On the day after Christmas (December 26), Croatians celebrate Sveti Stjepan (St. Stephen’s Day). St. Stephen’s Day is a Catholic holiday, so it is predominantly celebrated by Christians. For less or non-religious citizens, this is just another state holiday when when you can get a day off work, the government and most shops are closed.
Along with Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day makes results in two consecutive days off from work. If we’re lucky and Sveti Stjepan falls on Friday, Croatia will get four days off in a row to stay at home, get family time, travel or enjoy the many Christmas activities on offer during Advent.
Who was Sveti Stjepan?
Sv. Stjepan is usually depicted as a young man dressed in đakonska dalmatika (deacon’s dress). In one hand, he holds a martyr’s palm branch and a stone or a book in another.
Croatian variations of the name for St. Stephen’s Day include:
- Sveti Stjepan
- Blagdan Svetog Stjepana
- Prvi dan po Božiću
St. Stephen was Prvomučenik (a Protomartyr) and the first Christian martyr. He was one of 7 chosen deacons at the beginning of the church. After the death of Jesus Christ, St. Stephen preached Jesus’ doctrine and belonged to the community of Christian scholars. He was such a great believer that he died a martyr’s death in the name of Jesus Christ.
St. Stephen is a symbol of forgiveness and the fight against injustice. St. Stephen is also worshiped as the Guardian of deacons, masons, stonemasons, coffin makers, and people who suffer from headaches.
Death of Sveti Stjepan
St. Stephen was one of the first deacons and an assistant to Jesus’ apostles. He preached the gospel, served his community, and carried the Eucharist to sick and imprisoned persons.
In 34 AD, St. Stephen began speaking out that the Židovi (Jews) should not have killed Isus Krist (Jesus Christ) and that they should end the persecution of prophets. In response, he was falsely accused of speaking against Bog (God) and Mojsije (Moses). He was put on trial for blasphemy and then stoned to death.
St. Stephen’s message to the world
Even during his stoning, he didn’t speak anything negative. He prayed to God to take his spirit and forgive his enemies. According to Biblija (Bible), his last words were: “Gospodine, ne uzmi im ovo za grijeh” (Lord, don’t take this for their sin).
So, even in moments when he was dying because of the injustice and human malice, he remained noble, modest, and full of understanding. St.Stephen gave up his life for his ideals – Jesus and justice.
How do Croatians celebrate Sveti Stjepan?
While St. Stephen’s Day is a public holiday in Croatia on December 26, it is celebrated on different days in different churches:
- on December 26 in the Catholic Church
- on December 27 in the Orthodox Church
- on January 9 according to the Gregorian calendar
Present day customs
Sveti Stjepan means kruna (a crown) or vijenac (a wreath) in Greek; more precisely, στέφανος (stephanos) meaning “crown”. This is the reason why on December 26 everyone called Stjepan, Štef, Štefanija, Štefica, Krunoslav, and Krunoslava, celebrate their name day.
On Sveti Stijepan, people celebrate a new beginning. We celebrate and worship the “little” man who died for his noble ideals and justice.
On this day, the tradition is to visit relatives, friends, neighbors, and anyone important in your life, congratulate them, and celebrate Christmas with them. On Christmas, you celebrate at home with your family and the day after you mingle around to spread happiness with others.
There are some old romantic Croatian customs but it is unclear if they still remain in practice.
On the island of Zlarin, there was a tradition called “rusarij”. People would go near the sea led by a priest. They would sing and dance kolo (a wheel), a South Slavic traditional circle dance.
In northern Croatia, Sv. Stjepan was the guardian of horses and mules, so people would celebrate them. In Istria, people ride and race horses. There were also some whom believed that young men must ride their horses on St. Stephen’s Day to ensure they would be fat and well-fed.
Mužikaši (dialect for “musicians”) from villages near Zagreb would go out on the night between Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day. They would go to people who celebrate their name day on the St. Stephen’s Day and sing to them.
There has also been a superstition that if the rain falls on St. Stephen’s Day, it means that the fields will yield less wheat in the following year.
These traditions may be romantic and a bit nostalgic, but they also sound magical. Although people didn’t have money, they still used this holiday as a reason to be grateful, humble and appreciate their loved ones.
How do you celebrate Štefanje?
Check out a full list of Croatian holidays here.