There’s no other day of the year when the Dubrovnik spirit comes to life quite like on Badnjak. Last winter I came to visit my boyfriend for Christmas, which was my first time celebrating the holidays away from my family. I figured that since I grew up Catholic as well, how I celebrated Christmas wouldn’t be that much different than how Dubrovnik celebrates. That ended up being far from the truth.
I quickly realized that the day before Christmas, Badnjak, was the real celebration in Dubrovnik. It started with me being thrown into a day filled with drinking Rakija, eating fish, and singing Croatian songs, and ended with me accidentally kissing my boyfriend’s friend. Oh boy.
The anticipation accumulated over weeks, even months, as I asked my boyfriend several times, “wait so how does this whole Badnjak thing go?” He explained that it’s the one day of the year when the entire town comes together in celebration, wearing their nicest suits and dresses. It starts with a morning mass, followed by drinking on Stradun with friends, and returning home for lunch. Then, the festivities really get started at night when people go from house to house of close friends or family, eating fish, drinking wine, and singing Croatian songs.
I tried my best to imagine how this would play out in my head, but after 21 years of relatively low-key Christmas celebrations, I had no idea what to expect. Like many Americans, most of my Christmas Eve’s consisted of making a meal at home with close family members and sometimes friends, while we later exchanged gifts by the fire. Christmas day it was typical to go to another family members house or sometimes a Christmas party.
I always associated Christmas with spending time with your immediate family, instead of with friends. In Dubrovnik, that is quite different. The day is just as much about celebrating with friends than with family. I knew that this wasn’t going to be another low-key Christmas.
By the time the day arrived, I was prepared. I practiced how to pronounce “Nazdravlje” about 100 times and I was well rested for the day ahead. I even specifically bought a lace red dress to make my first Badnjak debut. My boyfriend, his brothers, and myself all piled into a packed car and made way for the Old Town, and it wasn’t even 9 o’clock.
Crowds of locals leaving Mass flooded the streets of Stradun. For once, I had never seen the town so crowded, not with tourists, but with locals. My boyfriend was right; men wore suits, while women strutted down the polished cobblestones like it was their runway. It was my first time without a snowy Minnesota Christmas, and I was so excited to be able to wear short sleeves and a jacket.
I’ve never kissed the cheek of so many people in my life. It felt like my boyfriend knew the entire town, so about every two feet we’d be saying hello to someone else. In a strange way, it felt like it was a red carpet event, except with a lot more Rakija.
After having lunch with my boyfriend’s family and taking a well-needed nap, I reminded myself that the festivities were just getting started. He explained we would be visiting the houses of each of his close friends from high school, spending about 2 hours at each. I’ll admit, I was already exhausted from being out all day, eating, drinking, and standing in heels.
But just as I thought I was maybe blending in with the locals, I of course embarrassed myself to show I’m still an outside. We walked into the first house, and I must have been nervous. I went the wrong way when greeting one of his friends for the first time, and accidentally kissed him on the lips! I don’t get embarrassed easily, but I immediately felt my face and ears start to burn. Everyone broke out into laughter, but made me feel like they were laughing with me, not at me. I guess that’s one way to make an entrance!
That night I realized I have an obsession with “bakalar na bijelo” and that eating is a sign of gratitude in a Croatian household. As we went from house to house, I sipped homemade wine while everyone else broke out into Croatian song. It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced.
In contrast to all the activities on Badnjak, Christmas day was more relaxed. We had a lunch with his family and spent the day at home. I was so surprised when my boyfriend told me that people went out on Christmas night. “People go out and party after a day like yesterday?” I thought. Somehow we rallied, and were on our way out like it was a regular weekend night. Without a doubt I was still an outsider on Christmas night, but I couldn’t help but think I gained some respect drinking straight Rakija without even flinching.
If there’s one thing that the entire Badnjak and Christmas experience taught me it’s this: Dubrovnik is more or less one big family. There’s a special bond between locals that is just as hard to break than it is to explain. The friendships are rooted in this bond. It was a whole world and side of Dubrovnik culture I was seeing for the first time, and couldn’t help but feel I wanted to be a part of it too.
Alexandra Schmidt, also known as The Mindful Mermaid, is a globetrotting writer and travel blogger, who finds her self always coming back to Dubrovnik. She was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota and later moved to Chicago to study at Loyola University. She first came to Dubrovnik when she studied at Dubrovnik International University, and has returned to Dubrovnik several times since. She’s a mermaid-obsessed yogi, who passes her time playing guitar, exploring the great outdoors, and planning her next adventure. To find out more about Alex, you can visit her website or Facebook page.