Friday, 22 January 2021

22 January: Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia

January 22, 2021 – January 22 is Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia. Marked significantly in continental winemaking regions, its folk traditions pre-date Christianity and are celebrated with food, wine, music and merriment

Nearing the end of January, it's not uncommon to see snow on the fields of Croatia. The ground can be hard, brittle, frozen. There's little to be done in them right now. And yet, on 22 January in Croatia, winemakers traditionally head to their vineyards. They do this not to undertake a day's work – for today is a day of rest. Instead, they go there to mark the tradition of Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia.

Croatia_Baranja_Belje_Vineyard_0184_1.jpgSt. Vincent's Day in Baranja © Romulić & Stojčić

Vinceška, Vincekovo, Vinkovo, Vincelovo, Vinceće - St. Vincent's Day

As a name, Vincent has many variants, Vinko being one popular in Croatia. Similarly, Vincekovo is also known by several different names. For example, St. Vincents Day in Baranja is called Vinceška, in Erdut it's Vincekovo, in Ilok it's Vinkovo, but you can also hear it called Vincelovo and even Vinceće.

Vincekovo_GVT-2019-14a_1.jpgVincekovo marked with wine and meat in traditional folk costume in Varaždinske Toplice © Grad Varaždinske Toplice

Vincekovo is mostly marked in the northern continental area of the country and throughout the entire far east of Croatia - eastern Slavonia, Baranja and the Croatian part of Syrmia, around Ilok. In these places, it is a day inextricably linked with the production of wine. That people seem to associate St Vincent as 'the wine guy' seems reasonable – Vinko and vino (the Croatian word for wine) are almost the same, right? Well, not quite.

The related name Viktor (also used in Croatia) actually gives us the best example of the meaning of the name. Vincent comes from the Latin word 'vincere' (to conquer or to be victorious). But, although it looks similar in Latin, the word for wine is much, much older. And it may have an entirely different root.

Ilok2020.jpgVinkovo in Ilok 2020 © Youtube screenshot

Why we say 'wine'

Nobody is really sure where the word 'wine' comes from. The ancient Greek word 'oinos' certainly pre-dates the Latin but its true origins have been lost in time. This provides an entertaining mystery for today. Fascinatingly, we find a common origin word for wine in several completely different language groups.

You can trace the historic use of the word 'wine' through a vast territory. In ancient times, the name was used in the area of what is today southern Russia and nearby in the Caucasus. Although they belong to a different non-Indo European language group, peoples in what is modern-day Georgia used the same word. In the western Semitic languages of the Levant (Arabic: wain, Hebrew: yayin) it is the same. In Mediterranean languages like Latin and Greek, it is also virtually the same word. Travelling back up to the territory of modern-day Russia, this time through regions where ancient Slavic and Germanic languages were spoken, the word is still the same. It seems that ever since people learned how to cultivate and ferment grapes, they have somehow all referred to the end product using the same word.

Who knows? Perhaps there is a shared origin for the words? As any winemaker will tell you, to make good wine, you do need to conquer the vines. DNA testing proves that the vines from which we grow grapes originally come from varieties that grew historically in the wild in an area that is today Russia and central Europe. Yet, the earliest traces of wine production are found in more southerly regions, where the climate is warmer. This journey itself is a conquering act of cultivation. In early Indo-European languages, the root 'wei' means to turn or to bend. Could the word wine be referring to human manipulation of the wild vines?

The earliest evidence of grapevine cultivation and wine production comes from the South Caucasus, present-day Georgia and dates back at least 8000 years.

1275px-Barry_capitaine._F._25._Grand_vase_pour_la_conservation_du_vin_en_Kacheti_Géorgie._Mission_scientifique_de_Mr_Ernest_Chantre._1881.jpgA Georgian man in traditional dress stands alongside a qvevri, a clay pot used for making Georgian wine in 1881. Once filled, the clay amphora are buried beneath the ground, which helps regulate the temperature of the fermenting wine. Evidence of winemaking in the region is the oldest in the world - it goes back 8000 years  © Public domain

Saint Vincent aka Vincent of Saragossa (Vinko iz Zaragoze)

Vicente_de_Zaragoza_by_Tomás_Giner_14621466_1.jpgVicente de Zaragoza by Tomás Giner

Although several saints share the name Vincent, the Saint Vincent we celebrate on 22 January is Vincent of Saragossa. Born to a well-off family in Saragossa (Zaragoza), north-eastern Spain, Vincent devoted his life to the church and became deacon in the Church of Saragossa. He was tortured under the persecution of Christians demanded by Roman Emperor Diocletian. Vincent was asked to renounce his faith - which he refused to do. Subsequently, he was martyred around the year 304. We mark St Vincent's Day in Croatia and the western Christian world on 22 January as this is presumed to be the actual day of his death. Vincent of Saragossa is not only the patron saint of winemakers but also of vinegar makers. This may come as a comfort to some less able wine producers.

Basilica_del_Pilar-sunset.jpgCathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the Puente de Piedra bridge on the Ebro River in Saragossa, the birthplace of St Vincent © Paulo Brandao

Quite why the midwinter period of 22 January should be significant to winemakers poses some questions. “I have no idea!” one Dalmatian winemaker told TCN when asked to explain the significance of the day to his craft. “But, you know those Slavonians are all crazy, right?” And, on the surface, his unknowing is quite understandable. There is little happening in the frozen fields right now. But, it is possible that this celebration pre-dates not only St Vincent but also Christianity itself.

History of 22 January as Saint Vincent's Day (Vincekovo)

Vincekovo-slika-Likovna-Republika.jpgA Croatian painting tellingly shows how traditions of St Vincent's Day in Croatia have little changed over the years © Tourist Board Jestrebarsko

Everyone's favourite ancient God at the party, Dionysus had a wide portfolio of fun stuff to look after. He was the Greek God of wine, the grape harvest, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre. He was traditionally celebrated in the period from the 11th to the 13th of anthesterion - which in today's calendar corresponds to the period between late January - around now - and the start of February. On the wild feast of Dionysus (who is sometimes called Bacchus or Liber, as in liberty, freedom), barrels of new wine were broken open. The celebration marked the impending arrival of the new season – spring. And, this too is how people mark St Vincent's Day in Croatia.

1775px-Cornelis_de_Vos_-_El_triunfo_de_Baco.jpgThe Triumph of Bacchus, a 17th-century painting by Cornelis de Vos © Public domain

Several saints' days in Croatia and Europe correspond to significant points in the agricultural calendar. This tellingly reveals their pre-Christian roots. Another of those corresponding to winemaking is Martinje – St Martin's Day in Croatia (which you can read about here). However, Martinje is traditionally a more proletarian festivity – it comes at the end of the harvest when there is no more hard work for all the manual labourers to do. Vincekovo is a day more traditionally associated with their boss - the vineyard owner. It is also traditionally a more testosterone-filled affair – a sausage party, perhaps. Well, you could say that, and in more ways than one.

Vinceška-Vina-Belje-2019-21-960x640meats.jpgKulen and other sausages, hung traditionally beside the vines on St Vincent's Day - the company that made these, Belje, is one of the best and most famous in Croatia. They trace their history in the Baranja region back to the year 1697. In Baranja, you'll most likely hear this day called Vinceška © Belje

Music, food, theatre and wine - traditions of Vincekovo, Saint Vincent's Day in Croatia

Around this time of year, vines within the vineyard will be cut back. There are a limited amount of nutrients that can pass down a vine. This cutting back ensures the nutrients are concentrated and helps guarantee a limited but good crop. Whether this cutting back has actually taken place in days prior, on Vincekovo vineyard owners are charged with visiting their vines. Whatever the weather, they will march into the fields and ceremoniously cut back a vine. Usually, it's one with at least three new buds on. Traditionally, this vine is then brought into the home and placed in a watered jar. The progress of the buds supposedly predicts the next season's crops. Many other folk traditions associated with Vincekovo also serve the same purpose of 'predicting the crops'. Melting snow, rain and sunshine on Vincekovo are also regarded as predictors of a fine harvest. Although, some believe that water dripping from the eaves on Vincekovo could mean the year will be wet.

