I write this on Christmas Eve from Sydney, Australia. It is going to be another scorcher today with temperatures getting into the mid/high thirties. This is quite a contrast to where I was this time last year in Zagreb, Croatia where temperatures were below zero. Zagreb is the capital city of Croatia and has been given the title of ‘Best Christmas Market in Europe’ for a third year in a row!
Christmas is really something special in Croatia. About 85 percent of the population is Catholic so this time of year is big deal and it happens over a whole month, not just one day. I spent three months living in Croatia from early November to late January so I got to see and experience the whole festive season which is better known as Advent.
I was lucky enough to be living with a family of three (mum, dad and 13 year old daughter) in Zagreb, so I was able to share all the traditions with them. Although you see decorations and other signs that Christmas is coming at the end of November it all really kicks off on the 6th of December with Saint Nicholas Day (Sveti Nikola). Traditionally, the day before children clean their shoes/boots and leave them in the window. They hope that St Nicholas will leave them chocolates and small presents in their boot. If children have been naughty, Krampus (a big monster with horns who sometimes travels with St Nicholas) leaves them golden twigs to remind them to behave. I got my boot (stocking) with twigs and chocolate. Maybe I had been naughty and nice!
A week later, on the 13th of December, was Saint Lucia’s Day (Sveti Lucija) which is when people often plant wheat seeds on small dishes. The grassy sprouts that grow (called Christmas wheat) are put underneath the Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve. My family took part in this practice which is not something I have ever heard of or seen before.
Christmas Trees are normally put up and decorated on Christmas Eve but some people put them up and decorate them on St Nicholas’s Day. Presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. For my Croatian family and I we celebrated on Christmas Eve with extended family at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We had a delicious feast! There was rakija (local alcohol), traditional dishes like sarma (cabbage rolls filled with minced pork meat) and my favourite dish was an octopus salad with this divine sauce that Grandpa had made, I have the recipe somewhere. Grandpa also made the yummiest chocolate cake, there were lots of sweet treats to be enjoyed but Grandpa’s cake was the best.