Christmas In Croatia: Christmas Traditions In Croatia & Best Christmas Markets In Croatia
Editors note: I updated this post in 2018 with traditions, although this post was originally written in 2014.
It’s almost here, our very first Christmas in Croatia. It’s been seven months since we moved from Australia to Croatia and it feels like it was just yesterday in so many ways, yet a lifetime in other ways.
Having my sister visit last week was brilliant, it was a boost from home that both she and I needed. But now what? Usually, at this time of the year, there are so many parties and activities that I struggle to find the time to attend them all. This year, it’s much more low key. So low key, in fact, I can hardly believe that Christmas is just days away.
Almost everyone asks about how things compare between my here and your there when you’re an expat. Of course, the differences are many, so Christmas time is no exception. A few things stood out to me concerning how we’ll celebrate our first Christmas in Croatia compared to Christmas in Australia.
Which Christmas Traditions In Croatia Are Different?
Croatia is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in majority, so that should tell you that this time of year is a very important period on the calendar. Croatian Christmas traditions and customs have changed over the years, but some of the oldest ones have managed to stick, and are still practiced today. What you will notice above everything else is food, lots and lots of food!
No Christmas Tree
December 1st came and went, and there was zero sign of any trees, faux or real. There were a few decorations here and there, but no huge section at the supermarket.
I was a little sad when I asked about why, as I really want to get my tree up and start to get in the spirit. They told me that real trees are sold from about the 20th of December and, traditionally, the tree is not decorated until the 24th of December. Briefly, I thought I would ditch my idea for a real tree and grab a faux one, but that idea lasted all of two mins until I saw the sorrowful and ugly faux trees for sale. My sad little face became all bright and cheery when on December 17th, we found our very first and real tree for sale on the side of the road.
Croatian Christmas Has No Santa
Well, that’s not really true. Just no Santa photos, no all-singing all-dancing, in-your-face commercialism of any kind. Bravo Croatia, bravo. Those who know me in real life know that I hate the Santa lie. There, I said it, and you can hate me back all you like. I’ll be having no Santa “the big fat lie” Claus in this house.
All those lies and deception, for what? For my children’s imagination? We have all year to work on that, without creating a lie for which most parents force children to behave in lieu for gifts. So far, here in Croatia, the lack of Santa agrees with me.
No Department Store Windows
No department stores = no fancy window displays. At least not here in Zadar. Even the Shopping Centers waited until well into December to put up the very meager amount of Croatian Christmas decorations. And for that, I was thrilled. Each year in Australia, Christmas tree decorations and the myriad of all things green and red begin appearing earlier and earlier. It makes me so cross each year, but I know why shops do it, as fools like me always buy ‘just this one thing‘ early.
What I did see, though, was little kiosks and roadside stalls selling Croatian nativity sets, and REAL moss. Yes, REAL moss for people to add to their nativity scenes at home. Now I’ll take that over that ugly red felt Santa suit any day.
No Heat For Christmas In Croatia
Well, there is heat, it’s just roaring from my fireplace rather than the blazing summer sun. It’s strange, but not new. We’ve celebrated Christmas in New York and Paris when it was snowing. But then we were on vacation, so it seemed normal. Now that we live here, it feels somewhat strange to have colder days, no tree and the need for a fireplace instead of the air conditioning and cold showers.
Croatian Christmas Wheat
This is one new Croatian Christmas tradition that I will be embracing! We planted it on the feast day of St. Lucia, which was on December 13th. And as for most things, when I say we planted it… I mean I looked on and smiled, and will now kind of take the credit. It’s a small plate that was laid with a layer of damp cotton wool, to which the wheat seeds were added.
What is the wheat for? I am told that the wheat seeds should grow big and tall. How big and how tall is believed to be in direct correlation to how lucky and prosperous you will be for the upcoming year. Gulp, that’s what I call pressure.
Ten centimeters was my aim, and today it’s already at eight. I was very tempted to add fertilizer, just to encourage the wheat and ensure our good fortunes for next year, but I resisted. Once it grows, we will trim it to make it all pretty, tie some ribbon around it and stick in a candle for it to be the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner table.
