Christmas traditions from around Zagreb

During the Christmas season, we stick to holiday traditions; we are so used to them that we no longer even think about where and why they come from. The Christmas wheat, the Advent wreath, pine decorations and gifts etc. All these used to be just part of some of the strange folk customs which have slowly become widespread throughout the world. Folk customs and rituals are deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of a region which preserves and passes them on from generation to generation. In the area around the county of Zagreb, tradition is still very much alive and each region carefully nurtures its identity. This is especially evident in Christmas traditions, reminders of the true, primordial values of Christmas which brings the family together, as well as the local community. Diverse and interesting Christmas traditions from all around the Zagreb area are not just part of the folklore: they represent the reflection of a rich heritage and bear witness to the past of their homeland. Here are some of these traditions...

1) Christmas "kinč"

In Samobor and the surrounding area, during the Christmas season, houses were decorated in a traditional style called "kinč" and this involved items being made by members of the family. Traditional Christmas ornaments made out of colourful crepe paper, mostly in the shape of flowers and chains, were put on holly or spruce branches, along with apples, coloured walnuts and similar Christmas ornaments so that everything would then be hung on a beam above the table. A bouquet of flowers made of crepe paper was placed around the Christmas cake, as a symbol of fertility, health and well-being.

2) Bringing straw into the house on Christmas Eve

All around the Zagreb area, on Christmas Eve, the master of the house would bring straw into the house and say a blessing, such as: "Praise be Jesus and Mary in this New Year, God has provided us with foals, calves, piglets, geese, chickens, children, peace and He gives you His blessing." Straw was placed under the table and on the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist, also called "Ivanuševo" or "Januševo", the master of the house would go and decorate the fruit trees with it so that they would bear a lot of fruit. In some areas, straw was also placed in the field, in the sty, under hens, given to the cattle in their fodder and burned to protect against hail, all in order to bring prosperity and protect the household with its power.

3) Christmas cake

A small round Christmas loaf stood on the table from Christmas to the Feast of the Three Kings. From the remaining dough, twelve balls were made and arranged in a circle. In the middle there was a cross made out of dough or otherwise it was shaped into a chicken symbolising the year, while the dough balls represented eggs which, in turn, symbolised the months of the year. If all the bread was to be eaten before the lady of the house brought any bread to the table, it was the Christmas cake that ensured that there was bread on the table at all times. Because if there is bread on the table during the Christmas period, then there should be enough bread to eat in the following year.

4) Folk meteorology

The countdown to Christmas begins on the feast of St. Lucia. The weather was recorded every day, and the weather experienced in those twelve days until Christmas was taken as a forecast of what the weather would be like in the twelve months of the following year. These recorded notes were called rosaries.

The method of predicting the weather using an onion is also of interest. On New Year's Eve, twelve red onion skins would be lined up on the table in the evening. Salt was put into each onion skin and each of them was given the name of a month. The skins filled with salt stood on the table until morning, and if the salt became wet it meant that the weather for that corresponding month in the following year would be wet too.

5) Turkey for Christmas, suckling pig for New Year's Eve

The New Year was celebrated less solemnly than Christmas. However, care was taken to eat a roasted suckling pig that day. It was believed that a roasted suckling pig must be eaten because it grunts in a forward direction, and is deemed to be facing the future that the New Year brings. Chicken was not to be eaten at all, because they scratched the ground and consequently destroyed rural homesteads. Turkey was eaten before the end of the year, because it scrapes in a backward direction, leaving everything bad behind as the family entered the New Year.

6) Straw and crumbs for a fertile year

In some parts of Turopolje, on Christmas Eve after dinner, everyone in the house helped drag straw under the table. Each of them had to pull out one stalk of straw without looking. The one who drew the longest straw had to sow flax seed the following year because it was believed it would grow the longest. The stalk of straw that had been pulled out would then be stuck on the wall behind the picture and kept until sowing. After dinner, the lady of the house would pick up crumbs from the table. She would store them until the first chicks hatched in the spring and she would feed them with those crumbs to make them thrive. These crumbs were believed to be blessed.

7) Love divination

On St. Lucia's Day, at the beginning of preparations for Christmas, it was customary in some regions for unmarried girls to write the names of young men on each of thirteen notes of paper. Every day until Christmas, they would throw one unopened piece of paper into the fire. After Mass on Christmas Eve, the last piece of paper was opened. The thirteenth piece of paper with the name of the young man whose name was left at the end, was supposed to be the one she was going to marry.               

8) Star gazers

In many places, star gazer vigils were common. These vigils consisted of a group of three boys holding a star of Bethlehem made out of cardboard. They were also known as "betlemehari" or “chandlers”. The evening before the feast, these Three Kings went from house to house, sometimes accompanied by young boys who played and sang: "O Holy Three Kings, O blessed is your day, when the Holy Young King was sent from heaven." They often received gifts from the locals.

9) "Poležaj" (The Christmas caroller)

In the Zelina area, a "Poležaj" is a well-wisher or a guest who first enters the house to wish a Merry Christmas. A "Poležaj" was usually a man, and he had to be young and cheerful. If a "poležaj" happened to be someone else - a woman, an elderly man or a child - then it was believed that he or she would not bring happiness. The "Poležaj" had to eat and drink, so that all the livestock on that farm would consequently eat and drink well. The tour of the village was never announced but instead was spontaneous, so the hosts of the house never knew when the "poležaj" would come by. The "poležaj’s" greetings were often short, fun greetings, like, "God has given you everything you have; if there’s something you don't have, buy it!"

10) On St. Lucia's Day, it was forbidden to sew, on Christmas it was forbidden to do any physical work

On St Lucia's day, the patron saint of eyes, girls were not allowed to make handicrafts or anything else where they would use a needle and thread, so as not to "stitch" their eyes. And Christmas was a day when no physical work was allowed to be undertaken. The floor in the house was not allowed to be swept on Christmas Day or St. Stephen's Day, but it was allowed on the third day, when the feast of St. John was celebrated. It is believed that the floor had to be swept as many times as possible, as much as nine times, so that in the New Year, the fields would be free of weeds. The barn could be cleaned on the second day of Christmas, on St. Stephen's Day. The livestock on the farm used to be fed very quickly because all the necessary hay and straw had been prepared in advance.

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