Oh Christmas Tree
In the United States Christmas starts early. Some retail chains even begin putting out holiday decorations in September. That is not the case in Croatia. Most families will put up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and leave it up well into January. I bought a tiny “Charlie Brown” fake Christmas tree during a weekend trip to Zagreb and could not wait to decorate it. I found a string of lights and purchased local, handmade nautical ornaments at a souvenir shop. My theme was “Croatian Christmas” and I hung a tiny Zadar flag at the top. I turned on Spotify and found a Christmas music playlist full of the classics I love, including Perry Como, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, and the Vince Guardaldi Trio’s, “Christmas Time is Here.” My favorite Christmas song is Bing Crosby’s “The Little Drummer Boy.”
At home we will spend at least three days decorating the house with multiple Christmas trees (we have an American themed Christmas tree with flags and military ornaments honoring our veterans), the girls each have Christmas trees in their room (Morgan has a peace theme and Madison has a horse theme), we have a tree in the basement with a Cubs theme and another tree in the master bedroom with an Irish shamrock theme. Trees are everywhere! Most of the trees were given to us when our house was featured on a Naperville Christmas walk a few years ago for the Naperville Women’s Garden Club. We also pull out our manager scene from the attic and illuminate the baby Jesus in his creche. Our family has gone to midnight mass, but in recent years we usually go to mass on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon and come home to unwrap some presents before Christmas morning.
We exchange “stocking stuffer” presents and usually rip through a pile of presents carefully wrapped in “Santa’s workshop” where we have been busily wrapping for days. We make several dozen cookies and bake tiny tomato soup cakes (a recipe from Brian’s grandmother) we deliver to Brian’s officemates. And I compose an annual Christmas letter, sending out 150 cards to family and friends every season. Another favorite tradition is to drive into Chicago and see the Marshall Field’s (now Macys) Christmas windows with the girls, eat lunch in the Walnut Room (with Santa Claus ice cream and a glass souvenir mug) and go to a play and dinner in the city.
And when the girls were in high school they started a tradition called “elfing,” inspired by the Will Farrell movie, “Elf,” where up to 14 girls would dress in elf costumes and sing at one of our local nursing homes, pack bags of socks, handwarmers and granola bars for the homeless and distribute the bags in Chicago. Riding the train into the city with 14 girls dressed like elves was one of the most magical times. People would stop them and ask for pictures, ask if they could sing a Christmas carol and most often put a smile on their faces. We also host Brian’s family for Christmas and usually have about 30 or 40 people in our house (he is the last of 8 children from a big Irish Catholic family). We cook at least 2 turkeys, a ham and have an abundance of food available for hours as we talk, sing and sometimes dance. We have played “White Elephant” games and laughed for hours. Christmas is a busy whirlwind time full of memories at home.
This Christmas would be dramatically different celebrating Christmas in Croatia, making and witnessing new traditions.
Advent in Zadar
The celebration of Advent in Zadar is a big deal. They have brought a “piece’ of the Zagreb Christmas market to Zadar’s Old Town and it is spectacular. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. Ellie and I met during the evening and browsed all of the food stands full of traditional sausages, mulled wine and westernized hamburgers and hotdogs. We recognized some of the local restaurants, like the Hedonist and other stands were in the full holiday spirit with locals dressed in matching reindeer Christmas sweaters. A few days ago Zadar kicked off the Advent season with a bang, complete with a live band and fireworks. It turns out there’s a live band almost every night and the event will last into January.
Zagreb Christmas Market
I boarded the bus once again to Zagreb and stayed for a few nights in the capital city, this time to take in one of the largest Christmas Markets in Europe.
Zagreb has been awarded one of the best Christmas markets in Europe and I have to wholeheartedly agree. I like that it is not only contained in the city center, but spread out — each location has a different feel and experience. This year’s theme was “The Nutcracker,” which immediately reminded me of our daughters whom both danced ballet and have enjoyed “The Nutcracker” performance several times. My hotel was conveniently located near the bus station. I have stayed in three different hotels in Zagreb and this one was tops. It is a Hilton Canopy Hotel and the design was inspired by inventors Eduard Penkala (1871-1922), the man who invented the mechanical pencil, hot water bottle, rotating toothbrush and his most famous invention, the first ballpoint pen and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the electrical engineer who invented the air conditioner. The stylings of the hotel were a homage to blueprints and books with a nineteenth century flair. Some areas of the hotel resembled a library lined with books and I even spotted one of my graduate school staples, Lev Vygotsky’s Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychology Processes on the shelf. Plus breakfast was included in the room price! I visited the Advent Christmas Market during the first weekend of December and the crowds weren’t too heavy, but it was cold – about 33 degrees! I was thankful I bundled up because I walked approximately five hours per day.
It was a fifteen minute walk from my hotel to the first spot, one of Zagreb’s three parks, Ledeni Park at King Tomislav’s Square. The city was designed with three main parks, creating a “green horseshoe.” The outdoor skating rink is charming, with a square rink in addition to a skating circuit which circles around the park and water fountains.
