For Croatians, especially Croatian children, Christmas starts on December 5, the eve of St Nicholas, when they clean their shoes and leave them on the window sill. Those who have been good will wake up to find shoes filled with sweets and little gifts. Naughty children fear the arrival of Krampus, the bogeyman, bearing sticks to beat them with. Decorated twigs left alongside the shoes remind kids to be wary.
In some families, the tree is also decorated on December 5.
Advent will have already started on November 25, with a wreath and four candles placed in churches and people’s homes. In major cities, advent is big business; traditional Christmas markets are set up on main squares and streets. In Zagreb, the event has developed into a major annual festival, with a large communal skating rink set up on Tomislav trg and regular live entertainment.
The main celebrations start on Christmas Eve with Badnjak. A traditional yule log is brought into the family home (these days a symbolic gesture rather than something to be burned on the fireplace). The main meal is cod, bakalar, with meat being avoided until December 25. Dessert is generally fritule, fried doughnuts.
Midnight mass is extremely popular, and, in main towns, people party after leaving church – the origin of the word ‘badnjak’ is linked to the concept of staying awake. People wish each other Sretan Božić.
Presents are usually opened on Christmas morning, and many attend church before coming home to a hearty meal of turkey, lamb, goose or duck, the main dish accompanied by sarma, minced meat wrapped in cabbage.
Bowls of dried fruit, nuts and sweets are usually scattered around the home, for the family and well wishers to nibble on. December 26 is when friends, grandparents, cousins and members of the extended family visit each other.
The tree and all decorations are taken down on January 6.