Understanding folklore in Croatia: Tradition, ensembles, and events

folklore in Croatia
Croatian kolo dance by parish folklore group Hrvatsko Prelo from Oakville, Ontario, Canada

PUBLISHED: 13.5.2024.

Croatians love their unique traditions, art, and customs, so folklore plays a vital role in Croatia’s cultural heritage. If you have ever met a Croatian, you know how proud they are about their way of life.

Croatian folklore embodies not only local traditions but also local songs, dances, and rituals. It serves as a media that transfers gathered knowledge to future generations and unites the Croatian diaspora worldwide.

In this article, we cover:

The facts are these…

Significance of folklore in Croatia

The term folklor (folklore) is very general, but it usually symbolizes folklore dances and songs performed by Kulturno umjetničko društvo – KUD (Culture and Art Society) or Folklorni ansambl (Folklore Ensemble). Their performance art showcases outfits, dances, rituals, and songs from the past that have been part of oral tradition.

Folklore has a significant place in Croatian culture. It serves as a living history that saves traditions, stories, and rituals for generations. Also, it reflects the country’s diverse regional traditions while encouraging unity and pride among Croatians.

Through folklore, Croatians connect with their ancestors and the way of life they once knew. When you learn folklore dances and songs or read about them, you get an insight into people’s daily lives in the past, creating a unique connection between the past and the present.

In 1948, Institut za etnologiju i folkloristiku (The Institute of Ethnology and Folkloristics) was founded in Zagreb. It studies the folklore and ethnology of Croatia, including folk tales, songs, dances, traditions, and mythology.

Croatian folklore festivals and events are cherished occasions for communities to unite, showcasing the diversity and uniqueness of Croatian traditions. They encourage a sense of pride and belonging among Croatians and serve as essential platforms for cultural exchange and understanding, domestically and internationally.

[Read: How to understand the Croatian culture]

Dancers performing traditional choreography
Dancers of parish folklore group Hrvatsko Prelo from Oakville, Ontario, Canada performing traditional Croatian choreography

History of folklore in Croatia

Međunarodna smotra folklora Zagreb (Zagreb International Folklore Festival), the most significant Croatian folklore festival, continues a rich tradition stemming from the Smotra seljačke sloge (Peasant Harmony Festival), an initiative by the Hrvatska seljačka stranka (Croatian Peasant Party).

Originating in the 1930s, the festival aimed to celebrate Croatian rural culture, which was diverse and deeply rooted in tradition. However, political shifts in the 1950s led to its discontinuation, reflecting a departure from valuing rural life in favor of industrialization and urbanization.

In 1966, the revival of the folklore festival in Zagreb was met with enthusiasm, symbolizing a return to honoring the dignity of rural values. For many, it represented a reconnection with their cultural heritage, especially for those who had migrated to urban centers seeking work after Drugi svjetski rat (World War II).

The performers, members of village folklore societies, showcased the rich tapestry of rural traditions at the event. In contrast, urban folklore societies, representing a mix of city dwellers and immigrants from various regions, had a broader Yugoslav repertoire. Occasionally, city societies and the professional Ansambl narodnih plesova i pjesama Hrvatske LADO (Ensemble of Croatian Folk Dances and Songs LADO) had supporting roles at the festival.

The Peasant Harmony Festival was established based on the cultural and political agenda of the Radić brothers, Antun and Stjepan. Given that most of Croatia’s population were peasants, surveys confirmed the abundant traditional culture of the Croatian countryside despite attempts to suppress it.

Antun is the pioneer of Croatian ethnology. His seminal work provided a framework for gathering records about peasant culture, aiming to elevate the values of Croatian rural life and folk culture to the level of other cultures. The development of Croatian ethnology was also influenced by broader societal agendas and ideologies, both during Radić’s time and afterward.

Since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, folklore has played a significant role in national identity and cultural heritage. In the post-independence era, there has been a renewed appreciation for traditional Croatian folklore, with efforts to preserve and celebrate its rich cultural customs. As Croatia continues to navigate its path in the modern world, folklore ensures that the essence of Croatian identity endures for the next generations.

[Read: Independence Day (Dan Neovisnosti)]

Who can dance Croatian folklore?

Folklore in Croatia is not reserved for particular groups or individuals; it is open to everyone. If you want to learn about Croatian folklore, you can look for your local folklore ensemble and sign up for classes.

