Each year on December 6, we celebrate Nikolinje (Saint Nicholas’ Day) in Croatia. It is a Catholic holiday, but it is also celebrated in western culture.
There are many legends associated with Saint Nicholas’ life. This article includes the most interesting legends and common Croatian customs associated with Nikolinje.
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The facts are these…
Celebration of Saint Nicholas’ Day in Croatia – Nikolinje
Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who lived in Mira, Turkey, in the 4th century. His parents struggled to have children, so he ended up as an only child. They died soon after he was born. He was named after his uncle, who was a bishop in Mira, so it is fitting that he also became a bishop in Mira.
Throughout his life, Nicholas was guided by love and goodness. When his uncle died, everyone thought that he was going to take over his bishop role. He was a modest man afraid of the great responsibility of being a bishop. Instead, Nicholas withdrew to Palestina (Palestine), where he lived a solitary life.
After several years of living in Palestina, Nicholas returned to Mira right after the bishop who replaced his uncle died. In the end, he became a bishop after all. During the day, Nicholas preached about the faith, and during the night, he prayed. Some stories say that he sold all of his property and gave the money he earned to the poor.
Nicholas died on December 6, 340 (the exact year is unclear). The date of his death is celebrated as Nikolinje (Saint Nicholas’ Day). In Croatia, people called Nikola, Nikolina, Nikolica, Nina, Nino, Nika, and Niko celebrate their name day on Nikolinje.
Nicholas is considered to be the protector of children, sailors, fishermen, the poor, students, girls, pharmacists, prisoners, merchants, and travelers.
Nikola is also the protector of the island of Sicily and many cities around the world. In Croatia, he is the protector of Varaždin, Koprivnica, Krapina, Baška Voda, Kraljevica, and Krilo Jesenice.
Saint Nicholas is known best for his reputation for giving gifts to good children. This legend was born from a story of a poor man and his three daughters.
Since they were very poor, the father didn’t have enough for a dowry to marry off his daughters. Instead, he decided to sell their beauty and youth to earn money. Saint Nicholas heard about the father’s plan and decided to help the family.
One night, Nicholas threw a bag full of gold coins into their house through the window. After this, the father could afford the dowry for one of his daughters. Saint Nicholas did this a second time, and then the father was able to marry off his second daughter.
The third time, the father decided to keep watch at night to catch the man who kept giving them money. Saint Nicholas was caught, and everyone found out about his good deeds and gifts.
In addition to being a memorial day for Sveti Nikola, Nikolinje marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Some common Croatian customs are associated with Nikolinje.
The first custom involves imitating Saint Nicholas. A volunteer dresses up in a bishop costume and pretends that he is Saint Nicholas. He wears an episcopal cloak and miter and wields a staff. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, a half-goat half-demon creature who punishes misbehaving children.
Saint Nicholas then visits all the houses in the city. He goes from one house to another and asks children to pray. Children who know how to pray and who have been good children get a gift. If they don’t want to pray or they have been bad, they get punished by Krampus.
In recent years, this has become more of a story than a common custom. Nowadays, it is more common for a man to dress as Saint Nicholas and visit the city square. He hangs out with kids and gives them symbolic presents.
Some cities and municipalities organize giving gifts to children in schools or other public institutions. This tradition lives on in Zagreb, Šibenik, Split, and many other Croatian cities and villages.
The second custom is giving children gifts at midnight the night before December 6. On the evening of December 5, children clean their own shoes, usually boots. After they clean them very well, every child puts one boot on the window. At midnight, parents put gifts into the boots.
The gifts usually are candies, but sometimes parents surprise their children with something they really want. Children are convinced that Saint Nicholas was the one who brought them gifts. Sometimes, children get golden or silver twigs as a notification that they should behave a little better.
I remember one funny story from my childhood. Once my parents couldn’t wait to give us gifts, so they filled the boots with gifts several hours before midnight. My sister and I heard the noise at the window, and we ran into the room. I still remember the happiness when we realized Saint Nicholas came earlier to our house. We were convinced that this happened because we were extra good. Who wouldn’t like to remember such a sweet memory from childhood?
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the city of Komiža on the island of Vis in Croatia. There is an old tradition of burning an old wooden ship in Komiža on Saint Nicholas Day.
The boat is brought in front of the church of Saint Mikula on December 5. On December 6, the boat is burned in honor of the sailors and fishermen. The ashes of the burned ship are then used to bless newly built ships. This tradition takes place every year, even during storms and strong winds.
In the past, locals would burn old wooden ships to get the iron out of the ship. They would burn the old wood and take shackles and nails that were used to build a new ship. This is how the burning of old ships became a tradition in Komiža.
View our other holiday posts
- All Saint’s Day (Dan svih svetih) in Croatia
- Anti-Fascist Struggle Day (Dan antifašističke borbe)
- Corpus Christi (Tijelovo)
- Day of Remembering the Victims of Croatia War of Independence and Day of Remembering Victims of Vukovar and Škabrnja
- Epiphany (Bogojavljenje, Sveta tri kralja)
- How Croatia celebrates Easter
- Međunarodni praznik rada (Labor Day)
- St. Martin’s Day (Martinje)
- Statehood Day (Dan državnosti)
- Sveti Stjepan, Štefanje (St. Stephen’s Day)
- Velika Gospa (Assumption of Mary)
- Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day (Dan pobjede i domovinske zahvalnosti)
A full list of Croatian holidays is available here.
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.