There are many symbols of the Christmas season, and the joy of children is definitely one of them. That joy is often connected with receiving gifts. In some parts of the world that celebrate Christmas, things are easy. There’s the good old Santa, he comes down the chimney with his gifts, and that’s it.
In other parts, it’s a little bit more complicated when it comes to Christmas gift bringers. Croatia is one of those parts. Croatia is still mostly roman catholic. There are many Christmas saints in different parts of Croatia associated with bringing presents. There’s, for example, St Barbara, St Nicholas, St Lucy, Baby Jesus, even Three Wise Men.
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In the past, these traditions were very strong, and as you can imagine, they were often growing out of those ancient roots of beliefs deep inside the people of this region. You will still hear the older generations proudly saying “We received our gifts from St Lucy”. “We didn’t know of Santa. Our Christmas presents were left by Baby Jesus, – that’s Isusek”. They tend to say it proudly, as if that makes them more genuine, truer to their origins, and I can always sense a tiny bit of despise to all the recent capitalistic symbols of Christmas.
That’s probably true in a way, but it’s obvious that you can’t go back. What you can is remember the old traditions, keep a little memory of your region’s famous gift-bringer alive. However, you will probably understand from this episode and the next one, that there is a reason why all of the ancient gift bringers & the customs that surround them, are losing their battle against Santa.
Of course, Croatia adopted the cheerful Santa in his red suit, too, and he comes on Christmas eve bringing the best of all presents. Although, we don’t even know how to call him properly. Over the decades, we’ve changed his names. These days, we most commonly call him Deda Mraz (Grandpa Frost) or sometimes Djed Božićnjak (Grandpa Christmas). The latter is kind of an official name. I don’t want to bug you with the history…. Unless you are really interested – in that case, let me know, and I’ll prepare an explanation for some other episode. I just need to say that, generally speaking, Deda Mraz sounds much more natural, at least in the part of Croatia where I live in.
In English, the name Santa Claus actually derives from St Nicholas. Well, we celebrate St Nicholas as well. Here in Croatia, St Nicholas visits the homes somewhere in the night before his feast day, and that’s December the 6th. He leaves gifts for good children and ceremonially opens up the joyful Christmas season.
We could call St Nicholas Day an overture to Christmas. Small gifts, children’s anticipation, seasonal magic, even a saint, so the religious side of Christmas doesn’t slide through. On St Nicholas Eve, children will clean their boots and put them in their windows. In the morning, they will find a present inside!
This is a tradition, but traditions don’t need to go back to the dawn of the day. Many of the symbols of the Christmas season in Croatia, such as the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and most of the customs related to St Nicholas, came to Croatia back in the 1800s. It came mostly through the cities, such as Zagreb, Varaždin and Rijeka, and it was a Germanic influence. Some parts of Croatia were strongly influenced by Austria at the time.
Back to our hardworking children. They clean their boots spotless. But the expression on their face while they’re doing that? It’s not pure joy and can’t-waitness. Is there a trace of concern on their faces while they do it? Hm…
Back in the 19th century, the boots were filled with some walnuts and a piece of fresh local fruit. Later on, the presents grew into candies, an orange, and maybe a pair of socks.
In the past decades, we’ve grown to like spending loads of money around Christmas as a society. We keep getting unpleasantly surprised when we see Christmas decorations in November: “What are they doing? Give us a break! Can’t you wait till December? Oh, it’s already Christmas in this capitalistic piece of s..store.” But, let’s face it. It works. We took the bait. We like to generously give more and more to our kids. And they don’t mind. In fact, it’s hard to satisfy children these days with those traditional boot-fillings. Oh, the disappointment of nowadays kids if they found a handful of walnuts and an apple in their boot!
St Nicholas gifts often don’t fit the boots anymore. I dare to say they might be too much. Especially if you know that this is still just an intro to Christmas. Our family still likes to keep things humble. Do you know how that paid off? The school teacher asked everyone in the class what did they get for St Nicholas? From St Nicholas, to be precise. It turned out that our kid was the one that St Nicholas liked the least!
Oh, wait! There is something else in those boots! A bundle of golden twigs? Just before St Nicholas feast day, there will be street vendors of golden twigs in all the Croatian cities. You will even be able to get them in a local store. What’s with that?
The answer will unlock the secret of that concerned look in the children’s eyes. That’s because… St Nicholas never travels alone. There is a monster that he drags along in chains. It’s Krampus! Krampus is a devilish creature all covered in hair, with horns, and a tongue that goes all the way to the ground. He carries a giant sack and takes the naughty children with him! He’s the one who leaves the twigs as a warning.
In some countries, like Germany, Austria, and even our neighbor Slovenia, the tradition of Krampus is still very much alive. Here in Zagreb, not that much. Only some families still introduce Krampus into their daily lives a few days before he arrives. Those are a few days of heaven on earth for the adults: children are so obedient, their rooms clean, and all you did was casually mention Krampus.
