By Iva Ralica
Croatia is a country with contrasting regions and customs. Dalmatia, Istria, Zagorje, Slavonia, Kvarner…each region has its own special traits.
With Christmas just over 3 weeks away, we look at what a typical Christmas looks like in Zagroje, the region located just north of the capital Zagreb.
Today, Christmas preparations in Zagorje usually start around the day of St. Barbara, the 4th of December. Of course, those who can´t wait start even earlier. But on this day people plant ‘Christmas wheat’ in small pots to put beneath the Christmas tree.
In the past it was said that people could expect how their harvest would turn out based on how the wheat in the pot grew.
The first one to “bring gifts” is St. Nicholas on the 6th day of December. The evening before, children wash their little boots and leave them or their (clean) socks on the window-sill for St. Nick to put presents in.
St. Nicholas tradition is based on a historical figure, but is mixed with legends and a part of it is Krampus, a hairy, mythological creature with horns. He follows St. Nick and is the one that puts a bunch of golden twigs in the boots if the kids didn´t listen to their parents.
Krampus and St. Nick are here to teach the children the difference between the good and the bad, and not only in Zagorje.
On Christmas Eve the father or grandfather brings cane (reed) inside the house. This is used to build a smaller version of the nativity scene. The oldest example of it in these parts is found exactly in Hrvatsko Zagorje.
Homemade bread, sometimes with a candle in the middle, is a well-spread tradition. The light in the middle is a symbol of Christmas. Another inevitable custom is the various sorts of cakes and cookies on the table – the more the merrier.
The day before Christmas is fasting day so all of the sweets and a lavish lunch should wait for the Christmas Day lunch.
The Christmas tree is not an old tradition, it is derived from the German states in the 19th century, but it has remained a custom. In Zagorje, the tree, or the more traditional branches, were decorated with apples, walnuts and flowers. Today it is still part of a tradition, but the apples are now usually made of plastic or glass. Still, people today usually decorate the tree with “modern” Christmas decorations.
At midnight on Christmas Eve people go to church to a holy mass. In the past, women and girls would put on their best dresses and boys would give an apple to a girl they liked.
After the lunch people visit neighbours and wish them all the best. The first one to enter someone´s house should be happy and healthy so that the entire year would be prosperous. In the past children would walk around the village singing, but this custom has died out.
Three days after Christmas is Herodeševo, or the holiday remembering the children Roman King Herod had killed. The children in Zagorje were given gifts, but today it´s not a tradition any more.
All of these, but also many others, forgotten or less spread, customs prove the connection between and among the people and nature. We just shouldn´t forget the emotions and the atmosphere they create in the wonderful Christmas time.