Istrian pasutice pasta (Photo: Mirjana Žugec Pavičić) Istrian pasutice pasta (Photo: Mirjana Žugec Pavičić)

Catholics embark on series of spiritual preparations ahead of the Christmas holiday which begin with going to confession. The family prays and attends mass during the four weeks of Advent. Prior to Christmas Eve, the house is cleaned, the garden tended, and the barns where the animals are kept are also swept and tidied up. During the course of the year, it is practice to avoid eating meat on Fridays, while on Christmas Eve one is required to fast, which means eating only one full meal, which should be meatless. Keeping their meals light, Istrian men would drink a soup made of red wine, fried bread and olive oil, while the women and children would sip on a drink made of ground and pan fired barley with a little milk. The Christmas Even menu featured stewed beans, chickpeas, boiled broskva - a special kind of winter kale - pasutice (a kind of square flat pasta), and cod paste or salted sardines. After Midnight Mass one could indulge in some of the dishes intended for the Christmas table - from rolls, breads, meat, to desserts such as fried dumplings, and sugar cookies.

A large log would burn in the hearth starting on Christmas Eve. It was called a "cok", "badnjak" or "did". The log would be moved towards the fire little by little so that it would keep burning until the Feast of the Three Kings. The head of the family would place a spoonful of each Christmas dish on the log so that it too, would share in the celebration of Christmas. In Istria, the ashes of the yule log were thought to contain magical properties and were used to predict the weather during the coming summer or as an insect repellant to protect cabbage patches.

The schedule for Christmas events was determined by by one's obligations. Grandmothers and motherns would attend early masses since they were taksked with the cooking, says Otavio Rovis, from the town of Žminj. He describes himself as a city dweller, but says these rural traditions were also practiced in town.

"In the morning, the grandmothers attended the first mass, and then the mothers would come with their children at 11 o'clock. The grandmothers had to prepare the food and therefore had to stay home," he says.

Otavio remembers that gifts were often small and symbolic, some rice or coffee. Quatities ware small beause these items were scarce when he was a teenager, in the 1950s.

Farmers in this region took care that their animals also received special treatment on Christmas. They were given extra food on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, says Nevenka Erman, who has taken the time to collect and write about local Christmas traditions so that she can pass them on to her grandchildren.

"On the Christmas morning, whoever was home would feed the animals. That was the first thing they had to do. After that, the older family members would go to the first mass, and the younger ones to the main mass at 11. Every Christmas there was a Christmas mass that everyone would attend. That was the arrangement, first they would take care of the animals, then they would take a light meal of Christmas Eve leftovers. Usually the mother would put on the table what was left over and had to be eaten. Since the mother and grandmother usually went to the first mass, they would cook a special Christmas lunch, chicken soup, homemade pasta, cabbage, and meat. Since Christmas comes after slaughter season, everyone had cured and dried pork meat at home," Erman says.

In Istria, Christmas greetings were exchanged on the day after Christmas, the St. Stephen's Day or on New Year's Day. Tradition was that the first greeter to enter the house had to be a man, so families would make arrangements beforehand. On New Year's Day, young boys would go from house to house offering greetings to their neighbors and in exchange they would get a handful of walnuts, hazelnuts or some apples.