People of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels can participate in folklore dancing, making it truly inclusive and accessible. Whether you’re a seasoned dancer or just beginning to explore this vibrant art form, there’s a place for you.

From community groups and cultural organizations to professional ensembles and schools, opportunities abound for individuals to learn, practice, and perform folklore dances from various regions of Croatia.

Folklore dance is an excellent way to connect your children with the Croatian community. If you moved here recently, you can enroll your children in a local children’s folklore ensemble if there is one close to your city. Local ensembles are common in Croatia.

[Read: How to prepare your children for Croatian schools after relocation]

Folklore singing in Croatia

If you are not into dancing, you can join a folklore ensemble singing group and learn traditional songs. Folklore singing, much like dancing, is an enriching experience open to everyone with a passion for this art.

Joining a folklore singing group in Croatia is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the country’s rich musical heritage. These singing groups, called klapa (acapella singing groups specific for the Dalmatia region), tamburaši (traditional band playing acoustic traditional guitars called tamburica), or zbor (choir), welcome singers of all ages and singing abilities.

To join, contact local folklore ensembles or klapas in your area. Many groups hold open rehearsals or auditions where you can showcase your vocal talents. Through regular rehearsals and performances, you’ll not only learn traditional Croatian songs but also make lasting friendships.

View our Croatian music guides:

Croatian folklore singers performing traditional songs
Croatian folklore singers of Sv. Jana folklore group performing traditional songs

LADO, a prominent Croatian folklore ensemble

The Croatian national professional folklore ensemble called LADO was established in 1949 with a mission to research, collect, artistically interpret, and showcase the finest examples of Croatia’s rich musical and dance traditions. “LADO” is an archaic Slavic term often found in old ritual songs of northwestern Croatia, which carries connotations of goodness, affection, and endearment.

Comprising 38 top dancers, who are also skilled singers, LADO seamlessly transitions from a dance ensemble to a representative folklore choir. Supported by 14 talented musicians proficient in around fifty traditional and classical instruments, LADO embodies the essence of Croatian folklore culture.

Through its performances, LADO showcases Croatia’s cultural heritage – a fusion of Mediterranean, Balkan, Pannonian, and Alpine influences. With more than 1.200 sets of original folk costumes, some dating back over a century, LADO is rightly regarded as a traveling museum, preserving and promoting Croatia’s cultural legacy for audiences worldwide.

You can watch LADO perform at concerts, festivals, and happenings in Croatia and worldwide. Listen to LADO’s songs here and view their schedule here. Make sure to buy tickets in advance because they are very popular.

Tiny tip: If you like traditional music with a modern twist, I recommend LADO Electro, which you can listen here.

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Folklore costumes in Croatia

Croatian narodna nošnja (national costume, folklore costume) has a huge role in folklore. These intricately crafted garments are not merely clothing; they are living symbols of identity, heritage, and community pride.

Each element of a folklore costume carries profound significance, often tracing back centuries. From the choice of fabric and colors to the intricate embroidery and embellishments, every detail tells a story of Croatia’s past and way of life.

Croatia’s diverse geography and cultural influences have given rise to a stunning array of folklore costumes, each unique to its region. They visually represent regional identities, social status, and even occasions like weddings, festivals, and religious ceremonies.

[Read: How to attend a Croatian wedding]

Here are some of the most significant Croatian folklore costumes:

  • Dalmatia – dalmatinska nošnja (Dalmatian costume) is characterized by simplicity and elegance, with white fabrics and intricate lacework
  • Prigorje – prigorska nošnja (Prigorje costume) is made out of home-made woven cloth, and some details that stand out include colorful rubac (scarf), lajbek (vest), and surna (coat)
  • Zagorje – zborišće or haljina features vibrant colors and elaborate embroidery, often adorned with gold or silver thread
  • Slavonia – slavonska nošnja (Slavonian costume) is known for its rich colors, floral motifs, and ornate detailing, particularly in women’s blouses and men’s vests
  • Istria – istarska nošnja (Istrian costume) includes distinctive features like colorful aprons, embroidered vests, and elaborate headscarves, reflecting the region’s multicultural heritage
Colorful nošnja (traditional costumes)
Croatian traditional costumes – narodna nošnja, parish folklore group Hrvatsko Prelo from Oakville, Ontario, Canada

Despite modernization and changing fashion trends, efforts to preserve and revive folklore costumes remain strong in Croatia. Cultural associations, museums, and artisans work tirelessly to document, restore, and pass on traditional costume-making techniques to future generations. Festivals, folkloric performances, and educational programs keep these cultural treasures alive and vibrant.