However, this is nothing compared to the past times. Back in the day, they really did their best to scare the kids on that day. Every neighborhood in Zagreb had its own pair, a St Nicholas dressed as a bishop, and a Krampus. They visited each and every house. If you lived at one end of a street, you could hear them coming when they were still at the other end. Krampus yelled: “Where are the naughty children? I want to put them in my bag!” with that terrifying sound of chains.
Then they came to your house. St Nicholas took his time, slowly trying to find your name in his book of good children. Very slowly. He couldn’t find it at first. All that time, Krampus is shouting: “They’re not in your book, they‘re the naughty ones, give them to me!”
The poor children are on their knees, saying every single prayer they know or don’t know, changing colors, sweating! Finally, St Nicholas finds their name after all. Phew!
They receive a few walnuts as a reward for being good kids all year long. Now, try to imagine what a grateful child looks like. The handful of walnuts was the best gift ever!!
Some things have changed. One thing hasn’t. St Nicholas feast day, December the 6th is when we truly feel Christmas entering our homes in Croatia. Once Krampus is gone and the present is here, you know you’ve been a good child, and you have a whole careless year in front of you! Joy and relief together! Oh, don’t we love our children when we offer them this beautiful combination of feelings!
Traditions have changed. Don’t worry! We don’t torture children anymore like that. If the big presents aren’t enough, we sometimes even tell them that the golden branches are in their boots because they were good. They wouldn’t be golden if they were left by Krampus as a threat, right?
The truth is, in the past, they weren’t golden, and they were meant as a menace that you would get spanked by birch twigs left by Krampus himself!!! Reminder, reminder, be good, be good!
These days, ehm… parents who can’t resist that little sadistic connection with their roots… and think that it’s hilarious to take some chains and make them rattle in the middle of St Nicholas eve… Parents like that are considered messed up.
From this safe distance, it’s fun to imagine the city with all those pairs of Nicks and Krampuses walking around with their awkward scenarios.
Usually, the Krampus outfit was much more convincing. He was in a furry hairy vest, with a black face, and you’d only gaze at him anyway since you were too afraid. St Nicholas, on the other hand, was dressed as a priest. Sometimes, his outfits were hilarious, made out of cardboard, he could hardly move. This even got St Nicholas in prison once. I read about it in the old newspaper. At the time, there was a law that prohibited wearing costumes, except during the so-called fašnik season. That’s carnival season, another popular tradition in many parts of Croatia, in winter.
A St Nicholas and a Krampus were doing their thing in the center of Zagreb, walking around, performing, when a policeman passed by and remembered about that law. He was obviously very dedicated to his job as he decided to teach them a lesson and bring them in. Krampus was more flexible than St Nick so he immediately ran away, dragging his chains behind. Poor old Nick moved like a penguin in that suit of his, so he had no way out. It must have been a show. Even the local newspapers described it in a mocking manner. Krampus running away from the police, and St Nicholas spending a night in prison!
It was a sad day for a lot of children because, on that eve, they got a visit only from…gulp… Krampus! Well, now you know. Unlike with any other monster, if you ever do get a visit from Krampus, just call the police, they’ll handle it. Police interfered on another occasion, and this time it was Krampus who got a fine! There was a strange case of a store in Ilica street in Zagreb. The store owner put a giant Krampus automaton in the window. It was moving and his red tongue rolled to the ground and then back up. Scary… and entertaining.
Kids started gathering, mesmerized, scaring each other, laughing at it. There were crowds of kids around the store at all times. Too many kids, in fact! So many, that the store owner got himself a fine because the children got in the way of horse-driven-trams of the era and caused a traffic jam.
If you moved to Croatia from some other country and come and pick up your kid from the kindergarten around St Nicholas day…. you don’t have to rush to schedule the psychiatrist appointment. It’s not just your kid. Everyone had a lovely task to draw St Nicholas and his pet devil. Or maybe you should schedule that appointment. You know what, just go and talk to someone. This might not be perfectly good for your child’s sanity.
Or simply go with the flow and try out what it’s like to be a parent in the first days of December around here. Let your kids clean their boots… Get them a cute gift, add some twigs. And if you don’t have the chains lying around, your keys will do.
Stay tuned for the next episode, coming up in a week, in time for the so-called Little Christmas, St Lucy’s Day, and that’s 13 December.
What was your favorite part of today’s episode? If by any chance it was all the talk about Krampus and you think Krampus is scary… wait till you hear about St Lucy. Somewhere in the St Lucy legend and the related customs, things went awry!
St Lucy is also one of the most magical days of the year, so make sure to stay tuned for all the good charms and tips that you can take into consideration this year.