There are so many more Croatian Christmas traditions, so before I head off to wrap more gifts and have another rakija, let me share them with you below.
Croatian Christmas Traditions
I have come to learn over the years that for Croatians the big celebration day is not actually December 25th. Instead, it is Christmas Eve as is the case in many other European countries. The day consists of two halves: Badnji Dan (Christmas Eve day) and Badnja Večer (Christmas Eve night).
It’s also worth noting that Croatian Christmas traditions are slightly different across the country. Each area does things their own way. Here are a few traditions in Croatia I have come to learn.
Here are a few dates that took me some getting used to:
25 November – St Catherine’s Day
Yes, you read that right, November! In certain parts of the country, you will see preparations for the big event beginning early. This particular day is called Sveta Kata, or St Catherine’s Day, and marks the start of the festivities. For many, however, this doesn’t actually begin until the first day of Advent. On St Catherine’s Day, you won’t find any weddings or other large celebrations taking place.
The 4th Sunday Before Christmas Day – Prva Adventska Nedjelja
Advent Sunday falls on the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day, and this day sees the first candle lit on the wreath of four candles. In days gone by, the wreath was crafted from branches of an evergreen tree, which was supposed to be a symbol of forever or eternity. On every following Sunday leading up to Christmas Day, another candle in the wreath is lit.
6 December – St Nicholas’ Day
A great excuse to give and receive gifts! Sveti Nikola is the traditional start of Christmas gift giving. The night before, children traditionally cleaned and polished their shoes, and left them on the window outside, in anticipation of St Nicholas coming and leaving them some sweets in their shoes. Only the good children got the goodies, however, and those who were less than well behaved received something else – sticks from a little demon called Krampus!
13 December – Day of St Lucia
Sveta Lucija or St Lucia’s Day is a special day in the Christmas calendar. It was traditionally St Lucia who brought gifts to children in the northeastern and southern parts of Croatia on this day. Those who were in the north or center of the country received their gifts on St Nicholas’ Day instead. As customs and traditions have changed, the location doesn’t matter anymore, and gifts are given to all (provided they have been well behaved) on St Lucia’s Day, St Nicholas’ Day, and Christmas Day, too – lucky children!
There is a very important tradition that takes place on this day also, and it is about Christmas Wheat. It was traditionally mothers who planted the wheat on this day, although it can also be done by anyone. The height and size of the wheat when it grows is supposed to symbolize how lucky and prosperous you’re going to be in the coming 12 months! On Christmas Eve, the wheat is tied with red, white and blue ribbon.
24 December – Christmas Eve
Let the celebrations begin!
We mentioned that Christmas Eve is a big deal in Croatia, the most important Christmas holiday in Croatia, and is split into two halves. In the evening, a log is traditionally lit by the father of the household. This tradition is called badnjak, and the hope is that the log will continue burning right through to the end of Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, you’ll see families everywhere coming together for their traditional meal. This is also the day when the Christmas tree is traditionally decorated with traditional Croatian Christmas ornaments, although many can’t wait that long and do it beforehand! (You can find a few more details about Christmas Eve in Croatia below.)
25 December – Christmas Day (Bozic)
While the giving of Croatian Christmas gifts would have taken place the night before, that doesn’t mean that the eating stops on Christmas Day. This is a traditional family day when people come together and enjoy their time. By the end of the day, the probable outcome is that you will be full of food and unable to move!
6 January – Epiphany/Bogojavljenje
This is the traditional end of Christmas and is the day when Christmas trees are taken down and stored away for another year. There are a few regional traditions to talk about on this particular day, too. In the north and northeastern parts of the country, a ritual called zvjezdari sometimes takes place. This is when three boys visit houses and give gifts. The boys carry a cardboard star, after the Bethlehem star, and a candle. The boys sometimes sing songs at the same time, and this symbolizes the end of the Christmas period.
