Death by sarma and French salad – a guide on how to survive Christmas in Croatia.
“I like living in Croatia because you can enjoy the changes of all four seasons of the year”, one of my Croatian students said. I must agree with him. Living in Croatia does mean that you can enjoy the beauty of all four seasons, somewhat like Vivaldi’s piece: A long weekend in the green inland hills of Istria in spring (PROLJEĆE), sunbathing on some hidden beach in the south of Croatia in summertime (LJETO), watching the leaves change colours at Plivička jezera in autumn (JESEN), or exploring the streets of Zagreb during Advent when the first snow is falling (ZIMA) Snow…yes.
Let’s get one thing clear right from the start.
I am not a big fan of winter – I don’t ice-skate. Ever. Well, there was that one time…but…
I absolutely despise snowball fights – grudanje. Terrified of being cold and freezing on the street waiting for the tram.
And I have no emotion whatsoever about skiing, getting seriously bored when people at dinner parties try to engage me in conversation about their ski boots /pancerice and how this year they are going to that village in Austria instead of the other one for skiing. My definition of a good skiing adventure is sitting on the sofa with a glass of red wine and watching those adrenalin-charged guys with helmets descending frozen Austrian hills on my TV set, while snow is softly falling on the other side of my window.
Seriously though, winter time in Croatia kind of sneaks upon you when you least expect it.
So you are driving in your car one sunny Monday in November while autumn leaves in all shades of gold flutter down to the road – feeling simply happy because you just paid off the last instalment of your summer vacation and your skin is still summer tanned – and then out of nowhere -a nice song on the radio is being interrupted by the serious voice of an radio presenter saying: Don’t forget to buy winter tyres this weekend! (You are obliged by law to have them on in November in Croatia, op.a)
Irritated and with a few bad words, you change the radio station, and what’s the next thing you hear?
Zvončići, zvončići… /Jingle bells, jingle bells … – and Christmas – slowly sneaks up on you.
Next thing you know – they sweep away the golden leaves from the road, the sun disappears behind a huge iron-grey cloud, and on the radio Christmas songs alternate with announcements that due to the strong winter snow-storm the highway to the seaside is closed for all traffic, and that the bura has almost blown down the Maslenica bridge– and before you know it – it’s Christmas time!
I am not a lover of winter, but I do like Christmas-time! Making tree decorations with the kids, spoiling recipes for Christmas cookies, going to midnight mass, singing Christmas carols and of course – the presents.
You have to understand that during the period of socialism, in which I spent most of my childhood, it was not really popular to celebrate Christmas, or to drink Coca -cola and associate with the capitalist Santa Claus, but to make children happy – they invented a socialist Santa Claus – Djed Mraz /Santa Frost. Djed Mraz would visit children one snowy day in December, you would sing him a song, and you got a present. Simple as that.
But let’s leave Djed Mraz in the history where he belongs. With the arrival of democracy it was suddenly popular to celebrate Christmas and Djed Mraz became a thing of the past. He got clever though, and changed his name to Djed Božićnjak/Santa Claus – and sneaked in beneath the Christmas tree.
At my house, we try to keep things simple and modest for Christmas, in true Christian spirit – nativity scene, Christmas carols and a few little gifts under the tree.
But all our efforts go to waste the minute we pack up the kids in the car and drive towards my hometown Karlovac – for a Christmas visit to my Mum.
From the highway you can see a house decorated with flashing lights that a decent hotel in Las Vegas wouldn’t be ashamed of. In between all of these light bulbs, a giant Djed Božićnjak, or is it Djed Mraz? is climbing on a roof – my Mother’s house…
So, my mother opens the doors cheerfully shouting to kids: “Što je donio Djed Mraz?” /“What did Djed Mraz bring you?”. Apparently, no one told her that Djed Mraz got lost in the 80s.
She is very democratic about the whole Djed Mraz – Djed Božićnjak thing; at her place everybody is giving away presents. Djed Mraz, Djed Božićnjak, of course Sveti Nikola left something in a boot on the window, and there are always a few presents under the tree, just behind the nativity scene.
The next sentence you will hear is: “Jeste gladni?” /“Are you hungry?”
“Napravila sam malo francuske salate.” /“I made some French salad.”
There are two things you need to know about French salad. First of all – it’s not French. Second – it looks nothing like salad.
My earliest memories of any family festivity involve francuska salata. There is a secret bond between francuska salata and Christmas. At some point somewhere, someone told Croatian housewives – that they simply must make francuska salata for Christmas. No matter what you do, don’t say you will not try the francuska salata.
Being moderate is not the quality that defines Croatian people. When we make a party – we really make a party. When we spend money – we really spend money, And when we celebrate Christmas – we really celebrate it.
So, in December you will see Croatian people driving in their little cars bent from dragging enormous overpriced Christmas trees on the roof of the car, with enthusiastic looks on their faces, because they just spent their monthly budget on Christmas food. In supermarkets, housewives buying flour and sugar with fanatic looks in their eyes, like they declared war for tomorrow and food supplies are about to run out. It’s imprinted in our collective mind that Christmas time is connected with enormous amounts of food. Which brings us to the third sentence my mum usually says on our Christmas visit:
“I made 70 pieces of sarma for lunch. Do you think it will be enough?”
There are 9 of us at the Christmas lunch table. Yes, I think it will be enough.
Sarma (minced meat with sour cabbage) – is another mystery of the Croatian Christmas.
There is no neutral point to sarma. You either love it – or can’t stand it. Either way you are gonna get it on your plate.
So, how to make the best of your Christmas time in Croatia?
Simply, just go with the flow. Don’t try to fight against francuska salata being served at you three times a day for two weeks. Just eat. Try all the cakes they offer you. Just nod your head if they ask you: “Would you like some more francuska salata with that?”
Don’t get shocked if they offer you homemade chicken soup at midnight, or you find yourself eating pork in the middle of the night. Or if your mother-in-law offers you sarma for a light breakfast.
Don’t say “I am not hungry.” Postpone your diet program until January. And go as guests whereever they invite you.
Because, in January – the tables turn other way around. We have eaten all the food. The money is all spent. The Christmas decorations are coming down. Snow is melting on the abandoned trees thrown out in front of Croatian houses. No one will invite you for lunch or offer you a cake. There are hardly any cultural events. Because half of the nation is in the gym working on their figures. You are slightly irritated by the sound of Zvončići, zvončići…. on the radio and you don’t answer your door so cheerfully – who knows, it might just be the postman with your credit card bill from December.
So, enjoy your Christmas time in Croatia. Eat all the cakes, decorate your Christmas tree, enjoy the little things, and most important of all – be with people you love. Sretan Božić!