Croatian Christmas traditions

Preparations for the holiday start by giving presents on the 6th of December (St. Nicholas Day) and on the 13th of December (St. Lucy Day). This tradition dates back to the 11th century. On St. Lucy Day, a person wrapped with a white sheet used to go from house to house giving children dried figs, almonds, walnuts and apples, but also scaring children that were naughty. Furthermore, rods were placed under the pillows of these children in order to warn them to behave properly. Nowadays, St. Nicholas places candies in the boots of well-behaved children, and his assistant "Krampus" (evil spirit or devil) distributes the rods. The traditional Croatian Christmas present was a decorated apple called "božićnica" that was given to girls by boys.

One of the traditions that is still followed today is to sow Christmas Wheat that stands for life and fertility. This tradition does not exist in Protestant communities and in most of Europe, and besides in Croatia, can only be found in Portugal and southern Italy. Until Christmas, the wheat grows in a water filled container, decorates the table on Christmas and afterwards is put under the Christmas tree or in a corner of the room. The wheat is trimmed and wrapped with a red or a red, white and blue ribbon. In some of Croatia's regions, an apple and candles are placed in the middle of the wheat. After Christmas, the wheat is given to birds since nothing from Christmas times should be thrown away.

Christmas Eve traditions in Croatia consist of finding three larger tree-stumps, spreading straw, making a model of the Nativity Scene and the lighting of candles.

Three larger tree-stumps, brought into the house on Christmas Eve, placed into the fireplace and used to light all of the candles in the house, symbolize the Holy Trinity. Some Christmas food and wine were added to the fire because it was believed that the large tree-stump fire would bring good to all of the members of the household.

The Straw tradition as a symbol of Christmas was followed much longer than the tree-stumps tradition. The moment when the head of the household brought the straw into the house marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. The majority of the straw was spread on the floor under the table, while some was placed on the table and covered by a tablecloth, and some was tied into bundles or wreaths. After dinner, all members of the household used to sit on the straw and chat until time for church. In some regions, people slept on the straw instead of in their beds on Christmas Eve. The straw spread on the floor symbolized the birth of Christ in the creche, while straw tied into bundles and wreaths symbolized fertility.

Until 1850, people in Croatia did not decorate Christmas trees, even though this tradition has been observed in German regions since the 16th century. It is interesting to note that the first Christmas trees had been deciduous and that coniferous trees were only used after intensive afforestation. Trees used to be decorated with apples, oranges, plums, pears, walnuts and hazelnuts, as well as sweets, paper and glass figurines. Besides all of these, there were also gold and silver colored threads, lanterns and candles that were lit at the holiest moments. Even though the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree appeared relatively late in Croatia, decorating the home with greenery is a centuries-old tradition usually done by children. Children in coastal regions used to decorate their houses with sage, ivy and evergreen branches. This tradition symbolizes the strength of life as opposed to winter period.

The creche, that is placed under the Christmas tree is a reminder on the event that is being celebrated - the birth of Christ. The creches used to be made of plaster, clay or wood and could only be found in churches. It was a matter of prestige to have the largest and most beautiful creche. According to documents, the first life size creche was made by St. Francis in 1223. Since the 19th century, creches can also be found in homes.

Candles symbolize both the awakening of nature and the light that Christ's birth brought to the world.

It is a tradition to fast on Christmas Eve and to stay awake till midnight when it is time to go to church, as well as to prepare a plentiful dinner on Christmas. People had to finish all of their household chores and prepare food and desert before the evening bells rang on Christmas Eve. While on Christmas Eve people used to fast, on Christmas Day there were always meat and cookies even in the poorest families.

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