Xmas Special – Srčeka or Little hearts

The time has come for a story about – a heart. Srčeko, or small heart, as their creators call it. This also happens to be this year’s last Xmas Special. The small heart fits the season perfectly. 

Enjoy the podcast episode here, or scroll down for the text version:

I’ll start with an unexpected random question that popped up in my mind? How much is a srčeko worth?

In Northwestern Croatia, where I live, there is a very typical cookie. It’s made out of just a few ingredients. Let’s see, what does it take to make it? Flour, some yeast, water, and honey. You know what, it doesn’t really have to be honey. Simply add some sugar instead, makes very little difference. 

Licitar hearts before dying

They say the simplest dishes are the best ones. Trust me, this doesn’t apply to this cookie. It’s absolutely terrible. I tried it once, and so did everyone who grew up in this region of Croatia. We’ve all regretted it because it’s tasteless and hard turning mushy… just don’t try it, please trust me on this one. 

Back to the recipe. You make the dough out of the ingredients and let it rest for hours. It doesn’t taste good, and it takes a while to make it. What’s the point? Then you shape the dough with cookie cutters. They don’t taste well, so let’s at least decorate them. Let’s add some color. Red is the best, the most popular choice, but it can be another color, too, I don’t see why not? Dip it, dry it for a while. 

Drying the licitar hearts

Now add some decorations. The process of decorating is called cifranje. Each of these cookies will go through its creator’s hands several times until finally, three weeks later, after all the mixing and dying and drying and cifranje and all of the steps are done. And all those cookies keep passing through the palms of their hands dozens of times each day. Just like they did through their parents’ hands before them. And their grandparents. And those 17th-century monks who first introduced them.

At the end of the process, when the small heart srčeko is ready, what do you think? How much is that worth? The answer is easy because there is a price tag on those cakes. They are sold by the piece so we know exactly how much are they worth. Depends on the size, but the regular ones are around 5 kn. That’s under a dollar, 75 cents. Less than a dollar for an inedible cookie. But, you know what? It doesn’t even matter anymore if it tastes awful. It is so pretty that it would be a shame to eat it. For that reason, it often decorates Christmas trees.

Cookie cutters

The little cookie can come in many shapes, but most often, it is in a shape of a heart. The little red heart, srčeko, is called licitar heart, or simply licitar. It shares its name with the person who produces them. They are both known as licitars.

Through my work, I am trying to share some fascination with the so-called common things, things that we take for granted. During some of my Secret Zagreb tours, I often give my visitors a traditionally crafted licitar heart. There are several producers of licitars all over Croatia, and they are all equally worth our respect and appreciation. 

I collaborate with Brankica Šćurić, a licitar from Marija Bistrica because I love her srčeka, and I know I can always rely on her professionally. She was kind to let me in her workshop and show me around to help me understand how her licitars are being crafted. 

Licitari Šćurić are based in Podgorje Bistročko, and they are an amazing example of living heritage. Other than their production, they also have a beautiful educational space where they teach groups of visitors about the craft and help you create your own licitar. 

Srčeka from Licitari Šćurić shop in Marija Bistrica

Their store is in Marija Bistrica, a cute town well known for a miraculous Black Madonna. Because of that, it has long been a favorite place of pilgrimages and religious feasts. In other words, Marija Bistrica has been attracting visitors since the 1600s. With them, the first souvenirs started appearing. Those are traditional wooden toys – I mentioned them in one of the previous episodes (more precisely S02 Ep13 – Croatia Has What It Takes for the Season to be Jolly), and the other is the licitar tradition.

Both traditions are best preserved in the region of Croatia called Hrvatsko Zagorje, more precisely in Marija Bistrica. There aren’t many producers left, but most of the remaining ones are in the area of Marija Bistrica. You can still get them regularly in their stores around the church. This is exceptional because pilgrimage sites are often plagued by cheap souvenirs of religious symbolism. By cheap, I don’t mean the price. 

Monument to wooden toymaking tradition in Marija Bistrica

The town is a rare example where such traditional crafts have survived the centuries. This gives a sense of authenticity to the place. Catholics will often say that this sanctuary is among the most spiritual ones they have visited. Those who are not Catholics, or are not religious at all, still feel amazed when they visit this tiny town of such rich folk heritage. Good work on keeping the old crafts alive, side by side by the curious Marian beliefs. 

