Pay It Forward, the Croatian Way: 3 Croatian Gift-Giving Rules You Should Follow

Total Croatia News

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Katja Mihelic
Katja Mihelic

Croatians are, in general, a generous bunch. Although they may seem stand-offish at first, once they accept you as one of their own, there are very few things they would not be prepared to do for you. Thus, there will inevitably come a time when they will make some unexpected gesture that will leave you speechless (in a good way). And you will be so touched that you will want to find the perfect thank-you gift.

Luckily, with the Croatian way of life, the opportunity may present itself sooner than you think. However, the definition of a superb gift depends on the occasion and it changes on a case-by-case basis. 

Occasion #1: Weddings

No one knows how to party quite like Croatians (or that is at least what they believe). The whole thing starts early in the afternoon and ends in the early hours of the morning the next day. Having said that, somewhere in-between dancing, eating, and drinking, around midnight, the celebration comes to a temporary stop. The time has come for the bride and the groom to receive their wedding gifts. You will see friends and relatives starting to walk in single file to the table where the newlyweds sit. And next to them, you will see a white box with a narrow slot, much like a ballot box. One by one, people will approach the table to once again congratulate the couple, exchange hugs and kisses, and then throw in an envelope holding a few euro (not kuna) bills into the abovementioned box. 

See, in Croatia, weddings are not seen as status symbols.

They are important life events you mark by inviting the people you know and love (and sometimes even those you do not know, but your parents do) to share your joy.

Since the choice to organize a wedding does not entirely depend on the couple’s ability to cover the costs themselves, the only logical thing you can do to thank them for thinking of you is to provide them with enough cash to foot the bill. The usual rule of thumb is 50 euros per member of the wedding party, as that is an average cost of what Croatians refer to as ‘a chair’ – meaning the cost of the wedding menu per person, although many venues – i.e. – restaurants – charge more, between 60 and 70 euros. So, if you are bringing a date, that means 50 euros (a bare minimum) times two.

Sometimes people worry that such a gift may seem impersonal, more so if you are especially close to those that have just tied the knot. Would it not be better to just ask them if they have any particular needs or wishes? No, it would not. So, if you are ever invited to a Croatian wedding, go to the nearest bookstore, pick a nice card and stick some money in it. Et voila! 

Occasion #2: Three C’s – Christening, (First) Communion, Confirmation

According to the 2011 census, around 80 per cent of the Croatian population consider themselves Catholic, at least on paper. However, religious rites of passage often have less to do with the spiritual aspect of the event and more to do with booking an appropriate venue to mark the event, shopping for new clothes, and buying a cake. It is basically like planning a wedding. The gifts you are supposed to give however slightly differ, depending on your role at the event.

At a christening, the child’s godparent is the most important person. Traditionally, they gift their godchild with a piece of jewellery, regardless of the child’s sex.  If you are just a regular guest, however, you can get away with a gift of your own choice. The same holds true for the occasion of the First Communion, around the child’s 10th birthday.

When the child turns into a teenager, things become a little tricky. Confirmation usually takes place during the spring in the year they turn 14 or 15. This time, the child gets a second godparent, who they usually pick themselves. The rules are clear: if you want to obtain the title of the coolest person in the universe, you must buy your godson a Vespa (which, in reality, they are by law forbidden to drive until they turn 16) or your goddaughter an iPhone (the cost of which is one month’s salary of an average Croatian).

Occasion #3: Other

 And finally, we have come to the Holy Grail of gift-giving, the reason this article came about: a bottle of liquor, a can of coffee, and a box of chocolates.

A few weeks ago, as I was organizing the pantry, I got hit by several cans of coffee, falling down from the shelves on me one by one. At first, I could not understand where they have all come from. And then it hit me. We have been living in a lockdown for the past year. There were no spontaneous get-togethers, no neighbours popping in to wish us Merry Christmas or Happy Easter, or unexpected visits from people we have last heard from 5 years ago. Even the plumber was received with a level of fever and suspicion. 

All those coffee cans – we have not bought them. We got them. And not because whoever gave them to us knew we like one particular brand or the other. They were given to us because that is what one does. With the exception of birthdays, these are universal gifts in Croatia. A can of coffee, a bottle of liquor and a bar of chocolate, or, if you want something fancier, a box of chocolates. They will polite smile, say thank you, and pass it on to someone else at the first opportunity.

Every Croatian household has a cabinet designed especially for the purpose of storing such items. They are not to be consumed. I cannot tell you the number of times my eyes lit up at seeing a particular brand of chocolate poking from the bag someone brought.

But, I knew that the moment the door closed, my Croatian grandma will utter the words: Leave it. I will need it for my friend/cousin/doctor. Because that is what you do in Croatia. You bring gifts to your doctor. In the rest of the civilized world, it is called a bribe.

It did not even matter that I was in a different room from her. She appeared next to me the moment the sound of the wrapping paper coming off reached her ears.

 My desire to taste some of those sweets did not wane until I was well out of my teenage years. And it did not matter that I could get a chocolate-like that any time I wanted – we could certainly afford it. Or that I could not just eat it and we could buy another one whenever we needed. I could not go against the tradition.

The origins of this custom of re-gifting perishable items (well, except for the liquor, as it can hold for practically forever) are unknown. In a nation of proud coffee-drinkers, the reason for passing around stale coffee and old chocolate remains just another Croatian mystery. 


the Holy Trinity of gift-giving

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