Some Christmas Season Traditions of Croatia

Croatia is overwhelmingly populated by Roman Catholics; just a bit under 80% of total population as recorded in the 2021 census, in fact. Catholic traditions that have roots in deep history are still firm and practiced even if from time to time one comes across new elements for traditional Croatia to Christmas season celebrations such as Santa Claus.

In Croatia, preparations for Christmas start on 25th November which is St Catherine’s day. People also celebrate Advent. Over 85% of people in Croatia are Catholics so Advent is an important time for them.

It’s traditional to have an Advent wreath made of straw or evergreen twigs which has four candles. The wreath symbolises endlessness and the four candles symbolise different parts of history and life:

First Candle (purple): creation – hope;

Second Candle (purple): embodiment – peace;

Third Candle (pink): redemption – joy;

Fourth Candle (purple): ending – love;

A fifth candle is sometimes added in the centre which is lit on Christmas Day!

Advent 2022 Wreath at main Ban Jelacic Square in Zagreb, Croatia

As well as St Catherine’s day, other saints’ days are celebrated in Advent in Croatia. On the 4th December it’s St Barbara’s Day; on the 6th December it’s St Nicholas’s Day and on 13th December it’s St Lucia’s/Lucy’s day.

On St Nicholas’s Eve (5th), children clean their shoes/boots and leave them in the window. They hope that St Nicholas will leave them chocolates and small presents in their boot. The “Western” Santa Claus, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle are derived from and often another name for St Nicholas, although they are said to appear in the dark of Christmas Eve and night, leaving gifts of chocolate, lollies, other sweets for children in particular who have been good and well behaved during the past year. However, if children have been naughty, Krampus (a horned anthropomorphic figure who, according to legend, sometimes travels with St Nicholas) leaves them golden twigs or gold gilded birch rods to remind them to behave.

Depictions of St Nicholas rewarding well-behaved children
Depiction of “Krampus” standing behind St Nicholas to remind children to be good

On St Lucia’s Day (or St Barbara’s Day) people often sow wheat onto small plates or containers. This is an old Christmas custom that has symbolic meanings. Saint Lucy announces Christmas as the birthday of light, so the 12 days between Saint Lucy and Christmas are called “Lucijini dani” (Lucy’s days). Saint Lucy was a Christian martyr, and she is the patron saint of the blind (physically and spiritually), farmers, boatmen, glassmakers, tailors, weavers, scribes, porters and blacksmiths.

The wheat grain symbolises new life, and its thin green leaves symbolize vitality and strength. It is a belief that it is possible to predict what the harvest will be like by how the seeds germinate. If the Christmas wheat germinates poorly, the harvest will be poor. If the wheat grows green, thick, and tall, the next year will be fruitful. In addition, Christmas wheat is also a nice decoration for the Christmas table or under the Christmas Tree where they are placed on Christmas Eve. In Croatia, it is also believed that Lucija brings small gifts into the house, like Saint Nicholas.

St Lucy and Christmas Wheat

Christmas Trees are very popular and are normally decorated on Christmas Eve, when the entire family takes part in decorating the tree, but some people put them up and decorate them on St Nicholas’s Day. In Croatia they’re traditionally decorated with ornaments in the shapes of fruits. They used to be real fruits or persevered candied fruits that were sometimes covered in gold! However, modern times have also given way to modern Christmas Tree decorations and glitter. There’s an old Croatian tradition that young men gave their girlfriends a decorated apple at Christmas. In many places in Croatia Christmas tree was decorated with apples that were given as a gift at Christmas. It was most often given by young men to girls to show them their sympathy. Another custom was to throw an apple into the well before Christmas and then take it out for the New Year. If the apple remains pink and healthy – the rest of the household will also be in good health.

Traditional Christmas Tree decorations in Croatia made of dried fruit shapes or whole fruits

The Christmas tree is a custom that Croatia, according to historians, was taken over from Germany, and it entered Croatian homes in the middle of the 19th century. Before then houses were decorated with various greenery, nuts, dried fruits, candles, nativity scenes were made from wood, and there were also paper decorations. In some parts of Croatia, the whole house was decorated, in others only the main beam of the house or the fireplace was decorated.