Pavlomir_Novi_Vinodol_Primorsko-Goranska.jpgVincekovo celebrated in Pavlomir, Novi Vinodol, Primorsko-Goranska County © Youtube screenshot

Again following Dionysian traditions, Slavonian people are famously gregarious. They rarely make the trip to the vineyard alone. Neighbours, family, friends and even musicians might make the journey with them and join in the blessing of the vines. In Croatia today, you can still see some people undertaking this ceremony in traditional folk costume.

Vinkovo_in_Ilok_2019.jpgVinkovo in Ilok 2019. Brrrrrr! © Youtube screenshot

The vine that has been pruned is ritually sprinkled with old wine. Song and drinking accompany the ceremony. Both old and new wine may make an appearance. No Slavonia or Baranja party is complete without kulen, their king of sausages. And, on Vincekovo, it is traditional to hang kulen and/or švargla (another monstrous portion of preserved pig product) from a post. Supposedly, this theatre is done in order to encourage the next season's crop to be as fertile and bountiful as these sizeable sausages.

1626px-Sacrificio_a_Baco_Massimo_Stanzione.jpgSacrifice to Bacchus by Massimo Stanzione c. 1634 © Public domain. Some of the folk traditions observed on St Vincent's Day in Croatia probably pre-date Christianity

Hearty snacks usually accompany the celebration in the fields. After the ceremonious part is taken care of, people now think to return indoors. Although, not necessarily to your own home. Because now is the traditional time to march around the locale to visit the wine cellars of your neighbouring growers. If you're a winemaker of a Dionysian bent, you'll probably take along some food with you like kulen, a roasted pig or even the tamburica musicians who came to the fields with you. Croatians rarely arrive at a party with empty hands. If such treats are not taken to the event, probably they'll already be waiting in your neighbour's cellar. Although, you might have to pace yourself. If you live in an area of traditional winemaking, there could be quite a lot of neighbouring wine cellars to visit. Subsequently, celebrations on Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia - can extend well into the night.

fishp.jpegFiš paprikaš is a spicy river fish stew, richly red from paprika. It is popular in Slavonia, Baranja and Syrmia. Along with the wild meats stew čobanac and whole šaran (carp), butterflied and cooked outside over an open flame, it is a warming and popular dish to eat in eastern Croatia on St Vincent's Day © Romulić & Stojčić

Sunday, 17 January 2021

17 January: Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia

January 17, 2021 – On the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia, horns named after the saint sound out in the village of Halubje, Kvarner, marking the start of the annual marches made by their masked bell ringers, the zvončari, and for the carnival season in their region. Over subsequent days, they will travel from village to village before descending on Rijeka

Following a long period of Advent, the extended celebrations of Christmas and the explosive culmination of the season on New Year's Eve, many in the northern hemisphere retreat and relax in January. This is a time to wait out the remaining cold days of winter, the signs of spring hopefully just around the corner. Just a few days after spring arrives, it's Easter, the next grand, annual occasion in their Christian calendar. But, not in Croatia.

In Croatia, January brings a strangeness to the air. The sound of bells carries on the chilly wind. As the discordant chimes draw nearer, bizarre figures in furs, strange fibres, masks or with painted faces perform a timeless dance in circles. January in Croatia is the start of the season for carnival, fašnik or maškare, an annual occurrence sometimes many months in the making. That the masked bell ringers - zvončari – should make their otherworldly entrance on 17 January, the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia is most befitting.

Luca_signorelli_santi_eligio_e_antonio_sansepolcro.jpgSaint Anthony the Great and John the Evangelist pictured on one side of The Crucifixion Standard (1502-1505) by Luca Signorelli © Public domain

The title of Saint Anthony is shared by several men, the most prominent being Anthony of Padua who lived between 1195 and 1231. Saint Anthony The Great, or Anthony of Egypt, lived much earlier - between 251 and 356. Although not the first Christian to forgo worldly pursuits in order to fully devote himself to religion, Anthony of Egypt is regarded as the Father of All Monks and of the monastic life. He gained this title by casting himself into the wilderness of the Eastern Desert in Egypt. It is fitting that the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia should signal the start of the mystical carnival season because, while in the wilderness, it is said Anthony of Egypt experienced a series of supernatural events – the appearance of mythical beats, of unnatural temptations.

1441px-The_Minotaur_by_Michael_Ayrton_03.jpgA centaur - one of the supernatural meetings St Anthony is said to have had in the wilderness. With the head of a bull and the body of a man, he does not look too dissimilar to some Croatian zvončari  © statue by Michael Ayrton, photo by 14GTR

The telling of Anthony's supernatural temptations became rich in metaphor, particularly from the Middle Ages. These tales - his meeting of a centaur and a satyr, of demons in a cave and a plate of silver coins - would go on to inspire artists and writers for centuries. Wild in fantastical detail, they lent themselves particularly well to the extravagant imaginations of painters like Hieronymus Bosch and surrealists like Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí (main image).

Joos_van_Craesbeeck_-The_Temptation_of_St_Anthony_1.jpgThe Temptation of St. Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck, c. 1650, inspired by earlier paintings of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

Although maškare and the zvončari are an event and figures from pagan traditions, with the bells they carry you could almost be forgiven for thinking they were continuing the work of St Anthony the great in Croatia. The costumed bellringing of the zvončari - which was added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009 – is an effort to ward off evil spirits. And who's to say if these are not the same one who plagued Anthony in the wilderness.

Just as they hold different names in different places, fešta, carnival, fašnik or maškare takes place on different days and at different times of year. Similarly, the zvončari associated strongly with the carnival season of Kvarner, all have different costumes, dances and traditions which vary from village to village. These traditions have been passed down through generations, indeed it is thanks to the zvončari themselves that the carnival in Rijeka was in 1982 revived. It has now grown to become what is traditionally the country's largest.

zvoncar_maska.jpgHalubajski Zvončari © Halubajski Zvonč

On 17 January, the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia, in Halubje, Kvarner, near Rijeka, carnival games, festivities and music fills the streets. The town's Halubajski Zvončari are one of the oldest groups who undertake the tradition and they are one of the zvončari groups responsible for bringing back Rijeka carnival. The sounding of St Anthony's horns in the town on the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great in Croatia marks the official commencement of carnival season and of the marching of the Halubajski Zvončari. Over subsequent days, they will march, accompanied by music, through villages in the region, eventually descending into Rijeka on carnival day. This tradition was recorded in written records in 1860. Some say the bells are meant to ward off Ottomans or Tartars as much as they are evil spirits, which makes the tradition even earlier.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus and the Feast of St John the Apostle

December 27, 2020 – Today is the third day of Christmas in Croatia and in 2020, something rather special is happening. December 27 is always the Feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist. But, an even more important day of celebration is assigned to the Sunday between Christmas Day and New Year's Day - the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In 2020, that is today and so both celebrations occur on the same day

That these two feasts are taking place on the same day in 2020 is not unique. It has happened before. But, as the two days – and those they commemorate – share similar themes, today is a special occasion within Christmas 2020. Because of their common themes, today is a day most of all to celebrate love and be thankful for it.

lichitartzzz.jpg© Tourist Board Zagreb County

John the Apostle is one of the 12 disciples of Jesus. He is the younger brother of James, another disciple and is widely held to be the author of several books within the New Testament. He is the only disciple of Jesus to be referred to as 'the beloved disciple', meaning that Jesus loved him.

