My Croatian adventure began in 2005 when I spent the first summer in the beautiful Dalmatian region. I returned every year until 2013 when we moved to from Australia (known as Oz to the locals) to Dubrovnik and start living permanently in Croatia.
I guess you, like everybody else I have ever met here wonders why anyone would leave a country known around the world as “the lucky country” and set up residence here. Indeed one day on the island of Vis a very laconic old man said to me I must be mad to leave a place all his relatives had prospered in and move to a country with so little to offer. He is not the first person I have ever met who couldn't see the forest for the trees. Croatia is every bit as wonderful as my homeland and offers an interesting opportunity - the ability to challenge myself everyday and experience something that is totally different from the culture I grew up in.
It's a cliché but that's why it's true, a change is as good as a holiday and makes you experience new things. Take Christmas for example. It’s weirdly similar whilst at the same time being completely different here than what one would experience in Oz. For starters there's the weather- in my homeland it's all about heat which is normally around 37 degrees and up to 42 and instead of feeling cold you spend most of the time feeling sunburnt! But all the ceremonies are the same - the poor little pine trees are murdered, appreciated for a few days and then left to die a lonely death: the shopkeepers all make a fortune while still complaining about having to work. And, of course, most families dread having to spend time with relatives they only see once a year. But it's all good fun in both hemispheres and the Christmas traditions seem to survive.
Indeed Christmas didn’t look very different in the past and its rituals are a lot older than we might think. Many of us would assume that it all started with the rise of Christianity but in fact it had its origins in the pagan winter solstice celebrations and later the Roman feast of Sol Invictus which celebrated the birth of the sun god on 25 December. Many biblical scholars believe that Jesus was not born on Christmas day based on the writings of Luke who suggested that he was born before the onset of winter - “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night' (Luke 2:8).
Now at Christmas time all the flocks in the Middle East are kept indoors away from the frost. Rituals such as the tree decoration, mistletoe and even Santa Clause all had their origins in pagan celebrations. In Holland and Germany Saint Nicholas still has his pagan inspired “Dark Helper” - a scary little man whose job is to be nasty to little children who have been naughty during the year! In fact Christmas was not celebrated by Christians until the third century Ad. Ah, but I digress so back to the present.
Instead of the heavy woollen suit we see Santa in here, back in Oz he is forced to wear a lightweight cotton number but he still suffers terribly from the heat. I will never forget the day I saw Santa crush a little boy’s delusion when sitting on his knee. One of the small green (lightweight) suited elves asked Santa if he would like a drink as he was perspiring profusely under his beard and hat. To which he answered, “yes I’d love a beer”. In that moment the boy realised that he was only an ordinary man just like his dad. Christmas lunch too is very different. Whilst the family still all get together it is often done around a seafood BBQ on the beach where everyone stands around in swimming costumes and Santa hats. Santa’s sleigh is a little different too. There are no reindeers in Australia so his slay is often pulled by kangaroos from the inland regions which are called big reds. These are the largest and strongest kangaroos of all and when they stand on their hind legs they are almost two metres tall. On special occasions he even arrives on a surfboard!
Whereas Christmas in Croatia is the real deal - including snow some years. It is wonderful to see the streets of Dubrovnik full of locals enjoying themselves. Now we all know how important the tourists are but sometimes they overrun the local culture. But at this time of year the real heart of the town is on show and it’s wonderful to see everybody flock to the old city, particularly during Badnjak. The well dressed people couldn't look any different from those on the beach back in Australia but their mission is the same - to have a good time.
Whilst Christmas is relative to where you are it has been around for a long time and its future is assured.