St Mark’s Square Zagreb, Croatia

In rural parts of the country, it is still customary to bring straw into the house on Christmas Eve as a symbol of future good crops. A yule log called a ‘badnjak‘ (also the word for Christmas Eve) was traditionally brought into the house and lit on Christmas Eve. But not many people have fireplaces these days! In the north-western and northern parts of Croatia, “kinjč” was traditionally placed on the roof of the house, a room made of holly and pine, less often pine. “Kinjč, “Kinč” or “Cimer” is a branch of an evergreen tree, often made into a wreath shape, that is decorated, and in addition to the roof, it is brought into the house and attached to a beam or ceiling. Greenery in the winter period is a symbol of the magical transmission of life force to the deadness of nature in that period.

A “Kinjč” hanging off a ceiling in rural Croatia

Presents are normally exchanged on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Many people like to go to a Midnight Mass service.

In Croatian Happy/Merry Christmas is ‘Sretan Božić’.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are mostly celebrated with close family. On Boxing day friends and extended family visit each other. Boxing day is also the Feast Day of St Stephen and the namesake day of very popular names of Stjepan, Stipe, Stipo, Štef, Stephanie, Štefanija etc and celebrations of this day are entrenched in the Croatian traditions.

Christmas Eve itself was named after the Christmas tree stump (Badnjak/ Yule log). One or more stumps (often three) are ceremonially brought into the house before sunrise on Christmas Eve accompanied by carolling and the Yule log is sprinkled with grain, food is placed on it and wine is poured over it while saying ritual sayings. After burning the stump, the stumps and remains are taken to fields and gardens, to grain, to apiaries and pens. The aforementioned custom began to fall into oblivion with the transition from the open fireplace to the stove.

Historical depiction of attending to a Yule log in a Croatian home at Christmas time

Other Christmas Eve customs in the north of Croatia include the visits of “betlehemari” (Bethlegemites) and shepherds, that is, congratulators who would visit houses and congratulate the household and everyone they meet. Usually, two or three young men would carry around a box with the Nativity set up, pass on well wishes to families at their house doorstep and in return receive gifts of nuts, ham or cakes.  In pastoral areas, on Christmas Eve at dusk, pastries are brought to the cattle pen, sprinkled with grain, and consecrated with blessed water or wine. On the way back from midnight, the treasures are taken around, and some of the Christmas dinner is taken to the barn. In Croatia, such customs are recorded in Dalmatian Zagora, and we also find them in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Bethlehemites”/Betlehemari well-wishing at village house door. Photo: Croatian Ethnic Museum
Bethlehemites/Betlehemari – demonstration at community event in Croatia. Photo: Marijan Zlibar

On Christmas Eve, most people eat dried-cod called ‘bakalar’ or some other kind of fish as it’s considered as meat fast (so you can’t eat meat). The main Christmas Day is often turkey, goose or duck with traditional “mlinci” pasta dish. A popular side dish is sarma (cabbage rolls filled with minced pork meat).

Dry cod/ Bakalar salad
Sarma/ Cabbage roll
Croatia: Trrkey with mlinci pasta
Croatian Christmas cake platter/ “kolači”. Photo: micine slastice

There’s also always lots of small cookies and cakes to eat with donuts being very popular! There’s ‘Krafne’ which are filled with jam, jelly, marmalade or chocolate and also smaller ones called ‘fritule’ which are flavoured with lemon and rum but most often an assortment of cakes popularly known as “kolači

The Christmas celebrations finish on Epiphany (6th January), also known as Three Kings Feast Day. That is the day Christmas tree comes down, decorations carefully wrapped and stored away for next year.

Depiction of Epiphany in porcelain. Photo: Ina Vukic

Wishing you all a Happy and Blessed Christmas and a most wonderful and fulfilling New Year! Ina Vukic


  1. Best wishes for Christmas and 2023!
    Regards from Florida

  2. Dear Ina,
    Merry Christmas!

  3. May the Joy of The Season be yours!🔔🎉🎅🎁🎄

  4. Thank you so much for sharing unique information in your blog post I really like it.

  5. The photos were wonderful and the food looked so tasty. I was stationed in Germany from 1976-1980. I went to Germany 140 pounds and I left 180 pounds. Good food in Europe. Merry Christmas my friend from Michigan.

  6. Sretan Bozic Ina!! Thanks for englightening this aussie-croat throughout the year! X

  7. A happy new year Ina!

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