Just how different the relationship between Jesus and John the Apostle was compared to how Jesus was with the other disciples is now difficult to ascertain. According to some church traditions, John is the cousin of Jesus – his mother is remembered by some as the sister of Mary, Jesus's mother. John is frequently mentioned across many books of the New Testament as a key witness to many of its events. John is there with Jesus when they land a miraculous catch of fish from the Sea of Galilee, he is seated next to Jesus at the Last Supper, he is present, alongside Jesus' mother, at the crucifixion and he is witness to Jesus's empty tomb.

1920px-The_Last_Supper_-_Leonardo_Da_Vinci_-_High_Resolution_32x16.jpgThe Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. As we look at the painting, the 'disciple who Jesus loved', John, is seated next to Jesus on the left, on Jesus's right hand side

The special bond between the two has been represented in art over centuries. John the Apostle is usually depicted as the youngest-looking disciple, beardless, sometimes androgynous. Some scholars believe that this depiction assisted men to accept the unbridled devotion requested of a Christian to Jesus – such devotion may traditionally have been viewed as being at odds with a masculine role.

The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph celebrates a different kind of love – that between members of the family. Its message is as pertinent in today's society as it ever was. The feast celebrates the love between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, providing a model family unit to which Christian families can aspire. But, by some measuring, theirs is no model family unit – Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He is the step-father of Jesus. Regardless, the bond between the three is set as an ideal for others to follow, the message being that love between family members is of far greater value than any regard for blood ties or any traditional notions of the family unit.

1497px-The_Holy_Family_-_Rafael.jpgThe Holy Family by Raphael, 1518

In Croatia, the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is a Holy day of obligation. Being a Sunday, faithful believers are expected to refrain from doing work and to attend church for Mass, which many do. It is otherwise a day of rest, free of recreational activities and, perhaps, therefore, a time for contemplation. That our thoughts should be drawn to appreciating the ones we love, who love us and the relationships we have with them is no bad suggestion at all.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Štefanje / Sveti Stjepan - St Stephens Day in Croatia

December 26, 2020 – Is it time to walk off some of the calories gained yesterday? Today is St Stephens Day in Croatia and it's a time when people traditionally leave the home to wish Happy Christmas to others outside the immediate family. This living tradition has its roots in the story of St Stephen

Today is St Stephens Day in Croatia. Coming after two of the most keenly observed dates in the annual Christian calendar, it can get lost in the fanfare of the preceding two days, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yet, St Stephens Day in Croatia is still significant. It is a national holiday, as it is in many Christian countries. It is still very much a part of Christmas and not only because of all the delicious leftover Christmas food you get to eat on this day. Traditionally, St Stephens Day in Croatia is also the day on which you leave the house, where you have spent Christmas Day with immediate family, to go and visit wider members of your families and friends to wish them Merry Christmas.

Let Every Day Be Christmas

Christmas is forever, not for just one day,
for loving, sharing, giving, are not to put away
like bells and lights and tinsel, in some box upon a shelf.
The good you do for others is good you do yourself.
Peace on Earth, good will to men, kind thoughts and words of cheer,
are things we should use often and not just once a year.

Remember too the Christ-child, grew up to be a man;
to hide him in a cradle, is not our dear Lord's plan.
So keep the Christmas spirit, share it with others far and near,
from week to week and month to month, throughout the entire year!”
― Norman Wesley Brooks, 1976.

In this American poem, the most-remembered quote is that Christmas is not for just one day. But, this is only a modern reminder, just like the secular song '12 Days of Christmas', which holds that Christmas runs until January 6 (the Epiphany). In the Catholic church, like Easter, Christmas is granted an octave - a full eight days of official celebration. Within the Catholic Octave of Christmas which runs from Christmas Day until January 1, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God - there are several specific feasts, each one singular, but each a part of Christmas. St Stephens Day is dedicated to the first Christian martyr.

St Stephens Day in Croatia is known by several names. In Dalmatia, it's commonly called Stipanovo, in Slavonia you might hear it called Stjepanovo. In Zagreb and the surroundings, Štefanje is more common and some people refer to it as Stjepan dan, as they sometimes do in America - 'Stephen's Day'.

1278px-Manchester_United_v_Zorya_Luhansk,_September_2016_(08)_-_Zlatan_Ibrahimović_(edited).jpgSt Stephens Day is known as Boxing Day in the UK, where it is an important day for sporting events using horses and for football. On Sir Alex Ferguson's final Boxing Day as manager of Manchester United (2012), their opponents, Newcastle United, went in front three times during the match - Javier Hernandez finally put Manchester United in front in the first minute of added time, securing them the win. On Boxing Day in 2016, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's cross went to the back of teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but Mkhitaryan arched his foot backwards and struck the ball with the back of his heel, the 'scorpion' kick sending the ball into the net © Ardfern

In America, 26 December is alternatively referred to by its British name – Boxing Day, as it is in other former British colonies such as Australia and Canada. Although a secular holiday and a secular name, Boxing Day is still tied to the church in origin. The modern explanation of the name 'Boxing Day' says this was the day on which the servants of the house - who had been busy cooking, cleaning and serving their employers on Christmas Day - were given the day off and also given boxed gifts. But, the term pre-dates the grand Victorian houses which required such a nationally significant workforce. It actually extends back to the alms boxes of the church, in which the faithful would place money, foods, gifts for the poor during their visits on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The boxes were opened on St Stephens Day and the contents distributed to the needy. In the UK today, Boxing Day is known as a day for sports, particularly football and sports involving horses.

Good Kind Wenceslas is a Christmas Carol specifically about happenings on St Stephens Day. Although its words were only written in 1853, the tune is originally from Finland and dates back to the late Middle Ages, making it one of the oldest Christmas carols in Europe.

According to the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6: 5), St Stephen was one of the seven deacons chosen at the very beginning of the church. After the death of Jesus, Stephen’s open preaching of Jesus’ teachings and his belonging to a community of Christian disciples led him to him being condemned for blasphemy. He was put to death by stoning and is regarded as the first Christian martyr.

Speyerer_Dom,_Steinigung_Stephanus,_1850.jpgJohann von Schraudolph, The Stoning of Stephen (1850) photo of the painting taken by © Joachim Specht

Born in Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, today's Tunisia, north Africa, the importance of prolific, early Christian writer Tertullian (155 AD - 240 AD) to the whole of western Christianity cannot be overstated. Partially of Berber and Phoenician origin, his background meant that he straddled two distinct areas of language – that of the Levant, and the Latin used in Carthage. He was the first writer to produce extensive Christian texts in Latin and is therefore regarded as 'the father of Latin Christianity' and 'the founder of Western theology.'

Throughout the spread of Christianity, one of his quotes has been often repeated - 'Plures efficimur, quitiens metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis Christianorum', liberally translated as 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church', more accurately, 'We multiply when you reap us. The blood (of martyrs) is the seed of Christianity'. This quote refers specifically to the story of St Stephan in two very significant ways and explains how St Stephens Day in Croatia is marked today.

1166px-Conversion_of_Saint_Paul_(Michelangelo_Buonarroti).jpgThe Conversion of Saul, fresco by Michelangelo, 1542–1545 © Web Gallery of Art

In the region where Jesus had lived, His death and the subsequent ministry of the disciples meant that the teachings of Jesus were, among some, beginning to take hold. Following the killing of St Stephen, further persecution of Jesus's disciples continued. One of the most ardent of persecutors was Saul of Tarsus, who witnessed the stoning of St Stephan. While Saul was further undertaking this task, Jesus appeared to him on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus and Saul was converted, becoming the 'new seed' of the church, Paul the Apostle. This conversion aside, the persecution continued and those spreading the teachings of Jesus travelled further from this dangerous, confined area to deliver the good news, creating many more news seeds'. And, this is exactly what people do today on St Stephens Day in Croatia. Croatians usually go out of the house to wish Happy Christmas to wider family members and friends.


