Croatians have celebrated Christmas since the Ninth century, when they accepted Christianity. In 879 Pope John VIII wrote a letter in which he recognised the Croatian state under Prince Branimir.
Approval from the Holy See was brought about by Branimir’s own actions to bring the Croatians further away from the influence of Byzantium and closer to Rome. Duke Branimir wrote to Pope John VIII affirming this split from Byzantine and commitment to the Roman Papacy.
During the solemn divine service in St. Peter’s church in Rome in 879, Pope John VIII gave his blessing to the duke and the whole Croatian people, about which he informed Branimir in his letters. This was the first time that the Croatian state was officially recognised (at that time the international legitimacy was given by the Pope).
Traditionally a holiday when families get together, for Croatians, Christmas is also the time to remember the role the Catholic church has played in the development of Croatian national identity.
Faith, along with culture, identity, language and beliefs, preserved Croatia’s national identity during the centuries-long strife when the nation was divided and ruled by different regimes.
Crushing that faith as a means of conquest was a tactic different invaders used over the centuries.
During the period of communist rule in Former Yugoslavia celebration of Christmas and weddings in churches in Croatia were forbidden, and so were Christenings of children, and Holy Communion and all other holy sacraments. Those who wanted to do observe the religious rites did so in quiet and secretive celebration, the only celebration that was allowed by the communist government was the celebration of the non-religious Santa Claus (Djed Mraz), who gave presents to children on New Year’s Eve!
The period after WWII was the time of vicious church and religious persecution in former Yugoslavia. Tito who was the leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia had the following declaration: “According to our point of view we are Communists and carriers of dialectical materialism and as such, we are without religious faith”. Church and religious institutions’ property was property was confiscated. Priests were jailed or executed.
The Earl of Perth, Hansard, HL Deb 29 November 1950 vol 169 cc604-52 :
“Lastly, there is Yugoslavia, and here, I am sorry to say, the persecution of the Roman Catholics has been particularly virulent. It began before Marshal Tito came to power, but has continued under his regime. Since the end of the war. 200 priests have been executed, and some 1,700 sentenced to terms of imprisonment. I think it is only fair to say that in the early stages before Marshal Tito, and even at the beginning of his rule perhaps, political considerations and events entered very largely into the severe strife going on, particularly in Croatia. But, however that may be, the ultimate result was that at the beginning of this year, out of 1,916 parishes, fewer than 400 were left with a priest at their head. Archbishop Stepinac is serving a term of sixteen years, and yet no valid reason has been given for his imprisonment.”
The Communist Party had full political, financial and military power. Tito’s goal was, immediately after WWII, to eliminate churches and all religious questions and reduce religious activities to private life of prayers. Those who chose to practice their religion did so at the cost of being considered as citizens of lesser value. In schools children did not learn about religion and Christmas.
The most recent attempt to destroy Catholic faith in Croatia occurred in the early 1990’s, during the Homeland war, when the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries demolished over 1200 churches across Croatia in an attempt to erase symbols of Croatian identity and culture. Although valuable cultural heritage was destroyed, they failed to subjugate the Croatian nation. Instead, Croatians emerged as victors and succeeded in establishing a sovereign and independent Croatia for the first time in a thousand years.
Today the customs and traditions of celebrating Christmas are freely expressed.
Wishing you all a truly Merry Christmas!
Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps.(Syd)