(photo: HRT) (photo: HRT)

In Croatia, gifts are opened on Christmas Eve or handed out on Christmas morning from under the Christmas tree: here it's a time-honoured tradition whereby children are told that Baby Jesus secretly delivered them gifts. Once upon a time, traditional Christmas gifts were simple: walnuts, hazelnuts, figs, or on rare occasions an orange. Meanwhile, in central and northern Croatia, where the Kajkavian regiolect is widely spoken, specially decorated red apples were the most significant gift one could give. These apples were often decorated and boys would present them to the girls who they planned to marry one day. In this week's magazine, we explore one such special Christmas tradition in a piece originally put together by the Voice of Croatia's Mirjana Žugec Pavičić and Antonija Tomičić.

There is a unique and quite poetic Christmas tradition that exists throughout many parts of rural Croatia: the gift of water. From Slavonia to Dalmatia, people give the gift of water or a well; in which people then throw apples, grains, bread, wine or a Christmas treat. In one area of the Dalmatian hinterland, local people address the water directly and acknowledge it's special life-giving qualities: "Cold water, I give you this gift in exchange for health and good luck."

In Međimurje, apples are thrown into the well on Christmas Eve and they usually remain there floating in the cold water until Three Kings' Day on January 6th. Regina Marcijuš, a resident of the small village of Nedelišće near Čakovec, explains how thrilled young boys would be if they were lucky enough to fish out an apple while fetching water with a bucket and therefore get the chance to present the special gift to their sweetheart. 

What were some of the Christmas Eve traditions you remember from your childhood? 

"We celebrated by first decorating the Christmas tree. Children would sing and some of us would make roses out of 'crepe paper'. This was during the Second World War; there were no stores in which to purchase Christmas decorations so we made our own out of paper. And since there were no stores to speak of, we, unfortunately, didn't have any candies or sweets either." 

What about other kinds of decorations? 

"We also decorated apples or made beautiful gold-painted walnuts. We were still somehow able to buy the gold-coloured paint in which to decorate the walnuts, or we'd even sprinkle them with gold glitter to make them sparkle. Afterwards, when evening came, the church bells would ring and let us know it was time to say a Hail Mary and gather some hay to bring in the house."  

Was there anything else the family did?

"The older members of the family would present children and young girls with the seeds from that year's harvest: such as wheat, corn, barley or millet. We'd save the seeds and plant them in the spring."   

Traditionally people in Croatia fast on Christmas Eve. Was that part of your traditions as well?

"Yes, we fasted on Christmas Eve. In the morning we'd drink milk because we had cows, and in the afternoon we'd eat beans and potatoes, as well as a well-known cake made from eggs, cheese and flour. We would mostly avoid eating for the entire day until the stroke of midnight when we'd be able to eat normally. For us, the Christmas Eve fast didn't only mean not eating meat; it was a day where we would eat as little as possible or even observe a true fast when you wouldn't eat anything at all."  

Tell us what you did before midnight.

"Before midnight we'd light candles around the house, have a little something to eat and sing some songs. Back then we had a very big family, so the girls would get together and sing Christmas songs for everyone. Girls from around the neighbourhood would come over or we'd go over to their houses; families and neighbours would gather together and get ready for midnight mass." 

How did you get to church? Did you have to travel far?

"Our local church was--and still is--very nearby. We would take apples to be blessed by the priest for Christmas. Afterwards, we'd take the apples home and every household would throw one of them in the well. The apples would stay in there until Three Kings' Day or until one lucky boy would pull one out of the well with a bucket while fetching water. And since the apples had been blessed in church, our entire family and the water we drank was considered to be blessed as well. Boys would give the apples they fetched from the well to the girl they fancied. This was a non-verbal way of telling the girl that he wanted to marry them. Apples were very popular, especially when I was young. I had an older sister who I accompanied on those special holiday nights, so I witnessed the tradition with my own two eyes. My parents always sent me out with her to watch over her as a kind of chaperone (she said with a laugh)." 

So you were there to protect her in a way?

"It was my mother who was supposed to accompany her but my sister would insist she stay home and clean up after dinner, so I'd go as her escort instead of my mom. And if there was a boy that liked my sister, I'd say: "Ilka, let's go home. What is mom going to say?!" (again she said with a laugh)." 

What about you? Were there any boys that you liked, or who liked you at that time?

"One of my sister's friends had a brother my age. We were still kids but they wanted us to play together so that we didn't bother them. But we didn't get along. We kept saying to each other: "I don't like you. Well, I don't like you either!" (she lets out a hearty laugh). It was wonderful. We were so young but we had so much fun."  

And that brings us to the end of this week's magazine. I'm Nikola Badovinac, thanks for joining us and please be sure to check out the other stories we have prepared on our website.