St Stephen's name - Stéphanos - is Greek in origin and it is presumed that's where his heritage lies. In Greek, his name means 'crown' or 'wreath', which is why St Stephens Day in Croatian is not only the imendan for those with the regionally popular names of Stjepan, Stipan, Stipe, Stipica and Stefan, but also for Krunoslav and Kruno (meaning 'crown'). St. Stephen is revered as the protector of deacons, stonemasons, coffin makers and those suffering from headaches. He is the patron saint of Croatia's next-door neighbour, Serbia and also the patron saint of horses. Horse riding and horse races are traditional on St Stephens Day in Austria, Germany and in Finland - in the latter, the horses pull sleighs across the snow, a fun pursuit following the solemnity of the previous two days. On St Stephens Day in Croatia, horse races used to happen in Istria and the day is still marked by those who keep horses in some parts of the country's north (including some of Croatia's Roma community).

1394px-Hvar-church-1_St._Stephen.jpg© The cathedral of St Stephen on Hvar island © japus

In relatively recent history, a couple of nationally significant happenings have taken place on St Stephens Day in Croatia. On St Stephens Day in Croatia 1968, amendments to Yugoslavian Constitution were adopted by the Federal National Assembly, expanding the autonomy of the provinces, including Croatia, giving them a republic-like status. On 26 December 1990, the parliament in Croatia's other close next-door neighbour, Slovenia, declared independence. Several churches in Croatia are named after St Stephan, most popularly in Dalmatia, where the cathedral on Hvar island is also called St Stephen's, although this building is actually named after Pope Stephen I.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Sretan Božić! Christmas Day in Croatia, December 25

December 25, 2020 – Sretan Božić! It's Christmas Day in Croatia, a time spent cherishing your immediate family. Gifts are exchanged and the fasting of recent days is forgotten - today you'll feast on a variety of favourite, mouth-watering foods. Also, in Croatia, the true meaning of Christmas is always close at hand...

There may be a chill in the air outside, but Croatian homes are today aglow with light and warmth. Christmas tree illuminations shine their colours into the corners of the living room. Beneath the tree, freshly unwrapped gifts are held in the small hands of children. The smiles on their faces shine even brighter than the lights of the tree. Christmas wreaths are hung inside windows or candles are lit. The latter represents that, at last, Jesus Christ is born – the ultimate light of the world.

Worship_of_the_shepherds_by_bronzino.jpgWorship of the shepherds by Bronzino © Bronzino / Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Today, radiators and flickering fires brace us from the winter outside. But, Christmas Day in Croatia is not only a time for physical warmth. It is also a time for spiritual warmth. Elsewhere in the world, images such as Santa Claus, flying reindeer, wrapped presents and Christmas crackers challenge as symbols of the season. In Croatia, you also sometimes see those modern emblems of Christmas. But, it is almost unthinkable that the true meaning of Christmas is forgotten. Here, even the decorations of the house and the tree still come in the traditional colours of red, green and gold. Red symbolises the blood of Jesus. Green (as seen in the holly, rosemary and Christmas tree) symbolises eternal life. Gold - one of the gifts of the Three Kings - symbolises royalty.

The Nativity at Christmas in Croatia - Jaslice

Just short of 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi was busying himself with organising a reenactment of the birth of Jesus Christ. Widely considered to be the first performance of a nativity play, it was so successful that it was decided it should become an annual event. Its popularity grew so great that the event attracted huge crowds. The popular nativity play eventually spread through Christian Europe as a Christmastime tradition. It is popular for children to take part in a nativity play in the Christmas period, even sometimes on Christmas Day in Croatia. If you don't have a family member taking part in one of the plays, Christmas Day in Croatia is still linked to the birth of Jesus Christ by the prominent placing of the miniature nativity scene - jaslice – in the Christmas home.

stfrancisnativity.jpgSt Francis, painted in a nativity scene. He is credited with founding the now traditional re-enactments of the birth of Jesus Christ

Aside from attending a nativity play, going to church might be the other reason for leaving the home on Christmas Day in Croatia. However, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is enough for many. The focal point of Christmas Day in Croatia is the home and the family.

Christmas Day in Croatia - a time for family

Christmas Day in Croatia is reserved for immediate family. Tomorrow - St Stephens Day – is traditionally the time when members of the wider family and friends will be visited. However, it's not uncommon to find someone from outside the close family seated at the table for Christmas Day in Croatia. In fact, it is quite common for Croats to be mindful of family members and friends who may be alone at Christmas. If there is any danger of someone you know spending Christmas Day alone - the widowed relative, the stranger or the single person - it's not unusual for a Croatian family to invite them into their home for Christmas Day in Croatia. If you're invited to a Croatian home on Christmas Day, it's an invitation that you should definitely accept.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a cause for celebration throughout the Christian world and though not officially a feast day, you'd never guess that from the mountains of food you will be served on Christmas Day in Croatia. After the fasting of Advent or that of Christmas Eve at least, Croatians like to go all-out on Christmas Day. However, there are no hard and fast rules for what you might see on the menu nor how it will be served.

christmas-table-1909796_1920.jpgRed, green and gold are the traditional colours of Christmas decorations

Food of Christmas Day in Croatia

In some homes on Christmas Day in Croatia, there will be a hearty breakfast. Often it'll contain meat, because you just abstained from eating any on Christmas Eve. “Right now I will eat breakfast - some eggs, bacon, prosciutto, and kulen, a few types of cheese and dessert,” a friend from Rijeka informed TCN on a Christmas Day past. “For lunch, my family will meet and my father will make a barbecue because it's the easiest way to make a large amount of meat. We'll have a few different kinds, with some vegetables and some cake and that's it. We are not complicated for Christmas.” In other households, the dining table will look very different on Christmas Day in Croatia.

Slavoniabrekky.jpegA selection of Slavonian meats including kulen. Preserved meats such as these are a common feature on tables during Christmas in Croatia - you might even have them for breakfast on Christmas Day © Romulić & Stojčić

Some may have a more regular breakfast to start the day and some may not have breakfast at all. It is quite normal for Christmas Day in Croatia to revolve around the main dining table and for the food to be placed there for many hours and indulged in whenever you feel the urge. As one course is finished, the empty serving plate is taken away and, before you can blink, something else has been put on the table to take its place.

Bird is the word - Zagorje turkey / Zagorski puran

The eating of turkey at Christmas is a tradition popularised by Americans. The bird actually comes from northern Mexico, an area that is now in the south-eastern United States, where wild examples of this bird can still fly, albeit quite short distances. Native Americans hunted and ate the bird at least 1000 years ago. They used turkey feathers to stabilize their arrows and to be worn, as part of ceremonial headdresses or other adornments. The hard spurs on the turkeys' legs were often crafted into arrowheads. The bird was domesticated in Mexico, then traded by Native Americans with Europeans who brought it back to their continent in the 16th century. It arrived in Croatia not long after.

purica_4-maja-danica-pecanicwithmlinci.jpgRoasted turkey, a popular Christmas favourite across Croatia, particularly in Zagorje and nearby Zagreb. The white dish in the bottom left of the picture is mlinci © Maja Danica Pecanic / Croatian National Tourist Board

The only breed of turkey in Croatia regarded as native is farmed in the traditional Zagorje area, north of Zagreb (although, there's a distinct cousin from Bednje - purek z bednje - that's prized highly in Varaždin County). Truth be told, the Zagorje kitchen is the kitchen of Zagreb. Therefore, the eating of Zagorje turkey has been widely adopted as a tradition in the capital city. The Zagorje turkey is protected by its point of origin at an EU-level, as are the pasta sheets – Zagorje mlinci – which are the usual accompaniment. Although you can now buy mlinci from the store, it is said that the handmade ones are still the best. The pasta sheets are cooked in the fat and roasting juices of the turkey. They are also used to accompany any other bird you might eat on Christmas Day in Croatia – chicken, goose or duck. It is quite rare to see goose eaten on Christmas Day in Croatia. Although some families do treat themselves to goose – the meat is less dry than turkey and the bird is easier to cook. Duck is more common as an alternative to turkey, but mostly in the northern parts of Croatia - Slavonia and Baranja, near the border with Hungary (where there is substantial duck farming) and in the area around Međimurje.

