What are Croatian Christmas Customs?

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It’s Not a True Christmas Season in Croatia if You Don’t Have Thousands of Nervous Women Baking and Cooking For Days in a Row!

Even though this 2020 was specific, restricted and what not, us in Croatia managed to keep our holiday spirit alive. This is the time of the year when we would usually get together with our families, but only days before Christmas, due to limitations from The National Coronavirus Response Team, our mobility within Croatia is constrained and this Christmas is going to have a very special outlook indeed. Well, all this will soon be yesterday and hopefully next Christmas we can go back to our usual customs. So, what does a typical Christmas look like in Croatia?

I don’t know what it’s like in your country, but in Croatia, Christmas evolves around food – a lot of food. Truckloads of food. Such food quantities a regular 4-member family would eat during a month, but for Christmas, we like to prepare anything available in supermarkets times 10. 

  • Turkey with mlinci
  • French salad
  • Pork roast
  • Insane quantities of cakes and biscuits

Turkey is commonly served on the majority of Croatian Christmas tables and it’s accompanied by mlinci. Mlinci is dough made of flour, water, pinch of salt and milk, thinly rolled out, baked at high temperature for around 10-15 minutes. Then, it’s stored away until preparation which is rather easy – bring water to boil, in the meantime, take the baked dough, break it into pieces, cover it with boiling water for one minute, drain the water and then in a separate bowl put now softened dough and cover it with grease from turkey’s baking; stir and you have mlinci! You can buy mlinci in a supermarket, but the taste and the texture is nowhere near this home-made rhapsody. My family bought mlinci once and never again because the dough tends to stick and become too soft. Feature of fabulous mlinci is dough’s ability to keep its firmness even after they’re submerged into boiling water. 

Pork roast is also served with mlinci and usually it’s an if-if situation: if you’re serving turkey for Christmas, you’re not serving pork and vice versa, unless you have a truly big family.

I know you have no idea what French salad is 😀 it’s a literal translation of “francuska salata” as we would call it in Croatia and it’s actually cooked peas and diced carrots seasoned with mayonnaise and diced pickles. Until 10 or so years ago, this French Salad was nowhere to be found in Croatian supermarkets outside of the Christmas season. Soon food producers saw their opportunity to offer it all year round and now you can find it in any season. Diced ham can also be added to the “salad”, but then the French Salad would become Russian Salad. This may sound complicated now, but rest assured it’s very tasty. Of course, in Croatia, one household must make around 50 portions of the French Salad for Christmas, or else Homeland Security shows up at your doorstep and revokes your Croatian citizenship. 

Sinterklaas

We really put great stress on home-cooked food for Christmas which causes women to eventually stress out 😀 kitchens across Croatia are full of women in a national bake-off contest against time and curious family members eager to get their hands on freshly baked sweets. Usually, cakes and biscuits are prepared around 5 days before Christmas and no one is allowed even to glance at them, let alone eat them before the magical 25th of December. Odin’s wrath is nothing compared to how angry a mom can be at you if you even think of touching her sweet masterpieces before Christmas. Which sweets are usually baked? It’s mostly zvjezdice – star shaped cookies filled with apricot marmalade; medenjaci – roundly shaped honey walnut cinnamon flavored biscuits, similar by taste and texture to Dutch speculaas; medvjeđe šape – bear shaped claws, we usually call them just šape, also biscuits, tasting like walnuts; breskvice – peach shaped biscuits, kids like to drive their mums crazy when they try to eat them by holding the biscuits vertically (you have to open your mouth widely to do so, now you understand Croatian mums’ disapprovals);  regular plain biscuits, and many many more.

Sinterklaas sweets

Legend says, if you’re Croatian and you don’t decorate your Christmas tree, your house, your rooftop, balconies, front yard and include glowing blinking lights, the before mentioned Homeland Security finds you and kicks you out of Croatia. 😀 The central part of our holiday decoration is of course the Christmas tree. Nowadays, families like to decorate them already in the beginning of December, but there are still a lot of households, including mine, that like to traditionally set up the tree on Christmas Eve. There are no specific rules on how to do it, you just add decorations that you like. Nowadays, thanks to social media, I get to see many pretty Christmas trees, I have to say kudos to all the work and effort. I am personally not much of a decorator myself, I could easily have a little blinking bonsai tree and not bat an eye (please don’t tell the Homeland Security). 

And What Happens on Christmas?

Finally, December 25 arrived, it’s Christmas! A lot of families go to Church, a very popular mass is the midnight one on Christmas Eve. After mass, we gather at the table, eat turkey with mlinci and francuska salata, then finally after the main course cakes and cookies are allowed to be eaten. We then drink some champagne or wine or liqueurs or spirits (rakija, anyone?) and enjoy each other’s company. Gifts are brought by baby Jesus (that is our saying), we don’t commonly exchange presents, but since recently, we like to honor each other with small tokens of appreciation. Santa Claus is not an original part of our tradition, but eventually he found his way to our homes as well. Extremely popular Croatian holiday home decorations in the past years became soldiers from The Nutcracker ballet (Shelkunchik). Still, until today, the most favorite and essential piece of the Christmas decoration is Nativity scene – baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a barn, surrounded by domestic animals, greeted by the shepherds and the Three Wise Men led by a Christmas star. Such Nativity scenes can be found all over Croatia in public squares and many Croatian cities have a “live” Nativity scenography – choirs dress up and sing original Croatian Christmas carols – there are indeed many of them.

If you find yourself in Croatia during Christmas holidays, prepare yourself for a lot of food, Christmas carols, blinking glowing decorations and friendliness at every corner. Every year we had Christmas markets at different Croatian cities – the one in Zagreb, Croatian capital, received for 3 years in a row prize for the best European Christmas Market. Visiting Zagreb in December is truly one of a kind experience and we’re looking forward to the new 2021.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sretan vam Božić i Nova godina!

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