinner. This may include lots of ruckus from children playing with additional toys brought by Santa Claus.
While the Christmas season in Croatia is significantly smaller in scale than Christmas festivities that take place in the U.S., it is celebrated with great affection and is a day all Croats look forward to.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
Douglas Cavanaugh is an American who has lived in Croatia since 1996. He is the author of the spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire, which is set in Bosnia and Croatia in 1992. His book, and his personal recommendations for other great books and music related to Croatia, can be found on his web site: www.into-hells-fire.com