Just north of Ledeni Park is Fuliranje at Strossmayer Square. It is a cozy outdoor drinking and eating area with free music, open fireplaces, blankets on every chair and tiny bottles of gin frozen in ice blocks. Mulled wine is also a popular drink served throughout the Christmas Market. The food stalls sell sausages, fritule and Germknödel, a fluffy yeast dumpling filled with spice plum jam and vanilla custard.
Continuing north toward the city center, I come upon a magical glittering park, Zrinjevac. This park is filled with small stalls selling handmade Christmas ornaments, lavender satchels, candles and other gifts. Music is also offered in the rotunda at night. The white lights against the white trees are breathtaking.
The next spot the European Square, also sold sugared figs, almonds and orange slices. The fritule stands were everywhere, offering the sweet treats covered in powdered sugar, Nutella or cherry sauce. Ban Jelačić Square is probably the most crowded yet. It’s the heart of Zagreb’s city center and the 1848 statue is a meeting area for locals to either “meet under the tail” (the tail of Ban Jelačić’s horse). The tour guide told me the meaning behind statues of military men on horses – if a horse is holding up one leg, the man died during the war from wounds, if a horse is on two legs the man died during the war in combat and if the horse is on all four legs, the man died from natural causes in peace time. Ban Jelačić was an important figure in Croatian history and is featured on the $20 Kuna. He made significant positive changes for the country, but unfortunately died of syphilis.
I order a Croatian Kulen sausage served on a bun slathered with mustard and admired all of the Christmas lights and decorations. The Advent Market started in 2014 and it is very impressive! The decorations are unique and plentiful. Outdoor scenes included gold painted snow skis, musical instruments hanging from trees, cozy Christmas kitchen scenes and more.
I make it a point to schedule a tour guide in almost every city I visit in Croatia. It is incredibly helpful to get to know the history and location so much better with an expert. I meet my “Advent Tour Guide” and she immediately tells me she lived in Zadar for fifteen years and graduated from University of Zadar, studying Russian and French language. She admits to missing the sea, but especially the “dolce vita” attitude on the Dalmatian coast, “The siesta was every day and our motto was, ‘If you don’t want to do it today, put if off tomorrow and if tomorrow comes, wait some more.’” Again, the rub between “city and coast” continues in Croatia. We stop at Zagreb Cathedral where we look up to see one spire covered with scaffolding. She told me the cathedral was “always under construction” because of the porous limestone used by the original Austrian-Hungarian architect. The stone erodes and turns black and has needed replacement stone for years. The design of the church was not looked upon favorably, not only because the architect was a Protestant, but the church on a hill and the locals thought it was too big for the area plus they were being taxed heavily by the church to pay for construction. I go inside the church and say a prayer, noticing the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet above some of the crucifixes. She takes me to the Tunnel (Tunel Grić), used as a passage during the war, it is now transformed with trees, lights and nutcrackers.
We take a short funicular ride to the Stross and Vranyszany Plateau, or upper town. From the promenade you get a spectacular view over Zagreb. The tour guide tells me some bits and pieces about Christmas: the first Christmas tree was in Vienna about 200 years ago and Catholics adapted it later, turkey and pork are traditionally served during a Croatian Christmas because a turkey symbolizes “running away from the past” with it’s legs and pork symbolizes “sniffing into the future” with it’s snout.
We head to St. Mark’s Church in upper town and admire the rooftop with two coats of arms. The tour guide points to the black animal featured on one of the coats of arms and says it is a minx, which is also displayed on every coin in Croatia. The minx was once used in heavy circulation to trade fur.
Returning to the main square, we say our goodbyes after a three hour walking tour. I am really in the Christmas spirit now!
Fangirl Meets Author Cody McClain Brown
Ellie first told me about famous author Cody McClain Brown, who wrote multiple best sellers Chasing a Croatian Girl and Croatia Strikes Back. He was also a US Fulbright Scholar and wrote candidly about marrying a Croat whom he met in his hometown of Oklahoma, settling down in Zagreb, raising their daughter with American and Croatian ideals and teaching political science at The University of Zagreb. McClain’s books are a must read if you are going to spend any time in Croatia. His quick wit and conversational writing became such a comfort for me while living in Zadar. I laughed out loud and nodded while reading chapter after chapter – we were experiencing so many of the same things while trying to adjust to being an expat in Croatia. It’s one thing to visit Croatia on vacation, but it’s entirely different living in Croatia. I raced through his books because they are so well written. I liked his writing so much that I reached out to him, asking to meet. After exchanging a few e-mails, he agreed to meet me and Tianna, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, at a local café. We were both so excited!
The three of us ended up talking for over two hours (a traditional Croatian coffee time) and it was such a positive, complex and many times hilarious conversation. It really goes back to spending time with each other and sharing our stories. Of course I brought both copies of my book and asked him for his autograph. And he told us that his book is being adapted to a screenplay for a future sitcom in Croatia. Both Tianna and I volunteered to be cast as extras on the show. We’re sure the television show will be as successful as his books and are so grateful he spent time with us that Friday morning.