This post and the podcast that accompanies it was almost late! I promised to publish it on St George’s Day, so you might have expected it earlier today. I’m sorry, I didn’t really have the time to get to it sooner because I had to take a loong shower first – fi-na-lly! After all, it’s the first day taking a proper bath is even allowed after all those looong winter months. You do know that the devil is lurking from the cold water throughout the winter, don’t you? Until today!
But I knew I would have enough time to finish the episode today. After all, it’s a long day today, isn’t it? I was up since 3 am: otherwise, Green George would come on that white horse of his and run me over! I don’t want to sleep in on St George’s Feast day – I would then stay lazy throughout the year!
Did your kids wake up early, too? Mine did, but obviously not early enough to spot the green George on his white horse! Maybe next year.
I also had to go and pick up fresh flowers, wash my face in the flowery water if I want to keep those wrinkles away… So much to do! Decorate the cattle, put up the green wreaths, check if the men have prepared a proper bonfire – I want the biggest one on a crossroad next to my house! Guys, it’s St George’s Day, the biggest spring festivity of old!
Except… I didn’t really do all those things. Nobody really does them so anymore. Many people don’t even know these customs have ever existed. But they did, and they still do in some parts of Croatia.
First things first – have you ever heard of St George, the dragonslayer saint?
If you’re British, you might have, since St George is known to be the patron saint of England. Happy St George’s Day! And you might even know the legend of St George who slew the dragon. It is believed that St George died on this day, April 23 and that makes his feast day.
But let’s stop calling him St George since we’re in Croatian mode, aren’t we? In Croatia, his name would be Juraj.
Btw, you would never guess the spelling of that word if you’re not familiar with Croatian spelling. It’s J-U-R-A-J. This is cool because it almost rimes with his friend – the dragon – in Croatian: Zmaj. Juraj – Zmaj. But let’s leave this for the Quick Croatian Class episodes.
So, it’s not George, it’s Juraj. You know, if that’s a bit difficult to pronounce, don’t worry, it’s unusual for us, too. That’s why, if anyone’s name is Juraj, we usually call him Jura, or Jure, depends on where they’re from. We lose the last J.
Now that we’ve met St George, I have another question for you. Have you ever heard about the Green Man, the nature spirit, usually associated with northern myths?
You must have seen him, in fact. All those faces with leaves instead of hair and face hair that decorate the 19th-century architecture are connected with the creature from folk legends, a creature that brings spring and fertility in yet another cycle of the year.
Well, spring arrives in Croatia today and it’s brought to you by the Croatian version of the Green Man. We call him Green Jura or Zeleni Jura.
Zeleni Jura, except for being a mythical creature, gets his representation in real life as people gather and visit houses, bringing joy, songs and good fortune. One of them represents Zeleni Jura, covered in leaves and green branches. When he reaches your house, you’re allowed to grab one of the branches from his green suit for good luck.
This was also considered a shepherds day, and people used to put pretty flower necklaces around their cows’ necks. Back in the day, if you wore too much jewelry, or were overdressed, there was a popular expression to toast your choice: “Zgleda kak krava na Jurjevo”- Looks like a cow on St George’s Day.
Later on, the cow and St George’s Day were gradually replaced into the simple “Christmas tree”, and that expression is still in use. On the other hand, there aren’t many living people anymore who have seen a cow with a flower wreath on St George’s Day with their own eyes.
If you’d like to join the traditional Croatian St George’s celebrations, there’s still time to set up the bonfires in some parts of the world. You could try it! It makes a cool garden party and you’re making sure you’re going to live through at least another year. After all, they say “gdo bu na kresu ne bu v lesu” – “whoever joins the bonfire, won’t be in the coffin.”
If the protective and cleansing symbolism of bonfires isn’t proof of ancient magic enough for you, how about keeping the witches away by putting thorns on your gates? Keeping them from the stables by making the cows cross the fire? It’s the way to secure they won’t run out of milk. Throwing a green wreath onto the stables rooftop keeps the lightning. away.
All these spring rituals are connected with ancient pre-Christian beliefs and will secure the health and fertility of everything that needs it: your crops, your cattle, and the young lovers. This green Jura character probably has connections with the old Slavic deity called Jarilo. An old story says that Jarilo was the son of the great thunder god. His opponent from the underground, the dragon god, kidnapped Jarilo as a little baby boy and raised him as his own. When the time came for young Jarilo to get married, he wanted to marry his equal – and the only equal was the daughter of a god. That is his own sister from the skies. Don’t be too judgemental! All the ancient myths include the brotherly love we’re not used to anymore:)
When Jarilo came out to the surface to meet her, he dragged along the moist from the underworld. Wherever his wet feet passed, he left a green trace. Leaves have sprung, flowers bloomed and the world turned green. He brought spring and a promise of young love.
This is just one of the versions of the story. It’s very hard to track down the old Slavic myths because most of them are hidden within the left-over folk customs and traditional chants.
Try to dissentegrate everything that I shared so far into pure symbols. What do you get? I see green, spring, new love, wakening, rites, fertility rites, cleansing rites, fire, dragon.
This very cool folk imagination and narrative are to be continued… it continues with the arrival of the Summer. But we’re going to talk about that when the time comes. In the meantime, let me just tell you that in my hometown of Zagreb, there are so many placenames connected with St George, and so much symbolism of St George the Dragonslayer. Could that be a connection with some ancient beliefs or even worships of the dragon god and the spring diety? It could be, many experts find some basis in that.
I do know that many places all over Croatia have rich folk heritage related to St George’s Day, from Dalmatian islands, to continental Croatia famous for its green George. Quite interestingly, most of those locations cherish legends about dragons or heroes who slew them.
From what I’ve just told you, you might get an impression that all of these customs are still very common. They’re not. They are being cherished in some parts of Croatia, but very rarely in the spontaneous formation as they used to be in the old days. And most of us have never truly witnessed them. But it is kind of comforting, when you drive through the region of Zagorje, or Turopolje, on St George’s eve, and you still see the flames here and there. They are not as huge and as common as they used to be a few decades ago, let alone a century ago. But they are still here.
Oh, and by the way, have you noticed the Earth Day being celebrated on 22 April, just a day before this ancient spring ritual? Isn’t it a bit as the cycle of this magical wheel of the year is being continued and entering a new life? Who knows, maybe we do remember, on a subliminal level, the folk wisdom of old and are keeping the customs alive without even realizing it.
And another thing. All of these customs are very special but are not completely unique to Croatia. There are other countries close by with incredible vivid customs and the Romani community has amazing ways to celebrate. Even in Croatia, some parts call this day Big Jurjevo, and then there’s Small Jurjevo on 6 May. For the orthodox community and the orthodox-Christian countries, that’s the real Jurjevo or Đurđevdan because of the differences in the calendar.
I hope you enjoyed all the incredible customs of this magical day. I wish you all a happy spring (even if it’s not springy in your part of the world). Happy St George’s Day! Sretno Jurjevo!