Croatian Christmas Customs
December 18, 1996
TORONTO, Ontario, Canada -The Feast of Christmas is celebrated around the world in so many different ways, depending upon geography, language, culture and religion. One needs only to mention the Huron Indian Carol where the Christmas story is adapted to the cold of Canada. The Christ Child lies not in a manger of hay, but is wrapped in rabbit skins, the three Kings are 'Chiefs' from afar and the shepherds are 'Indian Braves'.Some Croatian customs go back to pagan times; others are of more recent orign and adaptation to urbanization - as it is in other countries. Sadly, Christmas today is frequently submerged in crass commercialization, as can be seen by the plastic 'decorator trees' in shopping malls, the vulgar use of traditional carols as back-up jingles in advertising, the replacement of St. Nicholas by Santa Claus (a marketing invention of Macy-Gimbles in New York in the early part of this century) - all of these enticing us to buy, buy, buy, to demonstrate our love.I mention these issues as it is important to emphasize that Croatian Christmas is essentially centered on religion and the family. Many of the customs were not recorded, albeit preserved in some format, despite rejection in Croatia's recent past as part of ex-Yugoslavia. Today, there is a resurgence of interest and respect for "narodne obicaje" (customs of the people), often amongst second and third generation Croatians in the land of their forefathers. However, as there are so many variations of Christmas traditions in Croatia, it is pertinent, today, to restrict information to the customs of Christmas Eve-Badnjak, as well as a few preliminaries to this most joyous of celebrations.Croatian Christmas begins with Advent - the coming or ocekovanje. The faithful attend early, pre-dawn masses called zornice or matins throughout this religious period. Preparations start on St. Barbara's Day (Dec. 4) or more frequently, on St. Lucia's Day (Dec.13) when the traditional planting of the wheat in a dish takes place. Cafrefully tended, its growth by Christmas Day, predicts the abundance of the crop on the coming year. It is also in Advent that the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec.6) is eagerly awaited by the children who place brightly polished shoes on the window still, awaiting the Christmas goodies if they have been good children or avoiding the Krampus (the devil) if they have been bad.A ritual candle symbol of the light coming from Christ, is placed in the dish of wheat or in the middle of the kolac, a Christmas bread often ornamented with figures of people, the Christ Child, domestic animals - whatever the lady of the house chooses to display her artistic and culinary talents. The candle is wrapped in the tri-colour or trobojnica. Usually only one candle is lit, but if there are two - one is for the living, the other for the dead. In some areas, for example Slavonia and Dalmatia, three candles representing the Holy Trinity are lit. In this instance, each person secretly chooses one candle and, depending upon the speed of the meeting, foresees his fate - the slower the melting the longer the life; the more drips or suze (tears) on the candle, the more fruitful the new year's crop. Magical powers are often attributed to the candle and so it is sometimes saved for the next year.The Sokci, the Bunjevci, the Hercegovci gather round the centre of the room and the head of the household, the Domacin, traditionally extingushes the candle with a piece of the kolac dipped in red wine. Towards whomever the smoke travels is a prediction of death while the person upon whom the shadow falls is protected from death.During Advent, there is a flurry of activity as the home is readied for Christmas Eve. There are cookies to be baked, decorations to be made, houses to be cleaned, meat slaughtered and prepared - very much as many of us here in Canada.Badnjak, or Christmas Eve, is eagerly awaited and culminates in midnight mass. The word Badnjak comes from the Glagolithic bdjeti meaning 'to be awake'. Thus, Badnjak is the night when all must be awake, at least until after mass that celebrates the Birth of Christ. In some parts of Croatia, it is called Bozicnona vecerije or Villja, relating to the latin vivilla - to keep vigil as did the shepherds on the first Holy Night. On this night there must be heat and light, represented by the ritual candle and as no other light may appear before the ceremonial candle is lit, the domacin lights it before dark has fallen, accompanied by traditional phrases and verses, varying from region to region. Some of these still remain and are carefully nurtured not only by peasant families, but by specialists - folklorists who travel from village to village, recording and codifying folk culture for future generations.The custom of the Yule Log or panj existed in pre-recorded times in all of southern Europe - Spain, Portugal, France, Croatia, all former regions of the Holy Roman Empire or lands adjacent to it, northern Slavs from Poland, the Ukraine, the Carpathians did not adopt the practice, but just as there are remnants of the Roman connection in the Istrian word for Christmas (vilija), so the Croatians as they settled in southern lands accepted the Badnjak, the Yule Log. Here in Canada, the French retain the log in the form of a special Christmas cake, La Buche Noel, decorated as a log and appearing in French patisseries during the holiday season.In olden times, the Badnjak was called the Bozicnjak or cok in Istria, krij on the island of Krk, hreb on Hvar. Today, the custom is mostly retained in isolated areas where there still remains an open hearth, otvoreno ognjiste, made of rocks or bricks centered around an opening in