[Read: Weird and unique must-see museums in Croatia]

Centar za tradicijsku kulturnu baštinu (Center for Traditional Cultural Heritage) in Zagreb has a department called Posudionica i radionica narodnih nošnji (Loan office and workshop of traditional costumes) dedicated to restauration, preservation, and education about traditional costumes. They often organize seminars and programs about it. In addition, they can rent you a costume for a special occasion and help you fit it.

Meaning of folklore for Croatian diaspora

For many in the Croatian diaspora, being part of a folklore group is more than just a pastime – it is a cherished family tradition. Through these groups, knowledge and customs are passed down from one generation to the next, creating a sense of continuity and connection to their roots.

It’s common to find grandparents, parents, and children all dancing together in kolo, a folk dance that usually forms a circle. In these close-knit communities, relationships blossom, with individuals from different backgrounds coming together, falling in love, and forming families.

Participating in folklore traditions fills the diaspora with immense pride, celebrating and preserving Croatian culture. It’s a way of honoring their heritage and ensuring it endures for future generations. For many, these traditions also serve as a lifeline to the Croatian language. Even for those who may have lost fluency over the years, the songs and dances of their ancestors are a powerful connection to their linguistic heritage.

The diaspora actively shares its cultural wealth with the wider world through annual folklore festivals and public performances. These events showcase the richness of Croatian traditions and serve as platforms for educating others about Croatia’s history, customs, and values.

View our Croatian diaspora guides:

Meaning of Croatian folklore for our CAM

Here is what our consultant CAM has to say about folklore’s meaning in her life. She is a member of the Croatian diaspora who lived in Canada until recently.

“Like many families in the diaspora, folklore was one of the major ties that bonded my family together – many marriages were born out of a folklore group, including mine. My husband was my kolo partner long before he was my life partner!

I don’t remember folklore ever not being a part of my life. I have been dancing in a nošnja and opanke (traditional peasant shoes) since I started walking. This is no surprise since my grandfather was a tamburaš, and my grandma sewed many a nošnja. My mom and aunt both taught multiple generations of dancers, and my father played a huge role behind the scenes in the Canadian Croatian folklore landscape.

As a kid, there were two possible outcomes on a weekend. My parents would take out their Croatian records, and we would sing along with the Ladarke and dance along with LADO in our basement rec room. Or, we would be a captive audience at my grandparents’ house where the tamburaši would have practice, listening to traditional songs from Croatia and singing along joyously.

Folklore is a part of me – my identity, how I know myself. I know my parents gave me this gift consciously – they knew what they were doing. Through folklore, I have learned about my ancestors, the traditions of this beautiful country, the language, dialects, and celebrations. I learned it by putting on a nošnja and singing songs, dancing steps, and reciting prayers. Growing up entrenched in folklore has been one of the biggest blessings of my life – and always will.”

CAM in nošnja
CAM ready for her performance

Notable folklore festivals in Croatia

Croatian folklore festivals are always crowded, so you should purchase your ticket in advance. If the entrance is free, arrive early to reserve a seat with the best view.

Here are all the most notable folklore festivals in Croatia arranged chronologically.

