Text: Eva Martić, Vesna Petrović
Zagreb Christmas rituals are a part of the Christmas tradition. But what does that mean to you and what do we actually do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?
We, Zagreb folk, begin to celebrate Christmas with our families and friends from the very morning, so tomorrow don’t be surprised to see the streets packed with people running helter-skelter with huge smiles on their faces. Cafés will be crowded, music will play on every corner, performers will give concerts, and the sounds of “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols will echo across the city. On Christmas Eve, we only feast on seafood. One of the specialties is a cod and potatoes stew, which has to be cooked for 10 hours. But in restaurants and on food stands, you can get a cod goulash, cod or tuna spread, fried fish, grilled fish with or without chard, all types of calamari, octopus salad, shrimp a la ‘buzara, fried shrimps… On our traditional Christmas table, one foreigner has also found its place – in Zagreb you can’t celebrate Christmas without an Olivier salad – so next to a variety of seafood, you can have a bite of a salad made with carrots, potatoes, peas, pickles, eggs and mayo. It will remain on our tables even on Christmas, when meat delicacies will trade places with fish. But first, let’s finish our story about 24th of December.
Until approximately 5 pm, people run around, buy groceries, wrap presents, often stop to have a sip of ‘rakija’ (traditional brandy made of various fruit) or a glass of wine. This jolly race lasts until nightfall when everybody find their place inside a warm home and enjoy their family gatherings (mums usually prepare dinner and unfortunately, aren’t so lucky to have time to spend their day hanging out in the city :) ). On their way home, the head of the family and youngsters buy a Christmas tree on one of the city markets or squares. It’s not an easy task to pick the right tree! Even when wrapped in a net, trees differ one from another (at least that’s what wise men claim), so a professional eye can spot which tree is good enough for their home even from a distance. We never believed this, we think that picking a beautiful tree is pure luck, but let them be… The tree and its fellowship arrive home, and Christmas decorating can begin! It lasts until dinner is served. The Christmas table is decorated especially for this occasion – a candle and Christmas wheat, which is planted on the feast of St. Lucia, are placed in the center of the table.
Dinner begins with a prayer, after which kids leave to play, so parents can secretly put presents under the Christmas tree or cover them with straw). When presents are in their place, “tricked” kids are called back, and one of them is chosen to sit under the tree and read the name labels on the presents brought by Santa Claus or little Jesus. This tradition takes place immediately, after Midnight Mass (which officially marks the beginning of Christmas) or in the morning. It depends which traditions a family holds dear. A usual Christmas tradition in Zagreb is to continue celebration after Midnight Mass. People go to bars, clubs, city squares, wherever there’s a party on. The celebration lasts till morning, and it’s a common custom to wish a Merry Christmas to everyone around you, regardless of whether you know them or not. We say ‘Čestit Božić‘, which means ‘Merry Christmas’, but you won’t get it wrong if you say ‘Sretan Božić’ or ‘Happy Christmas’. The celebration continues the next day by visiting relatives. Table decorations are still very important – only the best silverware, tablecloths, china and crystal glasses are used on Christmas.
Unlike Christmas Eve, lunch is a central meal that day. Fish is completely forgotten by then, and its place is taken by a traditional Christmas turkey with thin flatbread ‘mlinci‘, which is served after a hot homemade soup. Sometimes people also enjoy nice roasted pork, ‘sarma’, Olivier salad, and many more. The holiday menu has changed through years, and it has been influenced a lot by traditions from other parts of Croatia. But one thing’s certain – turkey and ‘mlinci‘ have to be on the table! At lunch, we usually drink Croatian wine, but that’s not necessary. We finish lunch with homemade desserts made weeks before Christmas – vanilla horseshoe cookies and ‘mađarica‘, a popular cake in this region. Christmas is celebrated till 27th of December, when we begin to prepare for New Year’s Eve. But let’s leave that for another time.