the earthern floor of humble homes. The custom has obviously disappeared with the advent of modern stoves and central heating systems.There are two types of Badnjak. The branch thrown onto the roof top and the panj or log burned in the fireplace. The panj is not split and should have numerous knots that it may burn longer. (Perhaps it is a way to avoid extra work in stoking the fire?) The panj is usually oak, but other types are used depending upon the geographical region. For example, the beech tree (bukva), the olive, the fig, the maple tree are local variants. The use of straw in regions where wheat grows is another form of badnjak, as well as being symbolic of the manger where the Christ Child lay. The male elders who are responsible for the Badnjak go out to the woods a few days before, cut it and place it outside the entrance to the house where it waits to be brought in ceremoniously, accompanied by ritual greetings and verses. The logs are sometimes decorated with bay leaves. English ground ivy, and in southern Dalmatia, the logs are often placed in patterns such as the cross. The Adriatic Croatians burn only one log, but in Dinaric areas, three or more are burned, depending upon the number of males in the house and one more for the male to be born.The Badnjak is brought in by the domacin (male elder) from the courtyard. He greets the assembled family with "Faljen Isus - Dobro Vam dosla Badnja Vecer" (Praise be to Jesus and may this Christmas Eve be a good one.) The family answers: "I s tobom zajedno" ( and together with you). At this point, the female head of the family sprinkles wheat grains upon the domacin, as is done in Livno.Local traditions dictate how the logs are placed on the ognjiste. Sometimes, as mentioned, they form a cross; sometimes, wheat grains are placed on top and sprinkled with holy water over incense fanned by flames. Even bits of food from the evening meal are given to the badnja - a spoon of soup, vegetables, 'fritule' (yeast donuts), salt, etc. and sprinkled with oil, rakije (spirits) or wine, by thelog as a family member saying: "Pij u tvoje zdravlje" (drink to your health). The Istrians toast the Badnjak, believing that if they do not, ill fortune awaits them. Thus, the yule log is treated as a mystical or even human being.Fortune telling, a remnant from pagan times, continues through the evening. The domacin pokes the panj with a poker to set sparks flying saying: "Kuliko iskri, tuliku ticic ja nasel ovi ljeti" (the number of sparks, the number of birds I'll catch in the new year.)The Badnjak must last all evening and in many regions, it is burned again. In others, it is extinguished on Christmas Eve and re-lit in the New Year, on the Feast of The Three Kings or it even stays by the hearth until Lent, serving as the special log upon which other logs are placed. The ashes or charred fragments, are scattered in the fields to assure a fruitful crop. Tha ashes are even used to heal certain diseases.The Badnjak, as a branch, is placed on the roof and stays there throughout the year. Traditionally, a young man places the cut branches beside the door and on Christmas Eve, before the sun rises, the family gets up and waits for him to bring the branch into the house, saying "Badnjak na kucu, badnjica u kucu: (the branch on the roof, the log into the house) or "Badnjak na kucu, kolac na ruke" (branch on the house, the Christmas bread into the house). The mother then places a bread in the form of a ring on his arm, sprinkling him with wheat and saying "Eto sine, ziv i zdrav bio - do godine Badnjak na kucu metnio" (May you live and be healthy to place the log on the house next year). He then goes out and throws it onto the roof.As early as 1272, in the Book of Statues for Ragusa (Dubrovnik) there is a mention of sailors from Dubrovnik bringing in the ceppo on Christmas Eve, which in this historcal period, was also celebrated as the beginning of the New Year. This is verified in the 13th century carol "Narodil Nam Se" where the phrase "Na tom mladom letu, veselimo se; mladoga Kralja mi molimo" (on this new year we rejoice and pray to the young King) confirms that Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve are one and the same in olden times.It should be noted the Badnjak is burned at the time of the winter solstice, when the strength of the sun is weakened. It is the strength of the Badnjak, its light, warm and crackling sparks that assist the sun to overcome darkness and cold, thus associating the Badnjak with pagan sun worship. There is also an association with the cult of the dead, for it is said that on Christmas Eve, the soul of the family dead return to gather round the hearth and the Badnjak, to receive its warmth and light.Themyths, superstitions, historical facts and religious connotations associated with Badnjak as Christmas log and Christmas Eve are many and varied. Yet some of these ancient practices are preserved and retained in Croatian homes to this day; visible symbols are present even if the origins of the customs have long been forgotten.The extraordinary wealth of Croatian customs associated with the subsequent days of the Holy Season merit further research, collation and presentation. That they vary from village to village, region to region, is a testament to the unique Croatian individuallity of the diverse Croatian cultural influences upon Croatia over historical time. It is upon us to preserve and cherish this wonderful heritage.Betty Labash Kovacs, M.A. Lodge 1975(Researched and presented by Betty Kovacs at annual CroatianChristmas concert " Hrvatski Bozic '95)References: The Zajednicar; Croatian Circular - Z. Mekinda, editor; Godina Dana Hrvatskih Narodnih Obicaja - Milovan Cavazzi, 1939, reprinted 1991.