NameTranslationCityMonthWebsite
Drmeš Da!ZagrebMayWebsite
Festival folklora otoka KrkaFolklore festival of the island of KrkKrkMayWebsite
Međunarodni festival umjetničke tamburaške glazbeInternational festival of artistic tambourine musicOsijekMayWebsite
Proljetni ophod kraljice ili ljeljeThe spring procession of the queen or ljelaGorjaniMayWebsite
Smotra folklora “Na Neretvu misečina pala”Folklore festival "The moonlight over Neretva"MetkovićMayWebsite
Festival dalmatinskih klapa OmišDalmatian klapa festival OmišOmišJuneWebsite
Ljeto Valpovacko - Dan smotra folkloraSummer in Valpovo - Day of FolkloreValpovoJuneFacebook
PicokijadaRooster festivalĐurđevacJuneWebsite
Sisački lipanjski susretiJune meetings in SisakSisakJuneFacebook
Đakovacki vezoviĐakovo embroideryĐakovoJune/JulyWebsite
Etno festival CvetlinEthno festival CvetlinBednjaJulyFacebook
Međunarodna smotra folklora ZagrebInternational Folklore Festival ZagrebZagrebJulyWebsite
Međunarodni festival folklora KarlovacKarlovac International Folklore FestivalKarlovacJulyWebsite
Međunarodni festival folklora i Dani kulturne baštineInternational Folklore Festival and Days of Cultural HeritageKoprivnicaJulyWebsite
Brodsko koloBrod’s koloSlavonski brodAugustWebsite
Međunarodni festival folklora SplitSplit International Folklore FestivalSplitAugustFacebook
Sinjska alkaSinj alkaSinjAugustWebsite
Smotra narodne glazbe i plesa IstreExhibition of folk music and dance of IstriaBujeAugustFacebook
Festival viteških igara otoka KorčuleFestival of knight games on the island of KorčulaKorčulaSeptemberWebsite
Kajkavske popevkeKajkavian songsKrapinaSeptemberWebsite
Vinkovačke jeseniVinkovci autumnVinkovciSeptemberWebsite
Zlatne žice SlavonijeGolden wires of SlavoniaPožegaSeptemberWebsite
Međunarodni gajdaški festivalInternational Bagpipe Festivalseveral citiesSeptember/OctoberWebsite
Podravski motiviPodravine motifsKoprivnicaSeptember/OctoberWebsite
Festival dječjeg folklora "Naše veliko kolo"Children's Folklore Festival "Our Big Kolo"ZagrebDecemberWebsite

Croatian folklore at international folklore festivals

With over 3 million Croatians living abroad, there are strong diaspora communities worldwide. The biggest Croatian diaspora communities are in the United States, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Many Croatian cultural clubs and folklore ensembles are located there, and there are many opportunities to see Croatian folklore outside of Croatia. Here are some international folklore festivals where you can see Croatian folklore.

NameLocationMonthWebsite
Canadian-Croatia Folklore FestivalMississauga, CanadaMayWebsite
Croatian Folkloric Art FestivalAdelaide, AustraliaJuneWebsite
Croatia FestPittsburgh, PA, United StatesOctoberWebsite
CFU Adult TamFestPittsburgh, PA, United StatesNovemberWebsite
Tambura FestMississauga, CanadaNovemberWebsite

View other Croatian culture articles

Frequently asked questions

What is the folklore festival in Croatia?

Several folklore festivals occur annually in Croatia. They showcase traditional folklore dancing and music, as well as folklore dress and rituals. View the list of folklore festivals here.

What is the most popular festival in Croatia?

When it comes to folklore dancing and traditions, the International Folklore Festival Zagreb is the place to be. You can see KUDs from Croatia and international ensembles from Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and other countries. Another culturally important festival representing Croatian tradition is Sinjska alka, which happens every year in the city of Sinj and is visited by thousands of locals and tourists.

What are the cultural celebrations of Croatia?

Croatia has many cultural celebrations, some related to religion and others to local traditions. Here are the most famous ones:

  • Bogojavljenje, Sveta tri kralja (Epiphany) – view a guide here
  • Dubrovačke ljetne igre (Dubrovnik Summer Festival)
  • Karneval (Carnival) – view a guide here
  • Međunarodni folklorni festival (International Folklore Festival)
  • Sveti Duje (Saint Domnius) – view a guide here
  • Sveti Vlaho (Saint Blaise Day)
  • Uskrs (Easter) – view a guide here
  • Velika Gospa (Assumption of Mary) – view a guide here
  • Zagrebački Advent (Zagreb Advent) – view a guide here

What is Croatian folk religion?

Croatian folk religion is a fascinating blend of ancient Slavic pagan traditions, Christian beliefs, and local customs that have evolved over time. Rooted in reverence for nature spirits and ancestral deities, it seamlessly integrates with Christian practices, with many pagan rituals finding a place within Christian holidays and ceremonies.

What is the biggest event in Croatia?​​

The biggest event in Croatia is hard to determine because it depends on your interests. However, we can point out annual events that are in the scope of interest of most people: Dubrovačke ljetne igre in Dubrovnik, Špancirfest in Varaždin, and Advent in Zagreb. Unless there is a World Cup and Croatia is in the final, these are the biggest events of the year.


Sources:

Hrvatska baština – folklor by Dr. Marko Jukić
Centar za tradicijsku kulturnu baštinu
Hrvatska baština – Hrvatske narodne nošnje by Dr. Marko Jukić
LADO
Hrvatske pjesme i plesovi
Evo koliko Hrvata živi u inozemstvu i u kojoj ih državi ima najviše by Hina

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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