Regional differences? Perhaps. But always, always French salad / Francuska salata

Frenchyat_Nga_corrected (1).jpgFrench salad, a ubiquitous accompaniment to the main meal on Christmas Day in Croatia © Viethavvh

“On the menu today is turkey and Francuska salata (French salad), with some leftover fish soup from yesterday,” one friend from Zagreb told TCN. French salad is a popular and ubiquitous accompaniment to meals, not only on Christmas Day in Croatia but at all parties and large gatherings. An almost identical salad is eaten in Slavic households across the world. Elsewhere, you'll often see it called Russian salad.

“Our family also makes Christmas turkey, which my dad smokes one day before,” one friend from Slavonia told TCN. Smoked turkey is a popular dish in Croatia – you can even buy local, pre-smoked turkey legs from most supermarkets. “We'll have guineafowl soup with vegetables such as carrot, cauliflower, kohlrabi (a type of turnip) and parsley. After the soup, we eat the guineafowl meat with a cooked tomato sauce. The smoked turkey is baked and served with potatoes and mlinci. For dessert, we have chocolate cake and all kinds of different types of cookies, biscuits. There will be cakes, cookies and biscuits on the table all day.”

konavle-zelena menestra TZ KonavleDubrov.jpgZelena Menestra, a favourite of Dubrovnik families at Christmas © TZ Konavle

“For our Christmas lunch we've prepared Zelena Menestra,” one Croatian friend from north Montenegro told TCN. His family originally come from the Dubrovnik area, where Zelena Menestra (green stew) is a favourite. The green of the stew comes from cabbage and kale. Potatoes are added and its rich flavour comes from the smoked ham hock, bacon and sausages that are cooked inside the pot. This dish has been eaten in the Dubrovnik area for at least 600 years. It's not uncommon for families to turn to their absolute favourite dishes on Christmas Day in Croatia, regardless of traditions elsewhere. For instance, the incredibly time-intensive preparation of Pašticada (at least one day in preparation time to do it correctly) is undertaken in some Dalmatian households on Christmas Day in Croatia. Elsewhere, family favourites like whole, roast suckling pig, lamb, pork or sarma will be made. “After the Zelena Menestra, mum has prepared a walnut cake for dessert,” concluded the writer from Montenegro. Walnut and poppy seeds are extremely common flavourings of Christmas desserts in Croatia.

pasticada_1-maja-danica-pecaniccronat.jpgPasticada, a favourite of Dalmatian households at Christmas. It takes at least 24 hours to prepare a good one. The sauce is so rich, with onion, garlic, celery, carrots, parsnip, bacon, red wine vinegar, red wine, tomato puree, prunes and cloves, the usual accompaniment is simple shapes of pasta © Maja Danica Pecanic / Croatian National Tourist Board

With any hunger more than satisfied, at the end of the feasting on Christmas Day in Croatia, it's a time to relax and enjoy the company of those around you. Although it's not unusual for adults to drink alcohol moderately throughout the whole of Christmas Day, it is rarely a night for wild revelry. Because you may have a journey to make to relatives or friends tomorrow. Or you may have to wake and clean the house because they are visiting you. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to retire to bed early on Christmas Day in Croatia. And, with their appetites and families satisfied, most will sleep very well.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, the End of Advent, Start of Christmas

December 24, 2020 – The wait is almost over! Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, is an incredibly important day. It is marked with its own distinct customs, traditions, undertakings, and its own food. We take a closer look at the start of the Croatian Christmas.


Traditions of Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia

If this were the UK, there would be more worry. By Christmas Eve, any unsold Christmas trees would be reduced to half price as vendors try to find homes for them. But, the sellers on Heinzelova, Zagreb don't look at all worried. A steady stream of buyers is still visiting, walking away with giant pines thrown over one shoulder. Unlike the main square, Trg Bana Josip Jelacic, where the tree has been in place since late November, in many Croatian homes, people remain deeply observant of Christmas traditions. And, by those traditions, Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, is when your Christmas tree goes up. Members of the family gather to decorate it. You're ready for Christmas.


Actually, Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, is marked in various different ways in different parts of the country. There are, of course, many common themes and occurrences. For all Christians, this is the day before the birth of Jesus Christ. These are the final moments of a period of expectant waiting, a solemn time.

Christmas decorations in Croatia

Traditions on Badnjak in Croatia differ partially because some of them originally come from different places. The decorating of a Christmas tree is a Germanic tradition. So too is the lighting of candles on a Christmas wreath. A Christmas wreath usually holds four or five candles. Four candles are lit on the consecutive Sundays prior to Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. If there is a fifth candle, this will be lit on Christmas Day morning or in the evening before, on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia.


The birth of Jesus is often depicted as occurring at night, in a stable, surrounded by animals, under a starlit sky. This night is not the evening of Christmas Day, it is Badnjak, Christmas Eve.

Going back to a time before Christianity, the start of worshipping the new day began in the evening. In the Jewish religion – the religion of Jesus – the new day, therefore, began when the sun set, not when the sun rose.

On Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, a nativity scene - jaslice in Croatian - is commonly placed at a prominent position within the main room, often under the tree, to mark this 'Holy Night'. The wheat you began growing on St Lucija's Day is sometimes placed next to it. If they don't already have a ribbon tied around them, the wheat shoots should now be tall enough for one to be passed around their circumference. This is done no later than Badnjak. These days, many people wrap their gifts and also place them under the tree on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, in preparedness for their giving and unwrapping on Christmas Day. But, gift-giving on Christmas Day is a popularised ritual of the Protestant church. In the past, the traditional day of gift-giving for Catholics was St Nicholas Day.

christmas-crib-figures-4704998_1920.jpgIt is very common to see a miniature nativity scene - jaslice in Croatian - placed in the home in Croatia on Badnjak, often under the Christmas tree

Fasting and traditional food of Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia

The entire period of Advent before Christmas has been a time of expectant waiting. And on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, that wait is almost over. It is the last day of fasting. While many Croatians no longer undertake strict fasting for the whole of Advent, the final day of fasting - that of Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia - is widely observed. Fatty foods and meat are never eaten on Badnjak. Instead, lighter, non-fatty dishes, vegetarian foods, fish and other seafoods are eaten.

bak2alars.jpgDried cod - bakalar in Croatian

One of the most common dishes on New Year's Eve in Croatia is dried cod - bakalar in Croatian. Actually, this is a tradition from elsewhere in Christian Europe. Cod does not live in the Adriatic. It comes from more northerly waters. Historically, this once-plentiful fish was preserved in salt or dried and kept for use in winter. This traditional winter dish eventually made its way to Croatia too. On Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, you commonly see it served in a chunky soup-like stew, with other ingredients usually being potatoes and perhaps more vegetables. Or, alternatively, it is enjoyed in a Pâté-like paste, served simply on bread.

Lots of people don't like bakalar. It has a reasonably strong flavour and it is a bit fiddly to deal with when bought dried. Therefore, this Christmas Eve seafood meal is often adapted depending on where you live. In Dalmatia, octopus or local fish are often eaten instead. In continental Croatia, you might well have a fish perklet or fish paprikas, made from river fish. This main fish meal is usually the most substantial of the day and is commonly served as a dinner on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia.

fishywishy.jpgIn Slavonia, you're more likely to have river fish than fresh seafood on Badnjak, made into a perklet or paprikash, coloured red by the paprika powder added. That thing in the picture that looks suspiciously like a pork product in the pasta? Yeah, you're not gonna get that on Badnjak

Badnjak, a log fire

The word Badnjak is shared in Croatia. Not only does Badnjak mean Christmas Eve in Croatia, but it also refers to a physical object. Badnjak is the largest log you bring into the home to put on the fireplace for Christmas.