I guess that the licitar hearts were among the first attractive souvenirs of the region and the one that is still very popular? When Croatia steals your heart, it’s perfectly suitable to take a heart home from Croatia with you. You can still get this little souvenir, exactly the same as the one that the first travelers through Croatia brought home to their loved ones. 

Photo frame in Marija Bistrica in a shape of licitar hearts

Where were we? Oh, I was thinking just how much is a licitar worth. Well, one of the reasons why I wanted to visit the workshop is precisely to understand how much they are worth. 

I already told you. It’s 75 cents. The 75 cents contain the whole history of the Central Europe gingerbread craft. 

75 cents is the price of the sweat of diligent hands that, in this fast world, without questioning it and without a break, continue a tradition that has been with us for centuries. 

What on earth keeps them running? Is it the 75 cents? Or could it be the smile of random people when they pass by their colorful store, filled with hundreds of licitars, that is days and days of hard work? 

The 75 cents red heart – srčeko – contains the symbolism of love and friendship kept in those old folk customs to give a heart as a token of love. It contains all those merry fairs colored by the licitar stalls through centuries. Tradition, diligence, legacy, art, craft, love, memories, all of those are parts of a single red srčeko – the heart. It’s not really just flour and water and whatever I said earlier on. 

And then, the srčeko comes to your hands. And it takes in some more meaning. Now it contains the memories of your visit to a fair, of your trip to Croatia. You know what, it almost feels like the heart is beating, giving away traces of life. 

Bigger hearts with the Black Madonna of Marija Bistrica

So how much is one of those hearts worth? 75 cents? 

It seems to me its value is a bit greater than the price tag attached. The tradition of licitar crafts actually has a deeper meaning for all of us. Not just for those kids who couldn’t resist the urge to try it and then hid it to the back of the Christmas tree so nobody would notice the part that’s bitten off. Not just the people who crafted them. Not just the town of Marija Bistrica or the regions that were famous for it. 

In fact, UNESCO has included this folk tradition in their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That’s a list that contains unique customs, traditions from all over the world. Each and every bit on that list is considered worth preserving by a global authority. Each part of the list, if it ever gets lost, is a loss for the entire world. Someone has to continue the traditions to prevent their loss. But that’s not enough. We all have to acclaim their worth, give them visibility, appreciation, otherwise, they will disappear into thin air and little by little, we won’t even understand the meaning of humanity. 

On the other hand, even with such great recognition such as UNESCO’s, a recognition that, by the way, imposes a responsibility to preserve the tradition… even us who live in the region are often not completely aware of the true value hidden in srčeko.

The shape of a heart is connected with its abstract symbolism. Let licitar hearts be a symbol of processes, feelings, and deeper meanings that give life to a seemingly inanimate object. 

I still can’t fully understand why do people who follow the tradition still do it? Is it really for the 75 cents? 

I don’t think so. I think it’s because deep inside, they clearly see what most of us don’t. The true value of each of these hearts and of each of the traditions that the world should cherish. It is up to the rest of us, in those rare moments when we realise that, too, to share the appreciation and take our part in preserving that one, and all the other traditions. 

How much value is in the heart? If the answer is still 75 cents, we still have a lot of work to do. 

One of the hearts can be yours for even less than 75 cents. Let’s share some love! Review Croatia Underrated at any available platform, such as iTunes or Podchaser, or simply leave a Facebook review. Share a screenshot with me via a message through Croatia Underrated Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or by email at willow@croatiaunderrated.com together with your postal address. If you manage to do it by the end of 2021, a real licitar heart crafted in the Licitari Šćurić workshop is coming your way. 

And let me just notice… I keep calling the licitars craftspeople, just like everybody else. But I think that’s wrong. Keeping such treasure in the world, breathing life to skills that without them, would be gone, keeping the connection with the past times… I consider that an art form, and for me, they are not craftspeople. They are true artists.

Happy holidays, everyone, from a home where the Christmas tree is decorated with true treasure!

Wreath made of licitars in different shapes from Licitari Šćurić educational area

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