CROATIAN TRADITIONS By Cathryn (Mirkovich) Morovich
As I Remember Growing Up In the Croatian Community of Bainbridge Island
Many of our centuries old Croatian traditions are based on our Roman Catholic faith. Fast and abstinence played a large role in the Croatian holiday menus. Catholics abstained from meat on Christmas Eve. During the cold winter months with bad weather, the fishermen of Croatia could not take their small boats out to sea, so fishing was primarily done during the warm spring and summer months of the year. Before modern day preservation methods, fish was salt cured and dried in the hot sun. Bakalar, salted dried cod, was traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Because the cod was hard as a board and very salty, it had to be soaked in cold water for at least a day or two, changing the water several times during the process. It was then skinned, de-boned and cooked with potatoes and dressed with lots of garlic, parsley and drenched with olive oil. Even though Catholics today are no longer required to abstain from meat on Christmas Eve, the tradition of bakalar and seafood is still served on Christmas Eve in many Croatian homes.
Eggs, flour and sugar were precious commodities in early day Croatia. Therefore, baking pastries was saved for holidays and special occasions such as baptisms and weddings. That tradition was observed by early day immigrants. Some of our pastry and bread recipes are based on religion. For instance, Easter bread traditionally starts out with 12 eggs representing the 12 apostles. Also, hrstula, a deep-fried light and airy pastry always made for weddings and at Christmas has 12 eggs. The recipes were made up with seasonal ingredients that were readily available. The warm climate of the Dalmatian Coastal region was indigenous to citrus trees. Easter bread, “pogača”, was flavored with oranges and lemons. Graded apple, raisins, pine nuts, and whiskey were used in “frite” (donut holes). These recipes (with some variations) have been passed down from generation to generation and are still made in current day Croatian kitchens.
Catholics usually attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning the Croatian men of Eagledale would go from house to house in the neighborhood wishing their friends and relatives “Stretan Božić” (Merry Christmas). The women stayed home, tending to the Christmas meal and preparing to host the neighbors with home made “rakija”, brandy, or prošek (sweet-boiled wine). The hostess always offered her traditional Christmas hrstule and frite. Christmas dinner was served promptly at noon. At our house, the first course was always spaghetti with meat sauce, followed by turkey and the trimmings and always sauerkraut as one of the side dishes.
After dinner, while the women washed the dishes (no dishwashers in those days) and cleaned the kitchen, the men took their naps. In the evening we would join some of the other Croatian families that lived across Eagle Harbo bay. The Holly and Wing Pointers would drive around the bay and gather at our house or the Eagledalers would pile into my Dad’s 1949 Hudson and drive around the bay and we would gather at the Medalia house in Wing Point. There would be a house full of young and old merry makers. The host would serve his homemade wine, the hostess her homemade pastries. We would sing old Dalmatian songs that were passed down from one generation to another. “Samo Ne Moj Ti”, “Ja Sam Sirota” and the old traditional Christmas Hymn “U Sej Vrjeme Godište” (At This Season of the Year).
With the advent of television and the migration of most of our Bainbridge Island Croatian families to San Pedro and Seattle, sadly this tradition died away. However, I can proudly say that my family has helped organize the annual “Festa Tri Kralja” (Feast of the Three Kings) Croatian Tamburiza Mass held at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle. Traditional Croatian Christmas Carols are sung. High Mass is sung entirely in the Croatian language. After Mass, guests gather at the school hall and enjoy a Dalmatian pasta lunch, home made Croatian pastries and more Croatian music and merriment. The tradition lives on.
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