Advent in Zagreb

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Advent in Zagreb is a wonderful time of the year. Advent is a period of the liturgical year that is marked by preparations for the celebration of Christmas. In Western Christian churches, the Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24, on Christmas Eve.

There are many customs in Croatia related to Advent that speak of the particularities of the locations and times from which they originated, but also of their traditional connections with European culture. The venerable and grand celebration of the Nativity of Jesus used to take weeks before Christmas to prepare. People would pray and fast, but also socialize and have fun. They would pray for prosperity and predict the future.  They would all walk together in song and prayers going to the first morning mass, the Matins, while the first carolers would appear as early as the Feast of St. Barbara.

On the Feast of St. Nicholas, the children received gifts of fruit or were given a scare by the Krampus daemon and his birch rods and chains, while in the evening on the Feast of St. Lucy girls went to sleep hoping to dream of the young man they would marry.

One of the traditional Christmas gifts in Croatia was a decorated apple ‘the Christmas Apple’ that young men gave to girls. A tradition observed even today is the planting of wheat seeds before Christmas to symbolize the renewal of life and fruitfulness. On the Feast of St. Barbara or St. Lucy wheat seeds, the symbol of life, are planted and greenery is used to decorate the house and the dining table. While the wheat planting custom has been preserved even in the cities, the tradition of bringing in the badnjak log and laying hay over the dining table on Christmas Eve has almost disappeared even in the villages.

The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in Croatia has been present since 1850, and, interestingly, the first trees used were deciduous. They used to be decorated with apples, oranges, plums and pears, gilded walnuts and hazelnuts or various sugar candies, paper or glass figures, if they were available. In coastal areas, children used to decorate their houses with sage, ivy or pine branches that symbolized life force that would defeat the death of nature in winter. Christmas trees or green branches are an especially visible symbol of Christmas. Decorated trees are still present in city squares and in front of public buildings. In private homes, they are the center around which the family gathers and children receive gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Nativity scenes placed under the tree directly represent the event that is celebrated, the night when Jesus was born.

During Advent, a wreath is made and placed on the table to symbolize the expectation of Christmas. It is usually shaped as a ring made of evergreen branches holding four candles. Every Sunday during Advent, one of the candles is lit. The pine branches and the holly within the wreath symbolize immortality, the laurel symbolizes victory over sin and suffering, and cedar symbolizes strength and healing of all illnesses. Holly leaves are reminiscent of the crown of thorns, which, according to English tradition, was woven from the branches of the evergreen plant. The wreath often also contains a branch of rosemary, the plant that legendarily protected the Virgin Mary on her travels to Egypt. Weaving and decorating evergreen wreaths is an ancient tradition dating to pre-Christian times. Old German tribes used to place candles on wreaths to guard them from the cold December nights, while Scandinavian peoples lit candles in the ‘earth circle’ praying for the return of spring and long warm days.

The first Advent wreath in the world dates from 1838 and the poor children’s home ‘Rauhes Haus’ (Beat Down House) in Hamburg where a young Evangelical pastor and fosterer Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808 – 1881) gathered orphans from the streets in 1883 and offered them a new home in an old and beat down house. Every year during the season of Advent he would organize prayer moments for the children in his charge. In 1838 he wrote in his journal that he wanted to find a way to make Advent nicer to them and decided to light a candle every day during prayers, starting from the first day of December. Around 1851 Wichern’s protégés started decorating the wooden cartwheel that held the candles with evergreen branches. Catholics around the world started forming Advent wreaths after World War I.

The four candles in the wreath symbolize the four weeks of Advent three candles are usually purple, and one is pink.

First Sunday – purple candle, the candle of hope and expectations, creation.

Second Sunday – purple candle, the candle of peace and reconciliation, embodiment.

Third Sunday – pink candle, the candle of joy and merriment, absolution.

Fourth Sunday – purple candle, the candle of love, the end.

There is also a tradition of placing a fifth, white candle in the wreath – the candle of Christ!

Apart from Advent liturgy with especially prominent Matins masses, the faithful also pray in their homes. Daily family prayers of The Angelus are conducted under candlelight, with no other lights present. Families follow the prayers by reading Advent texts from the Scriptures. The prayers and the readings from the Holy Book during Advent help family members to grow with hope and carry within them the light of Christ in this world.

Once again the traditional Christmas Fair will take place during Advent in the streets surrounding the Jelacic Square. Take your pick of seasonal gifts, gingerbread hearts, cookies, colorful decorations, jewelry and souvenirs made by Zagreb’s craftsmen, artists, and manufacturers of traditional Croatian products.

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