In today’s glimpse into the Croatian psyche, I will intentionally steer clear of trying to present an all-encompassing set of facts. Whenever I wish to share an interesting tradition (in Croatian: tradicija) or a baffling practice, I become aware once again how surprisingly diverse Croatian customs are. Dialects, food, songs (in Croatian: pjesme) – everything has taken different shapes due to a different geography, neighbouring countries and history. Consequently, trying to show a broad range of experiences and customs usually results with a dry, neutral Wikipedia-like text that doesn’t really illuminate what living in Croatia truly feels like.
Of course, living in a small, poor village (in Croatian: selo) surrounded by beautiful mountains is nothing like living in Zagreb, in a skyscraper built in the communist era. It ’s also strikingly different from a life in an old stone house on a remote Dalmatian island or in a small town in Slavonija, surrounded by fertile fields. When the variable of age or class gets included into the equation, it becomes quite obvious how hard it might be to justify an idea so broad as ‘’Croatian lifestyle’’. However, I still believe there is a certain undercurrent that touches all of us. There are memes and jokes that all Croats get. Just a few words can convey the shared experience.
To share the spirit of the holiday which is our topic today, I won’t t strive to give you a broad overview of all its variations but show you as vividly as possible what the holiday looks like in my small hometown in Slavonija.
Pejačević Castle in Našice / from the private album of Iva Antoliš, SpeakCro teacher
In addition to religious holidays celebrated all over Croatia at the same time (e.g. Christmas, Easter, Assumption of Mary), each village and town also celebrates the day dedicated to its patron saint. This celebration has a few regional names. For example, in Slavonija (eastern Croatia) it is called kirvaj or kirbaj (which comes from the German word for the similar kind of event: Kirchweih). As a girl from Slavonija, I will keep referring to it as ‘kirvaj’’.
Kirvajs are celebrated on days dedicated to the saint after whom the church in the village or the town is named. Historically, it had a dual purpose – religious and secular. There were religious processions and activities in and around the local church, but people also used it as an opportunity to do business and exchange goods with visitors from other villages, see relatives and friends (in Croatian: prijatelji), dance and sing, enjoy food reserved for special occasions and simply have fun.
Traditional clothes of Slavonija by Vesna Lolić
Surprisingly, it has largely kept its original spirit, although more secular overtones have also been added. My hometown, Našice, celebrates kirvaj on the day dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, on June 13th.
Map of Croatia by maps Croatia
This day is a non-working day in Našice, with many celebrations, concerts and special religious services that span perhaps a few days before and after the 13th.
Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Našice by János Korom Dr. // CC BY-SA 2.0
This program is an attempt to blend religious and secular; the focus isn’t only on the patron saint, but on the town itself. This day is chosen to be the city’s birthday as well – each year we keep count of how many years have passed since the first record of its existence (in 2020, that is 791 years). This local patriotism is expressed in art exhibitions, school children’s performances, classic cars parade, brass band and tamburica concerts and folklore ensemble’s show.
Tamburica orchestra and folklore ensemble are a direct link to kirvajs that took place in previous centuries, and still remain a crucial part of the cultural life of Slavonija today. Tamburica orchestra plays traditional music (and modern covers) on string instruments of various shapes and sizes similar to a mandolin. Folklore ensembles sing and dance in traditional folk costumes that have been kept in families for many generations. In rural villages and small towns of Slavonija (and other parts of Croatia), these tamburica players and folklore dancers are members of folk cultural clubs (in Croatian KUD – kulturno-umjetničko društvo) that often are an only option for those artistically inclined.
Traditional clothes from Slavonija by Vesna Lolić
Despite all these interesting cultural events, an open space between an old, yellow baroque church and an unappealing grey city hall holds the true reason why children love kirvaj. Overnight, an ordinary parking lot and town square transform into a huge open market. Street vendors (we call them licitari, even though only a few of them sell traditional licitar hearts), put up hundreds of old metal stalls with toys, candies, costume jewelry, make-up with no brand indicated, pirated music CDs, pets, clothes and questionable kitchen gadgets.
Today, when even small towns have stores filled with cheap plastic trinkets and fast fashion clothes, it can be hard to imagine how magical it seemed to us when we were children 15 years ago. Even adults were lured to this ‘once a year opportunity’, so the city centre was usually full to the brim.
Kirvaj in Našice by Vesna Lolić
Don’t be mistaken – there is almost nothing traditional or handmade on these stalls. It isn’t a set of quirky local artists or solemn traditional craftsmen. No, almost all the goods are (and have been for years) cheap, generic, low-quality and imported. However, when we were children, that didn’t bother us even in the slightest. For us, it still had an atmosphere of an exotic bazaar. These merchants brought new cool toys each year – off-brand Tamagotchis, slimy amorphous blobs we loved for some reason, prank sets – each year had a new fad.
Tamagotchi by Lauren Garza / CC BY 2.0
Of course, these weren’t dirt cheap – you had to think in advance to save enough money to fulfill your heart’s wishes. Just one pirated t.A.T.u. CD might require your whole monthly allowance.
Fair ride by katybrown05 / CC0 1.0
Children don’t need money only for their shopping spree. In a vast English style park, below a neo-classicist mansion, a tiny amusement park (in Croatian: luna-park) appears for a few days. Its rides always seem a bit old, rusty and even maybe a bit dangerous, but children are still ecstatic with its bumper cars and adrenaline carousels.
Bumper cars by Daniel B.
Lucky for children’s budget, aside from religious ceremonies and crazed shopping, the third important part of kirvaj are guests. There is a saying that you don’t invite guests over for kirvaj – it is simply known that anyone who might want to come on this day is welcome. By invitation or intuition, guests always arrive. From neighbouring villages or distant cities, friends and family come for dinner. In addition to the typical food we cook for other holidays (which you can read about in our posts….), such as sarma or roasted pork and lamb, for kirvajs kotlovina and čobanac are also popular.
These are excellent dishes when you need to feed a hoard. Kotlovina is a typical market food. It is a spicy thick meat stew cooked in a huge shallow dish (often one meter in diameter) over an open fire, usually with pork steaks and sausages. Čobanac is also a spicy meat stew, but cooked with bite-size pieces of meat (lamb, pork, beef) in a cauldron over an open fire, with a lot of red paprika. Its liquid is less thick, so it is usually served with boiled pasta.
As it might be strikingly obvious by now, Croatians love their holidays and non-working days (although, who doesn’t?). Kirvajs are actually quite practical, even nowadays, when you don’t have to travel for days to exchange your flour for a bit of linen. On Christmas and other more conventional holidays, people usually stay with their own immediate family and spend days cooking and decorating. Kirvajs are an opportunity to have fun and eat great food with friends and relatives from other towns and villages.
Kirvajs really do resemble birthdays. If you are not from Našice, June 13th might be a day like any other. But as you go to work that day, you can keep in mind that your friends in Našice are busily preparing for your visit in the afternoon. And just like that, an additional holiday finds its way to your calendar and makes your day more joyous. Same as birthdays, kirvajs are also about sharing festivities with those who aren’t lucky enough to celebrate their own birthday that day. The more people you are close to, the more celebrations you will get an opportunity to enjoy.
Featured image (on top): Kirvaj celebration in 1920 by Miroslav Vajdic / CC BY-SA 2.0