During Christmas in Croatia, there is a Christmas tradition of bringing a log into the home, known as a badnjaks, and setting it alight with the idea that it burns until Christmas Day. Of course, this is not so common now that so few homes have a fireplace, but I am told we will do this when we own a fireplace. Goodie!
Historically, the log would pass through a religious ritual, whereby the oldest man in the family sprinkles it with holy water and frankincense while citing a prayer. In some parts of Croatia, badnjaks are also sprinkled with rakija. The log is supposed to remain burning all night, so each family member will take turns during the evening to ensure it remains burning.
Church For Christmas
For Croats, Christmas is a time of Spiritual Celebration as religion is an important part of their life. We celebrate the Birth Of The Lord and Savior, and it is customary to go to church at midnight, after you’ve eaten your Christmas Eve meal.
Traditional Croatian Christmas Food
Christmas is a wonderful time of year, no matter where you are to celebrate it. If you’re in Croatia at Christmas time, you’re in for a real treat because December is a veritable feast (in more ways than one) of Christmas fun.
Christmas in Croatia is not a time to be on a diet! We’ve mentioned typical Croatian food on more than a few occasions, so what types of food can you expect to enjoy as part of a traditional Croatian Christmas?
Christmas Eve Food In Croatia
Christmas Eve is in some areas a traditional day of fasting, and in the evening, a simple meal is enjoyed. Traditionally, this is not a day when Croatians eat meat. Instead, their main meal features fish, typically codfish, which is prepared in various ways in different regions in Croatia.
In the Dalmatia region, dried codfish is the traditional Christmas Eve meal, which is called bakalar. The codfish is boiled and served in a red sauce, with cabbage, potatoes and a salad. Seasonings take up an important spot in the recipe and are mainly chopped parsley, garlic and olive oil. This dish is rather smelly, but oh-so tasty. We have an easy-to-make bakalar recipe here if you want to try it.
In Istria, too, codfish is the star of the culinary show on Christmas Eve. They prepare it in their own typical way, though. Istrian Christmas Eve codfish is served in bianco style with olive oil and garlic. It’s a bit like a paté, spread on freshly made, toasted bread. Another Istrian fish dish eaten on the day before Christmas is called pasutice. This is a typical local pasta dish, consisting of square-shaped pasta with salted anchovies or bianco-style codfish, topped with hot olive oil.
On the Croatian islands, popular Christmas Eve dishes include squid and potatoes baked in the oven, or a stew of tomatoes and conger eel.
Slavonians, on the other hand, often opt for their famous pike perkelt on Christmas Eve. This delicious type of goulash is made with tons of onions, tomatoes, homemade lard and hot red peppers (or paprika), a major staple in the Slavonian diet.
After their traditional Christmas Eve fish dinner, everyone goes to Midnight Mass, and then comes home to start the Christmas festivities.
Christmas Day Food In Croatia
If Christmas Eve food is rather sober and low-key in Croatia, on Christmas Day, you can expect the complete opposite. Christmas Day is a true food-fest!
The types of food you can expect to see are sarme (leaves of cabbage stuffed with rice and meat), sausages, and roasted meat of all different types. Think roasted pig, turkey or perhaps even a lamb. Your plate will be overflowing with bacon and pancetta, a huge variety of different cheeses, and freshly baked bread. Depending on the region, there is a variety of different Christmas Day meals enjoyed in Croatia.
In Dalmatia, for example, a beef stew dish called pasticada is the typical Christmas Day meal. Recipes for this typical stew vary throughout the Adriatic, though. Some people prepare it with wine to which sugar is added, while others opt for dessert wine. All kinds of other ingredients are added, including cloves, celery, bacon, carrots and garlic. The dish gets its distinct density and taste from dried plums. Traditionally, homemade gnocchi accompanies the pasticada, making for a hearty and belly-filling Christmas Day meal.
Elsewhere in Croatia, notably in the Zagreb region and northern Adriatic, the Christmas menu features roasted turkey and homemade mlinci pasta. The turkey is stuffed with fillings prepared with garlic, bread, apples, onions, celery, parsley and even chicken liver.
