Christmas in Croatia!
We're spending the holidays in Split, Croatia, where the season is just a little different than what we're used to.
From “Feliz Navidad” to “Sretan Božić”
Brent and I both love Christmas. Back when we had a house in Seattle, the decorations went up by
Halloween Thanksgiving and didn’t come down until January 2nd. We were all about the twinkling lights, fresh pine boughs on the mantle, the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and — oh! Soy nog, since I’m lactose intolerant, but Brent says it’s surprisingly close to the real thing.
We also watched Christmas specials — lots and lots of Christmas specials.
For our first two years as nomads, we returned to Seattle to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. But due to Covid, this is going to be the second year in a row where we don’t. We spent last year in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and this year we’ll be in Split, Croatia.
We’d rather be with friends and family, but we’ve also enjoyed seeing how other cultures celebrate Christmas. In fact, appreciating these other Christmas traditions feels a bit like Brent and I are starting a new holiday tradition for ourselves.
In Croatia, “Merry Christmas” is “Sretan Božić.” I’ve practiced saying it but even with my background in the Russian language, I can’t quite get the hang of it.
And just like in Vienna, almost every one of the Christmas carols we’ve heard have been all the familiar ones sung in English.
Still, Croats definitely have their own unique kind of holiday spirit — with, perhaps, less of the crass commercialization of America. As it is throughout Europe, Christmas seems to be less about shopping and buying lots of gifts — and more about, well, eating, drinking, and being merry.
The shops, plazas, and boardwalks are all decorated with lights and decorations, and the sidewalk cafes are packed with folks drinking mulled wine.
Split even has its own Christmas market.
But European Christmas markets are nothing like shopping malls. They’re selling an experience. Yes, they sell some Christmas decorations, along with other holiday-related items, but they’re mostly about the delicious food and drink.
How else is Christmas different here?
For starters, I’m not sure I’ve seen a single Santa — although I’ve since learned there is a Santa-esque being here in Croatia known as Djed Mraz, which translates to Grandpa Frost.
As for Rudolph and his red nose, I’ve seen no sign of him either.
Instead of Santa and Rudolph, look for Advent wreaths and candles. Most Croats are Roman Catholic — and still fairly religious — so Advent and Catholic mass are an important part of the holidays.
Also, look for Christmas wheat.
On December 13th — St. Lucia’s Day — a small amount of Božićna pšenica, or Christmas wheat, is sown in a bowl. How high it grows by Christmas Day symbolizes how lucky the upcoming year will be.
I asked a local Croatian friend, and she tells me the locals really do still do this, and I think it’s a fantastic tradition. Too bad Brent and I missed the cut-off date!
Christmas Eve Day is known as Badnjak, and Christmas Day is called Božić. Trees are typically not set up and decorated until Badnjak, when the Christmas wheat is trimmed and tied up with a ribbon.
Naturally, food and drink are a huge part of the holidays. Croats tend not to eat much during Christmas Eve Day. But come nightfall, the feasting begins, with a meal of codfish, potatoes, and sardines.
Then on Christmas Day, the eating continues with a meal of roasted turkey, duck or goose, accompanied by sarma, which are cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and rice. Along the way, they’ll be a variety of sausages and cheeses, and lots and lots of baked goods, such as the fritule, a kind of Christmas doughnut hole; makovnjača, which is a kind of poppyseed roll; and orahnjača, which is a sweet walnut roll.
Brent and I will be celebrating with our nomad-friend Tyler, maybe roasting a turkey, and we’re already on the lookout for our own fritule, makovnjača, and orahnjača!
And we’ll definitely go for yet another walk through Split’s Christmas market. Speaking of which…
Size Isn’t Everything
Did you know Croatia is home to the Christmas market voted “Europe’s Best” three years in a row?
Alas, that market is in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, about 350 kilometers to the north.
We considered making an overnight trip to see this famous market, but given surging Covid infections, we decided against it.
So this year, we’ll have to be content with Split’s more modest Christmas market. But it’s surprisingly cute!
The market includes lots of outdoor pop-up bars and restaurants, where people can mull over their mulled wine, and enjoy a sausage or two — and maybe some (surprisingly sub-par) onion rings.
The market also includes an ice…rink? Actually, it’s more of an ice “path” that winds around the grass.
It rarely snows here in Split, so we probably aren’t in for a white Christmas. But it’s been raining a bit lately, so we’ll settle for a not-wet Christmas.
Check out the decorations along Split’s famous waterfront walkway, also known as the Riva, below. And yes, those are palm trees!