We are a South African-American family now experiencing our third Croatian Christmas…
By: Danielle Thomson
Having lived in three cultures now together, we have had varied experiences of the season. South African Christmases are by far the simplest. In the middle of long and hot summer days, decorations and traditions are minimal. It’s a time for wearing shorts and summer dresses, exchanging a few gifts and eating a cold meal together, and swimming in the sea if you are lucky. My South African husband has many fond memories of these summer Christmases, but I found that I craved a bit more.
America is the land of consumerism where everything is “bigger and better”. While that is often a disadvantage, the advantage is that it creates a rather magical Christmas environment. Everything is decorated! Even in private neighbourhoods you can hardly drive 50 meters without seeing an elaborate display of lights. In my hometown there is a local church and Bible college that decorate their grounds with over 2 million lights for people to visit! There are Christmas concerts, exhibitions, programs and activities to fill every night. I admit that I love it all, but it is true that it can also become distracting, overwhelming, and even self-centred.
I was blessed to come from a family that embraced the magic while keeping the focus on family and faith. We had many traditions which I still carry on. The tree always went up the day after Thanksgiving, and decorating it was a family activity. The entire house would be decorated, Christmas cookies were baked and decorated together – as well as every other sweet treat imaginable. We had a list of classic and new Christmas movies we watched together, we always drove through town to see the light displays, Christmas parties were held and attended, and Christmas music was always playing. Christmas day was for presents as a family, and then a HUGE cooked meal together with our extended family.
Celebrating our third Christmas in Croatia now, I have found it to be a lovely balance between our previous cultures and experiences. It is not as elaborate as America and yet far more involved than South Africa. The Zagreb Christmas market has become one of our favourite experiences. It is not simply an “isolated” experience but one embracing the entire city centre, one that invites community to gather and share the experience together. One that encourages meandering and discovery. We wander around the booths to get food, hot wine, and treats to eat. We listen to live music and see the displays of lights and decorations. Last year we discovered the tunnel under the city that is decorated for Christmas and toured it together. The year before we went out for meal and walked across the street to Maksimir park to see the lights and dance to the Christmas music.
We have not experienced what it is to celebrate Christmas day as Croatians, but we love the simplicity we see from our friends. Often gifts are fewer and simpler, the day is quieter and focused on family. We have had our most peaceful Christmas in this country! No rush or pressure, simply enjoying each other as a family. Many Croatians only put up their tree at Christmas eve and leave it for the fourteen days of Christmas.
There are many traditions to which I admit to keeping unashamedly American – my tree goes up by the first of December! But I value the overall Christmas experience of this country, the magic and the beauty, the simplicity, peace and lack of rush, and the value of relationship and community experience. While there are things from both our home countries we miss and love, Croatian Christmas has a beloved and special place in our hearts!