In Slavonia, people traditionally eat roast suckling pig, served with an Olivier salad, which is a mix of veggies, eggs, and mayonaise. In Međimurje, the culinary centerpiece is duck filled with porridge and buckwheat, while cooked pork and boiled cabbage is the traditional Christmas Day meal in Lika.
Croatia Christmas Desserts
Of course, we can’t forget about the million different types of traditional Croatian Christmas cookies and cakes. If you’re still not full after all that, there’s plenty of options to satisfy your sweet tooth, from orahnjača walnut rolls and makovnjača poppy seed rolls to čupacvi cakes and cat’s eyes cake.
As you can see, Croatian Christmas recipes, food and traditions vary from place to place, family to family, and region to region, but one thing is for sure – Christmas in Croatia is a special time indeed.
How Do You Say Merry Christmas In Croatian
One of the most used Christmas greetings in Croatian is “Sretan Bozic”, meaning Merry Christmas in Croatian. Click below to hear how it sounds.
It’s A Long Christmas Season In Croatia
The Croatian Christmas season comes to an end on the 6th of January, which is Epiphany Day. This day is the feast day of the Three Kings visiting Jesus. Much longer than we celebrate it in Australia, that is for sure!
Check Out These Christmas Markets In Croatia For A Jolly Good Time
Advent is a celebratory time of year for many countries around the world. It’s time spent preparing for the Christmas holiday and is a long-standing tradition among Christians across the globe. A Croatian Christmas is steeped in religious symbolism, notably celebrated by lighting candles that are placed on an advent wreath. It’s a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and countries the world over celebrate this special time of year. Croatia is no exception.
All over Croatia, from Rovinj to Osijek and Dubrovnik, you’ll find towns and villages celebrating, and many put on fantastic displays. In addition to the religious aspects, cities transform into festive delights with decorations that adorn city squares and buildings, while Christmas markets spring up.
Christmas markets in Croatia come to life with food, mulled wine, and gifts.
These traditions have been going on for centuries and are still going strong today. Let’s take a look at just a few of the many places to enjoy a typical Croatia Christmas market.
Advent In Zagreb (Advent u Zagrebu)
The city of Zagreb celebrates the season of Advent, and it’s a real highlight of Christmas in Croatia for us locals. Advent u Zagrebu, as it’s known in Croatian, is a grand and colorful affair, featuring thousands of Zagreb Christmas lights. It’s exactly like you would expect to see on a movie screen.
The Zagreb Christmas markets mainly take place in the city’s squares and city center. The rich artistry of the handmade crafts dotted around the Christmas stalls was too much for me last year. I purchased far too many trinkets. Several cultural societies entertain passersby with beautiful music from local choirs, dancing, and live music. The performers are all dressed in Christmas regalia and Croatian Christmas carols waft through the air, setting the tone for the season.
While you listen, you can window-shop or buy seasonal gifts and other items at many of the shops and stores around the squares. If that is not enough, strap on your boots and head out onto the Zagreb ice skating rink that is set up in Ban Jelačić Square. Visiting Zagreb in December is the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit.
- Cost: FREE admission
- Zagreb Christmas Market Dates: Advent in Zagreb opens 28th Nov 2015 till 6th Jan 2016
- Where to stay: Find a hotel in Zagreb. We recommend Hotel Esplanade, it’s where we stayed when we visited the markets in Zagreb and we loved this hotel.
- Local Tip: Look out for the Kameni Otok stand, they sell items made from Brački Kamen (Stone from Brač). There is a cool mortar and pestle, and a wall clock I have my eyes on!
Advent In Belišće
Not exactly hot on everyone’s ‘Christmas in Croatia’ must-do list, is Belišće. Throughout the month of December, you will find a number of events that are a joyous culmination planned and performed by most of the citizens from the town, suburbs, and surrounding areas. The people of Belišće really value coming together and being a part of the Christmas in Croatia celebrations.
