December 23, 2019 – A look at my family’s Christmas traditions, from Croatia to California and back.
Christmas is a holiday that my family has always placed on a pedestal a bit higher than the rest. It was that special day when 50 of our Croatian family members and closest friends gathered at our home in Fallbrook, California. It was a time when we’d run ourselves into the ground cleaning, cooking, and baking for the entire week before. We’d argue over seating arrangements and when my mother toyed with the idea of doing a buffet or switching up the always standard menu. Every detail had to be perfect, and more importantly, our traditions couldn’t stand to be tweaked.
My family’s Christmas traditions are thanks to my grandmother and grandfather, who carried them from Croatia to New York and California. They were unique because they were unfamiliar to those held by the families we knew in the United States, but to us, it wouldn’t be Christmas without them. Over time, and as our dinner parties grew larger, we introduced new appetizers and desserts only to ensure everyone was adequately fed, so long as everything else remained the same.
It didn’t take long for our American friends to adopt some of our traditions as their own, and today, more than 55 years later, I’m happy to say that though we may have moved back to Croatia and our famous Californian-Croatian Christmas parties have retired, we have not strayed away from what makes Christmas ours.
A look at my family’s Christmas traditions, from Croatia to California and back.
Bakalar: It wasn’t Christmas until that package arrived in the mail from my great aunt New York. Growing up, bakalar wasn’t the easiest to find in sunny San Diego, and going to great lengths to get it was our only option. Fortunately, we were lucky to have a core group of family members who ensured we wouldn’t spend Christmas without it. One of the smellier traditions we have, I often recall my brother and I running around the house with our shirts pulled over our noses to hide the stench. It didn’t help. Over the years, we discovered bakalar in the Little Italy district of San Diego and finding fish in the post became a thing of the past. My grandmother only ever prepared bakalar ‘bianco’, and we’d always pair it with a hot cup of our powerful tea punch (a rum and riesling punch that’ll have you woozy after one glass).
Lobster spaghetti: Bakalar isn’t the only star of our Christmas Eve – because we must down for lobster spaghetti, too. I have many memories of my grandmother in the kitchen peacefully putting the live lobsters to sleep. The secret ingredient to the sauce is Dalmatia’s sweet dessert wine, prošek. Lobsters were a lot easier to find in California, so we’ve amended the recipe to scampi in Croatia instead. It tastes the same, though it’s a bit messier now.
Fritule: Every Christmas morning, without fail, we’d wake up to my mother’s fritule. You could hardly escape the sweet smell permeating through the house, which would eventually lead us to our presents under the tree. My mother’s fritule have a tinge of tang thanks to a citrus zest, while the piles of powdered sugar on top are a dream for any child on Christmas morning. I have a feeling we’ll be enjoying Christmas morning fritule for eternity.
Sarma: In true Croatian fashion, our Christmas table featured sarma. My grandmother would count enough to ensure each person had at least two. We’d serve these beloved sour cabbage rolls on oversized platters next to a pot of piping hot mashed potatoes. Perhaps equally as exciting is the smoked meat we’d serve alongside it that cooked in the sarma’s juices. While our Christmas dinners now don’t see as many, sarma still steals the show – and we’re always guaranteed at least two.
Croatian Christmas sweets: Our dessert table was always stocked on Christmas Day thanks to my grandmother’s steady hands that worked day and night for the week before. From vanilla roščići to krokant, linzer cookies, bobići, and rafioli, we had the delightful flavors of Dalmatia in our home for everyone to enjoy. Nothing has changed.
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