Traditionally, this was not cut until the day of Christmas Eve itself. In some traditions, it was actually three logs that were brought into the home on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. They represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, only one of these is Badnjak - the largest.

In Croatia, this log is still often celebrated - sprinkled with wine and sometimes rakija, grains and/or spices. It was traditionally lit in the one main fireplace which heated the whole house. Its embers kept the family warm for many days through Christmas, signifying the light and warmth brought into the lives of the faithful by the arrival of Jesus.

These days, wood burning as a source of heat and energy is still common in Croatia. Although the great, single fireplaces of the home are seen less often. Subsequently, some Croatians replace this home 'Badnjak' with one that is lit outdoors. It is not uncommon to see bonfires being lit on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. Very often, you will see them quite close to the church where you go for midnight Mass. In some parts of Croatia, you'll find people visiting the Badnjak bonfire before Mass. In others, not until Mass is complete.


Things to do

It can't always have been easy to cut the largest log of winter on the final day of a period of fasting. But, the traditional exertion might well have been deliberate. To the faithful, life is supposed to become easier when Jesus arrives.

This draining, manly pursuit is not the only task traditionally undertaken on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. In fact, there's lots to do. Any animals you keep are fed plentifully on Christmas Eve, so that they remain peaceful and quiet, just as they were in the stable at the time of Jesus's birth. This lies in contrast to Christmas Eve in Lithuania – one of the most important annual occasions in that country for family – where it was traditionally believed that animals could talk on this day!

The women of the house also don't get off lightly on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. The home is usually cleaned in readiness for the arrival of Jesus. Food is prepared for the breaking of the fast. Traditionally, this includes the baking of a large bread which sits on the table for several days, sustaining the family and guests until the Feast of the Three Kings. This large bread marks the fullness of life for the next year now that Jesus has arrived. You can still vividly see these traditions in many Croatian homes - although some perhaps think that the home cleaning happens because you're expecting guests and the food preparation because it's inadvisable to leave too much cooking for Christmas Day itself.

bakalrapate.jpgBakalar served as a white pate-like spread on bread

Though avoiding fat, the central meal of Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, is often a plentiful affair. Commonly, there will be many side dishes such as salads, beans and preserved vegetables accompanying the seafood main. In other places within the Christian world, some 12 dishes are served as part of the main meal, representing the disciples of Jesus. In other regions, the number of dishes cannot be 12 – it must be an odd number of dishes, in accordance with old rules for fasting. In some regions, one place at the Christmas Eve table is left free. This signifies remembrance of the departed, or in other places, it is left open to accommodate Jesus and Mary who went in search of shelter on this day.

The main meal of Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, is marked by its own specific toasts. These can differ throughout the country's regions. Unlike in western Europe and other places, in Croatia you will never hear the words 'Happy Christmas (Sretan Božić)' said on Christmas Eve or before. Croatians exclusively reserve that greeting until Christmas Day itself.


As well as the many dishes you'll see as part of the main meal, on Badnjak you'll very often find bowls of walnuts, oranges or mandarins on tables. In fact, sometimes they are not in bowls, they are simply scattered as a decoration. Aside from the Christmas wreath, in some homes you also sometimes see a decoration of three candles together. Again, this represents the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If such a decoration is in a Croatian home, then these candles are lit on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia. While tree decoration is a latterly adopted German tradition, the decorating of the home is not. Alongside candles, you might see tree or plant branches decorating Croatian homes at Christmas. Like the fruits and nuts on the table, these may differ depending on what grows in your region. For example, you might see rosemary used in Dalmatia.

hot-chocolate-1782623_1920.jpgAlthough fatty food, like meat, is traditionally avoided on Badnjak, after midnight Mass, you're done with that - you might get hot chocolate, sweet treats like biscuits or even fritule (small, fried doughnuts) before bed.

Another common decoration is straw. This also pre-dates German tree decoration and signifies the straw which carpeted the stable where Jesus was born. Straw is abundant in Croatia's rural communities at this time of year, having been dried and brought inside to feed the animals through winter. Some of it is taken into the home on Christmas Eve. You might see it placed underneath the dining table, or between the table itself and a covering sheet placed on top – you can feel the straw under your fingers when you place your hands on the table. In the old days, some would even place straw beneath them or their beds as they went to sleep on Badnjak.


Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Croatia

Just like fasting on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia, the Catholic church has become more relaxed about midnight Mass on this day. In some places you might find that midnight Mass doesn't actually start at midnight - it might start much earlier. You can often find a children's Mass taking place before 12 o'clock, in order to accommodate the youngest of churchgoers. But, for most in Croatia, midnight Mass retains the tradition - it starts at midnight.

Midnight Mass on Badnjak is extremely well observed by Croatians. Extremely devout Christians in Croatia will have been attending church at 6am each morning - zornica - in the run-up to this day. The devout mark their expectancy significantly throughout all Advent. Some will even go to church at 6am on Badnjak, Christmas Eve in Croatia and then return again for midnight Mass too. That's a very long day indeed. Nobody would think less of you if you skipped the final 6am service. But, it would be very unusual for any believers to miss Midnight Mass on Badnjak. For a large proportion of Croatians, it is a must. The churches are usually full. It's one of the most important services of the year to attend. Seasonal hymns sound out joyously within the church and, after the service, it is common for the singing to spill out onto the streets with the singing of Christmas carols.

church-16783_1920 (1).jpg

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Bringing Light to Winter's Darkness: St Lucija's Day in Croatia

December 13, 2020 – In the Bible and Christianity, light is a symbol of hope. And, in the bleakest of times, hope is the greatest of gifts. And thus, in the darkest days of winter, St Lucija's Day arrives to enlighten our spirits. It is a day marked significantly in many regions of Croatia.

Lucia-13.12.06Claudia Gründer.jpgA celebration of St Lucija's Day in Nordic countries emphasises the 'light' aspect of the telling of her story, but her day is also marked using light in Malta, Sicily, Italy and Croatia © Claudia Gründer

In the Bible and Christianity, light is always used as a symbol of holiness, God's revelation and hope. In the bleakest of times, hope is the greatest of gifts, an optimistic lifting of spirits, the faithful expectation that things will get better. 'Light at the end of the tunnel', as the modern saying goes. And thus, in the darkest days of winter, St Lucija's Day arrives to enlighten our spirits. It is a day marked significantly in many regions of Croatia and the Christian world.

Saint Lucy / Sveta Lucija / Lucia of Syracuse

Lotto_pala_di_santa_lucia_00_1.jpgLucy Before the Judge, by Lorenzo Lotto

Accounts of the life of Lucia of Syracuse, or St Lucija, vary, but she is thought to have lived between 283–304. She is remembered as a Christian martyr. In one of the most-pious tellings of her story – which usually refers to her death coming as a result of her unwillingness to marry – she is said to have offered the dowry of her own marriage to the poor. She did so in gratitude because her mother had been cured of illness following their pilgrimage to the tomb of St Agatha. When her mother objected, suggesting instead that Lucija leave a will for the poor, Lucija is said to have replied "Whatever you give away at death for the Lord's sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death."

Celebration of Saint Lucy / St Lucija's Day in Croatia

In Croatia, St Lucija's Day is marked particularly in the southern and north-eastern parts of the country. St Lucija's Day is observed significantly across much of Italy, not only Sicily where she was from. So old is the celebration of her day that it has spread across the Christian world. It is perhaps unsurprising then that it should be marked significantly in nearby Dalmatia. There, it is a faithful and defiant snub of the Christian-persecuting emperor Diocletian, under whose reign Lucija was martyred.