The townspeople all take part in the daily events organized by many civic groups, town institutions, clubs, and school choirs. It all leads up to the popular Croatian Christmas concert and fair that includes many sporting events at the local ice rink. Advent and Christmas in this city creates a sense of community and togetherness. They feel that this time is important for the community as it fosters unity and goodwill. You actually feel a sense of family at these beautiful celebrations.
- Cost: FREE admission
- Dates: Advent in Belišće is from 1st December 2015 until 31st December 2015
- Where to stay: Find a hotel nearby.
Advent In Marija Bistrica
If you want to spend a spiritual Christmas in Croatia, head to Marija Bistrica, arguably the most spiritual place in Croatia. Advent in Marija Bistrica is celebrated in the central square of the town, and it centers around a traditional celebration. Many of the shops, as well as the trees and buildings, are lovingly adorned with lights and amazing decor.
Local artisans present traditional crafts and hold special workshops mainly for children, as they are a significant focus of the season. The most anticipated event takes place on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, where the town’s children receive a gift from St. Nick himself. It is a joyous and fun occasion for both boys, girls, and grown-ups.
- Cost: FREE admission
- Dates: Advent in Marija Bistrica is from 28th November 2015 until 20th December 2015
- Where to stay: Find a hotel nearby.
Advent In Split
December in Split is a great time of the year to visit. With temperatures of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 Celsius), you can easily spend your Christmas in Croatia hanging out on the Riva by the sea. Cool, huh? Just be sure to bring a coat and grab a glass of mulled wine.
A Christmas in Split, Croatia sees bustling Christmas markets filled with stands selling traditional Croatian Christmas food, souvenirs and drinks all day long. Keep an eye out for those delicious Croatian Christmas cookies made by locals. During the evening, secure a position center stage for the festive concerts and folklore performances. Join the fun at the Facebook group here. If you like ice skating, head to Spaladium Arena and lace up your skates.
- Cost: FREE admission
- Dates: Advent in Split is from 1st December 2015 until 11 January 2015
- Where to stay: Find a hotel nearby.
Advent In Dubrovnik
This UNESCO-protected fortified Old Town comes to life during December. A Dubrovnik Christmas begins with Advent workshops for kids, and the Feast of St Nicholas where you’ll see all the local children out celebrating. There are several other events, including the big event, the Advent concert held at Saint Blaise’s Church. Note that is is hard to find online information on this Christmas in Croatia event, but trust me, it does happen each year.
- Cost: FREE admission
- Dates: TBC
- Where to stay: Find a hotel nearby.
Advent In Gorski Kotar
Priceless family moments with fun family-friendly events in Gorski Kotar are held each weekend in December. Streets covered in snow, woods fires burning and mulled wine, sausages and cookies are calling your name.
The residents of Delnice, a charming little town invite you to join them in the Village of Bake Mraz. On display are farm animals, carriage rides and creative workshops for kids.
Each day the stage is filled with local performers, concerts and various exhibitions. In the main square, you’ll find a food fair filled with domestic products, as well as unique Croatian souvenirs.
Advent In Rijeka
Details coming soon!
Advent In Štrigova
The celebration of Advent in Štrigova, a town located just kilometers from Slovenia, gives it an air of comfort and homeliness. There are several small celebrations in the month of December, all leading up to the most celebrated one of all, Christmas Day.
The Christmas Fair is by far the most popular event. During the fair, the town looks like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. You will find homemade crafts, food, and enjoy live concerts held in St. Mary Magdalene Church. The festivals carry on to New Year’s, complete with fireworks and more celebration. The lights, sounds, and smells give life to this town’s traditional Christmas season.
Croatians love Advent and Christmas! It is one of the most highly celebrated and important times of the year. From the lighting of Advent candles to the music and smells that waft through the air ushering in Christmas, everyone around feels the excitement and wonder of the Christmas season. It would make even the Grinchiest or Scroogiest person feel the spirit of Christmas all over again.
Have you ever celebrated Christmas in Croatia? Which Christmas Markets in Croatia would you suggest?
From my family to yours, have a wonderful, safe and Merry Christmas.