Croatia enjoys almost 300 days of sunshine each year. During the summer months tourism thrives as people flock to idyllic beaches. Last year the coronavirus pandemic slowed tourism but photographer and journalist Darko Bandic’s August 2021 AP article tells another story. Bandic quotes Dubrovnik (Croatia’s most popular destination) tour guide Josip Crnčević “…it’s almost like 2020 never happened.”
Even if Crnčević’s assertion is exaggerated Croatian tourism continues to have a lot to celebrate. In 2019 Croatia experienced a record high of 21 millions visitors. In a recent DW video opinion piece Croatia’s hinterland: A dream destination in the pandemic, holiday home owners Nina and Zlatko Novinić and Zagreb Tourist Board CEO Martina Bienenfeld give alternative views about agrotourism in Croatia’s northern green belt.
So what happens in Croatia after tourist season?
The idea of tourist seasons are fading in Croatia and globally. Tireless marketing (tourism accounts for at least 20% of Croatia’s GNP) conicides with and feeds a growing desire to preserve traditions which have cultural, historical and spiritual meaning. As the effects of climate change destabilize seasonal weather differences, the demand for authentic, traditional Christmas experiences seem to have increased. 90% of Croatians identify as Catholics and keep Christmas customs, which begin in early December/Advent/Pojava and ends 6 January/Feast of the Three Kings/Sveta Tri Kralja,
Recently Zagreb’s Christmas Market was named the number one in European Christmas markets for three consecutive years. Drawing impressively large crowds the success of Zagreb’s Advent celebrations and Dubrovnik’s Winter Festival encouraged towns and cities throughout Croatia to expand Christmas tourist offerings. Croatian Christmas Markets and Winter Festivals merge Advent, Christmas/Božić with Pagan Winter Solstice/suncostaj traditions.
Starting on the feast day of St. Lucia, 13 December, wheat/ pšcenia is eaten each day until Christmas. Another version of this custom places seeds in a bowl of water which grow until Christmas and are used to decorate the table on Christmas. Sprouting wheat shoots © Ivica Galovic/PIXSELL
Croatians are rightly proud of their food (sarma! fritule! bakalar!) Like many European cuisines, Christmas is time when Croatian sweet tables shine. A favourite Christmas dessert called orahnjača is a cake roll filled with ground walnuts/orasi. Orahnjača is featured on the cover of cultural anthropologist and author Andrea Pisac’s cookbook Croatian Desserts– 50 Authentic Recipes to Make at Home.
An ancient folk tradition that begins early on Christmas Eve morning is called badnjak. The father or another male of the household (not sure how this translates today) goes into the forest to chop a log, ideally from an oak tree—which is sacred in Croatian myth. Before the log or tree is cut prayers are said to honor the tree and forest. The badnjak log or logs (some customs burn three logs representing the Christian Trinity) burn through the night. Staying awake all night on Christmas Eve to await the birth of Jesus, midnight Mass, gift giving and feasting until dawn are all Croatian badnjak traditions. The word badnjak comes from an old Slavic word related to the modern verbs bdjeti or biti budan which mean “to be awake.”
In Istria the badnjak log is sprinkled with wine or rakija followed by a toast for luck in the coming year –Drink to your health/Pij u tvoje zdravlje!
Koledarenje or kolendari are winter solstice songs. They are a type of Slavic Christmas carol sung all over Eastern Europe. In Croatia kolendari are sung in Primorje, Istria, Lika, and Dalmatia from 21 December/Winter Solstice/Zimski Stolsticiji (also St. Thomas Day) until Christmas morning. In some regions kolendari are sung throughout Advent until the Three Kings Day on 6 January. Two beautiful interpretations of Croatian Christmas songs are Klapa Intrades Rejoice, People/Radjute se, Narodi and a 2021 release of Our Baby Was Born/Djetešce nam se rodilo sung by children.
Apart from spinning tourist gold what do Croatian winter traditions bring to our understanding of culture? A maxim about tourism says that it is the only industry that does not own or produce the resources it sells. This season encourages to take the time to reflect on winter wisdom traditions, and what they can teach us about appreciating and caring for our shared inheritance.