The traditions of St Lucija's Day are bound to a history that pre-dates Christianity. Some people like to associate the growing of wheat indoors with Christian tradition. That is not strictly true. It's actually even older and linked to seasonal agriculture.

In Croatia, gift-giving sometimes takes place on St Lucija's Day, like on Christmas Day (here) and St Nicholas Day (here). It is commonplace for people to plant wheat seeds on St Lucija's Day. These wheat seeds are planted at a time coinciding with the Winter Solstice and speak of a hope that existed even before St Lucija lived. Historically, it was a hope for the crops of next year.

In the shortest of days, with the least amount of light, the seeds germinate. If successful, this supposedly tells us how good the crops will be in the year to come. In the Christian assumption of this Pagan agricultural tradition, the growing wheat foretells the coming of Jesus Christ – the ultimate light within the darkness. At the time of his birth, celebrated on Christmas Day, it is common in Croatia to see a small bowl of well-grown wheat shoots in the homes of family members you visit. This wheat bowl will often be placed in the place with the most light. And, the growing of the wheat in the bowl is begun on St Lucija's Day.

Lucia_procession.jpgA procession on St Lucija's Day in Sweden © Fredrik Magnusson

St Lucija is also associated with light through candles. In one telling of her story, she is said to have worn a wreath of candles on her head while helping Christians to hide in dark catacombs. Candles are used in the marking of St Lucija's Day all over the Christian world, particularly in Nordic countries where the light is most thin during winter. Candles are also used in the marking of St Lucija's Day in Sicily, Italy, Malta, and Croatia. In Croatia, once it has matured, the wheat you begin growing on St Lucija's Day is sometimes moved to the Christmas table and used as a centrepiece. Around it, you place whatever is seasonally abundant in your region - in continental Croatia, that's apples, nuts, and grains, in Dalmatia, it's oranges and almonds.

In Catholicism, St Lucija is one of only eight women explicitly commemorated in the Canon of the Mass.

St Lucija is the patron saint of the blind, a reference to a later telling of her story in which her eyes were removed in the process of her martyrdom. She is also the patron saint of martyrs, salesmen, writers, authors, cutlers, glaziers, labourers, peasants, saddlers, the infected, and of epidemics. 

Sunday, 6 December 2020

6 December: Nikolinje - Celebration of St Nicholas Day in Croatia

December 6, 2020 – Over much of the Christian world, 6 December is celebrated as St Nicholas Day. Croatia is no exception. Famous as the inspiration for Father Christmas, St Nicholas Day in Croatia is a time of gift-giving and tradition.

Nowadays, Croatian kids get gifts twice in December. Once on Christmas Day and also on 6 December, St Nicholas Day in Croatia. Although, in some parts of southern and north-eastern Croatia, the traditional day of gift-giving is St. Lucia's Day - 13th December. On the evening of 5 December, children place their shoes or boots by the window, within easy reach of St Nicholas as he passes. When they wake on 6 December morning, they rush out of bed to see if St Nicholas has visited. If they've been good, their shoes might contain gifts like chocolates and sweets. If they've been bad, the shoes might contain a piece of birch wood or a rod – something with which they should be reprimanded. No youngster is all good or all bad. It's very common for Croatian children to receive both – a lighthearted acknowledgment of their changeable behaviour.

Jaroslav_Čermák_(1831_-_1878)_-_Sv._Mikuláš.jpgSt Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 - 1878)

Origins of Father Christmas: Who was Sveti Nikola / Saint Nicholas of Myra aka Nicholas of Bari?

Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent. He came from the port city of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Nicholas is thought to have lived between 270 – 343 AD, during the time of the Roman Empire. Little written evidence from the time of his life exists about St Nicholas, but he was persistently eulogised in writings and in art after his death and for hundreds of years afterward. There are three sources that mention Nicholas of Myra being present in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, convened by the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I. Constantine is said to have freed Saint Nicholas from prison, supposedly after Nicholas had been placed there by the preceding Emperor, Diocletian.

The stories about his life have made St Nicholas one of the most popular and celebrated Christian saints. He is the patron saint of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, students, repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, Russia, Greece, Liverpool, Moscow and Amsterdam and many other places. St Nicholas is one of the most popular names for churches in the Croatian diaspora.

This secret giving of gifts is the reason St Nicholas inspires Father Christmas. Indeed the name Santa Claus is partially derived from Sinterklaas, Nicholas's name in Dutch. This reputation comes from one of the most consistently repeated tales about Nicholas's life.

Gerard_David_010_Nikola.jpgThe Three Legends of St Nicholas by Gerard David, painted sometime in the 1450s. The picture shows St Nicholas anonymously leaving dowry money for the sleeping sisters.

It is said that Nicholas heard of a formerly wealthy and devout man who had lost his money and could no longer afford dowries for his three daughters. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably be forced into prostitution. Nicholas decided to help them and went to their house at night. He reached in and anonymously left a purse filled with gold coins, a dowry for the first daughter. After her wedding, Nicholas repeated his secret generosity for the next two sisters. In some tellings, Nicholas was discovered by the girls' father on his third visit and Nicholas told him he must remain silent about the identity of the gift giver. The story is so unique and so often retold, some historians believe there must be some truth in its origin.

nikola15b46ecace4051cc8307525c_L.jpgSt Nicholas Day in Komiza, Vis island © TZ Komiza

Celebrating Nikolinje regionally - St Nicholas Day in Croatia

As the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, St Nicholas Day in Croatia is notably marked on the coast. Although, celebrations can be very distinct, depending where on the coast you are. In the fishing village of Komiza, on Vis island, when a boat is in line with the village's Church of St Nicholas, sailors doff their hats, greet the saint, and pray, “Saint Nicholas help us with our voyage and fishing.” His statue is removed from the church on 6 December, St Nicholas Day in Croatia and leads a procession around the village. An old boat is set alight and burned as an offering.

sveti-nikola-baska-voda66.jpgThe statue of St Nicholas in Baska Voda sits next to the harbour. St Nicholas blesses all those who arrive or depart by boat © TZ Baska Voda

In Baška Voda, the impressive statue of Saint Nicholas sits by the waterside in the town centre. He looks out to sea, his hand raised as he blesses all who visit and depart from Baška Voda by boat. Town residents gather by the statue on St Nicholas Day in Croatia.

sv-nikola-stari-3VedranJanic.jpgSt Nicholas Day in Stari grad, Hvar Island © Vedran Janic

In Stari Grad on Hvar island, it's the eve of St Nicholas Day in Croatia which is the focus. On that night, they burn an old boat. Following a Mass for children, adult attendees throw apples down to the children from the choir gallery upstairs.

These days, the gift-giving of St Nicholas Day in Croatia is a token affair, marking tradition. But, in regards specifically to the exchanging of presents, St Nicholas Day in Croatia actually used to be the main event. In older times, Christmas Day was free of gift-giving. Instead, it was reserved as a day to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Christmas was better celebrated in this traditional way? Who can say? Certainly, few kids in Croatia will complain about receiving gifts twice in the month of December.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Martinje - Saint Martin's Day Celebrated Across Croatia

November 11, 2021 – Saint Martin's Day is today celebrated across Croatia. It's a time to be thankful for the successful harvest that will tide you through winter. We take a look at Saint Martin, his close connection to Croatia and the distinct traditions here that mark his day

Saint Martin or Martin of Tours is one of the most recognised of all Christian saints. He is the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers and tailors, soldiers, geese and the country of France. He is also the patron saint of innkeepers and winemakers. He is celebrated all over the Christian world on September 11, the day of his burial (Saint Martin died on 8th November, 397, and was buried three days later).

wine-259876_1920.jpegAcross Europe, the long-held celebration of Saint Martin's Day is closely associated with the autumn harvest - in Croatia, particularly the wine harvest in continental regions

The feast of Saint Martin began to be celebrated in France, where he died, before spreading all across Europe and the Christian world. In the northern hemisphere, Saint Martin's Day coincides with a key time of year. It is the end of harvest time, the beginning of natural winter. It is the time for food to be conserved for the forthcoming colder months, the time for animals to be slaughtered and vegetables to be preserved. It is also the time when the year's first new beer and wine first become ready to drink. Depending on the local crops and climate of the country, Saint Martin's Day can be associated with different foods and drinks. But there are recurring associations, in particular throughout Europe. In the great winemaking country of Croatia, Saint Martin's Day is often most closely linked to that particular agricultural endeavour.

