Vivian Grisogono


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Celebrations for Christmas are spread over most of December. Children receive their presents on St Nicholas’ day (December 6th, Sv.Nikola) or, less commonly, on 13th December, St Lucy’s day (Sv.Lucija).

It is not the custom for adults to exchange presents on the scale of the UK, although token presents may be given, usually over Christmas itself. Christmas cards are sent, but sparingly, as they don’t have a big tradition here.

People gather over the holiday period to eat, drink and sing. On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to eat fish, even though it is many years since it was a day of abstinence in the Catholic calendar. In Dalmatia, many places stage a meal for all comers at lunch time, offering salt cod (bakalar) and wine. In Jelsa (pictured right) the church choir traditionally  sings carols in the square during the meal.

The churches are packed of course, and festively decorated. Each church has its own slight variations on the format of special services, and most of the priests have to cover two churches, so they have to concentrate to avoid muddle. Because there aren't enough priests for every church, “midnight” mass on Christmas Eve happens earlier in many places. In Pitve (left), it is usually at 8.30pm. The yule log is burned outside the church beforehand. The service, all sung, consists of two parts. The introductory part culminates in the presentation of the baby Jesus, represented by the priest carrying a figurine of the baby, accompanied by all the deacons in procession round the church. As the procession returns to the altar, the lights on the Christmas trees and cribs are switched on, and all the children light sparklers, naturally with infectious glee. The second part follows the format of the normal mass, albeit buoyed by the buzz of excited children. The whole celebration lasts about two hours.

After the service, the children gather outside and let off firecrackers, while the priest greets the congregation and then heads off to Jelsa, where he leads an even longer and more elaborate mass lasting until nearly two in the morning. After the “midnight” mass in each place, whatever time it finishes, the congregation will naturally re-group for more festive eating and drinking. The priests generally take only token refreshments, as their day will start again at 9am with the first mass of Christmas morning. The Christmas season is a testing time for their stamina and voices.

Croatia was freed from Communism and became independent in 1990, long enough ago for a generation of youngsters to be unaware that the timeless Catholic traditions of Christmas and other feasts were strongly discouraged, if not banned, during Croatia’s 45 years under Communism. "Grandfather Ice" replaced Santa Claus and St.Nicholas. Religion was allowed up to a point, but there was an uneasy relationship between church and state. Many priests were imprisoned, some sentenced to hard labour. Anyone who went to church could not expect promotion at work. Professionals such as teachers were actively discouraged from attendance, and would normally hear mass from the sacristy to avoid being seen.

Croatians are resourceful under pressure, and devised strategies to avoid confrontations with the authorities over their religious beliefs. One ploy of parents who decided to have their children baptized was for the husband to go out and sit ostentatiously in a public place, while the wife smuggled the baby to the priest. If the husband was later accused of having his child baptized, he would swear and rant and rave that his wife had tricked him and done it behind his back against his wishes. This was usually sufficient to safeguard his job and prevent any unpleasant reprisals.

All of that is now well in the past, although still a living memory. One tradition that has been revived since Croatia became independent  is the blessing of the houses and families. In the period following Christmas, all over Hvar Island the priests visit the homes of all the parishioners who wish them to. A short ritual of blessing is performed with prayers. The priest and altar-boys take a little refreshment, and are given gifts by the householders, whether money, fruit, wine, home-made specialities or chocolates, with sweets for the children. On January 6th 2007, parish priest Don Stanko (right) blessed the families of Pitve, accompanied by local altar-boys Jakov and Mate. One innovation was that Mate’s twin sister Lucija came with the group to give a short reading in each house.

There is just one new house in Gornje (Upper) Pitve, where all the other houses are over one hundred years old, so there was a special joyous celebration for the inaugural blessing, as villager Dane (Daniel) celebrated completing his beautiful stone-clad addition to the local architecture after two years of hard work. Dane has a splendid voice, which resounds as a joyful gift on every public celebration and occasion in our village. A good start to the New Year.
© Vivian Grisogono 2007