‘Tis the season!
My first Christmas in Croatia was marked by the smells seeping through the windows and onto the streets of Split, taking me back to a place I knew all too well. Whether it was the sour smell of sarme, the pungent yet nostalgic whiff of Bakalar, or the sweet scent of fritule frying in the kitchen, the aromas of Christmas in Croatia brought me back to my kitchen on Christmas in California.
As I’ve said before, my family is not particularly religious, but the traditions and customs of the holidays are something we have always held very near and dear to our hearts. And, quite frankly, any excuse to get our big, fat Croatian family together was a good one. To say that Christmas was big in my family would be an understatement, and the fact that it was celebrated at my house every year made it an even bigger deal for my brother and I growing up.
Christmas at my house, from what I can remember, started out a lot smaller than the giant gatherings it became over the years. While there was my mother, father, grandparents, and brother in my immediate family, we would never miss a Christmas without my dad’s brother and sister, my four first cousins from them, and other extended Croatian family that would trickle in from second cousins to fifth. The Rogulj Croatian presence in Southern California was strong, always, and we made sure everyone knew it.
One thing I have to thank my parents, grandparents, and overall family for was that even though the kids in the family (aka my brother, cousins, and myself) were raised between New York and California, they made sure that we lived, breathed, tasted, and smelled all aspects of our Croatian, and especially Dalmatian heritage. This played a huge part when it came to the holidays. While every Easter we would roast a lamb (or three) on a spit by our bocce ball court, you better believe that on Christmas we never succumbed to the traditions of America – and that particularly had to do with the food.
Now, what does a Christmas dinner in America look like? To be honest, not much different from the dinner you would have had just one month before on Thanksgiving. Usually featuring turkey or ham, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce if you didn’t get enough on Turkey Day, and pies are custom on Christmas in the states. While I, of course, would be more than happy eating all food items mentioned above (apart from the cranberry sauce, I never understood that), why have an American Christmas in America when you could have a Croatian Christmas in America? So we chose the latter.
It would all begin up to a week before the actual day with the baking. Now, my grandmother was the baker in the family, and the only one trusted to carry on with the recipes she remembers from her days in the homeland. Each Christmas saw a walnut roll (orahnjača), vanilla crescent cookies, and Linzer tarts.
Depending on the number of people we were hosting, which changed every year from 18 to 50, preparations would begin 2-3 days before the big day. But some things, of course, we had to plan for in advance – like the Bakalar and smoked meats for the sarme. To give you an idea of just how much we tried to keep the Croatian Christmas spirit alive, we would have Bakalar and smoked meats sent to California from my great aunt in New York City before the holidays. Though I don’t know exactly why we had to do that (assuming it had something to do with the fact that it was easier to buy in New York and ship than finding it in California), the smells from that NYC will stay with me forever.
Bakalar was always prepared on Christmas Eve with the sounds of me and my brother chasing each other away from the smell. We always prepared it ‘bianco’, and we always served it with a Rogulj classic and eternal hit – tea punch. Tea punch, something we drink on Christmas Eve, Day, and New Year’s Eve, is essentially a hot rum punch – with a lot of rum and Riesling. So easy to drink you forget there is even alcohol in it, this was usually the culprit for everyone’s hangover in the morning.
For Christmas Eve dinner, my grandmother would prepare lobster spaghetti – and just typing it now makes me weak at the knees. Having spent years watching my grandmother kill the lobsters herself, with a kitchen knife, I can’t say I will ever follow in her footsteps. With full bellies and pink cheeks, Christmas Eve always ended with a fight about the seating arrangements for the next day, whether we could manage a formal dinner with 50 guests or just have a buffet, and some sort of panic about a dish we missed.
Every Christmas morning, my mother would wake us up with fritule, her way of enjoying the calm before the storm. Our kitchen on Christmas would see my grandma, the sarme aficionado, tend to the cabbage and meat, while my mother would take care of the roast, the mashed potatoes, the garlic soup, side dishes, and appetizers. We always had too much food.
Today in Croatia, my parents, grandmother, brother, and I will be together for the holidays for the first time in five years – and this will be our very first holiday all together in Croatia. We have plans to make tea punch, Bakalar, and lobster spaghetti with scampi as a substitute (we made it last year and it worked just as well). While we don’t need many, we’ll have sarme out of courtesy to keep the tradition of the holiday, and we’ll remember the days when we cleaned up after Christmases of 50 without a dishwasher. No matter where you live, at least you will always have your tradtions.
From California to Croatia, these are my family’s Christmas traditions, in a nutshell.