Louis Anselme Longa, La Charité de Saint-Martin Huile sur toile. Eglise de Saint-Martin d'Oney.jpgSaint Martin depicted in Louis Anselme Longa's, La Charité de Saint-Martin Huile sur toile

Saint Martin feels at home in Croatia. And well he might. Martin of Tours was born less than 90 kilometres from today's Croatian border, in Pannonia, present-day Hungary. His father was a tribune in the Roman army and, being the son of such, Martin was required to follow in his footsteps. At the age of 18, he was stationed in Amiens, present-day France, probably as an elite cavalry bodyguard of the Emperor, who accompanied the leader on his travels around the Empire. We actually know quite a lot about the life of Saint Martin. So important did he become to the spread of early Christianity in the region, that many details about his life were recorded by a biographer, Sulpicius Severus. Not only did Severus live within Martin's lifetime, but also he actually met him.

Martinje-visit daruvar.jpgA previous celebration of Saint Martin's Day in Daruvar © TZ Daruvar

While Martin was still a soldier, it is said he experienced a vision. One day, as he was approaching the city of Amiens, he met a beggar. Martin instinctively cut his military cloak in two, so he could share his clothing with the poor man. That night, Martin dreamed Jesus was wearing the half-cloak he had given away.

Martin's cloak became a famous relic and was preserved in the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, it was carried by the king into battle and used as a Holy relic upon which oaths were sworn. When it was not in use, so important was the cloak that it was assigned its own military priest who would watch over it. He was called a cappellanu, his title taken from the Italian word capella, meaning cloak. This is the origin of the word chaplain that we use today to describe a priest assigned to the military. And it is the origin of the word chapel, meaning small church, which comes from the building assigned to house Martin's cloak.

Saint Martin and the Beggar by Anthony van Dyck.jpgAnother depiction of Martin splitting his cloak for the beggar - Saint Martin and the Beggar by Anthony van Dyck

Opinions about the length of time Martin spent in the army vary, as he is said to have renounced violence - in keeping with the Christian faith he had adopted before joining. However long he spent in service, it is to a life of religious devotion he entered upon his departure from the ranks. He travelled back home and is said to have converted his mother in Pannonia to Christianity. Thereafter, he returned to present-day France with his mentor, Hilary of Poitiers, where he helped establish a building that would become the oldest known monastery in Europe, Ligugé Abbey. From there, he toured the region preaching Christianity, spreading his religion and, perhaps unwittingly, also his name.

graddugoselo.jpgIn this picture, the local clergy bless the full harvest in Dugo Selo on Saint Martin's Day © Grad Dugo Selo

Being a renowned Holy man, Martin was asked to attend a sick man in the city of Tours. The request was a ruse. Christians within the city wanted to have Martin as their bishop and had lured him there. Reticent to take up the position, Martin is said to have run away and hidden among a barn full of geese to avoid his persuaders. This is where the association of Martin with geese comes from. In many countries, the cooking of a goose is traditional on Saint Martin's Day, including Croatia. Not everyone has always been able to afford such a grand bird - poorer families have traditionally served duck, turkey or, more recently, chicken on Saint Martin's Day. The traditional accompaniment in Croatia is layers of pasta known as mlinci.

mlinci.pngMlinci, sheets of thin pasta, traditionally served as an accompaniment to a roasted bird in Croatia, especially on Saint Martin's Day

As bishop of Tours, Martin had a much greater responsibility and area to minister over. In these early days of Christianity, it was all too common for force and the military to become involved in the conversion of non-believers. But, Martin had renounced violence. He used an alternate method - the power of persuasion. Martin is said to have been such a formidable opponent in discussion that royalty would often refuse to grant him an audience for fear he would inevitably leave with the terms he sought. He regularly campaigned for the forgiveness and freedom of prisoners, even those whose religious views he opposed.

kutjevo2.jpgSome of Croatia's best white wines come from Kutjevo in Slavonia - it's no surprise to see them go big for Saint Martin's Day © Kutjevo doo

From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages, a 40-day period of fasting starting the day after Saint Martin's Day was observed over much of Christian Europe. This long period eventually relaxed and receded, becoming known as Advent – the time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. However, what remained was the great feast enjoyed just before the fasting commenced - Saint Martin's Day.

visitmedimuje.jpgA typical scene from St Martin's Day in Medimurje © Visit Medimurje

Martinje or Saint Martin's Day in Croatia

In Croatia, Saint Martin is the patron saint of Beli Manastir in Baranja, Virje in Koprivnica–Križevci County and Čepinski Martinci in Slavonia. Each has a church named after Saint Martin. These are far from the only places where Saint Martin's Day is significant in Croatia. In Istria, as work in vineyards would come to an end, winemakers would often come together to taste the fruits of their labour together. Saint Martin's is celebrated across several days there, from village to village, and tradition holds that the new wine most liked on Saint Martin’s Day will be the best wine next year.

3bc7aa7f337d2b6d218588b9fca9e94f_L.jpgCelebrating Saint Martin's Day is a long-held tradition in Croatia, as this old photo from Požega City Museum attests

Like Istria, northern and eastern continental Croatia have an extremely strong reputation for producing great white wine. It is the harvest of the white wine grapes that most closely coincides with Saint Martin's Day, so it's little surprise to see it marked so significantly in these regions. In particular, Sveti Martin na Muri in Međimurje, all of Koprivnica–Križevci County, Požega and Kutjevo in Slavonia, Daruvar in Bjelovar-Bilogora County, Velika Gorica, Sveti Ivan Zelina and Dugo Selo in Zagreb County are big fans of Martinje. But, many other places where white wine is made also celebrate Saint Martin's Day, such as within Šibenik-Knin County. In the more easterly parts of Slavonia, they traditionally celebrate their wine with a blessing of the fields on Saint Vincent's Day (22 January).

purica_4-maja-danica-pecanic.jpgTurkey and mlinci is a dish commonly served on Saint Martin's Day in Croatia. Both the turkey and mlinci of the Zagorje region are protected by the EU for their distinct place of origin © Maja Danica Pecanic / Croatian National Tourist Board

Within these regions, in particular, the folk custom of 'Baptising' the wine, to purify it, is a part of proceedings. In many places, this is even done by a real priest. The ceremony frequently takes place on town squares and is enthusiastically attended by locals. After the lighthearted formalities, the celebrations are usually extended with food, music and, of course, wine.

grad daruvar.jpgAnother scene from a previous Saint Martin's in Daruvar © Grad Daruvar

Outside of continental regions, the island of Korčula is one of the few places in southern Dalmatia where Saint Martin's Day is seriously celebrated. The party there starts the night before, with children making a procession with lanterns. This is a commonplace way to celebrate Saint Martin's Day in The Netherlands, some parts of Germany and Belgium. Indeed, so significant is the day in western Flanders, Belgium, that children receive their annual gifts on Saint Martin's Day instead of December 25th. They don't go that far on Korčula, but they do make special foods for the occasion and celebrate Saint Martin's Day, like many places in Croatia, with joyous song and dance.

47_KUTJEVO3.jpg© Kutjevo doo