A Deeper Understanding of Croatia’s Culture

by Marilyn Villanueva

Located in Southeastern Europe bordering the Adriatic Sea, Croatia consists of over four million people. The natives are called Croats and make up the majority of the population, the remaining portions of the population are a mix of Serbs, Hungarians, and Gypsies. The Croats are family oriented people and have very close relationships with their extended families. Croatians take in their elderly parents rather than sending them to nursing homes when they become unable to live independently. Study abroad students in Croatia join in and spend their weekends for family bonding and keeping their culture alive with songs, costumes, dancing, cultural rituals, and folk tales.

Zadar, Croatia
Zadar, Croatia. Photo by Montgomery

Here are four things you should know about Croatian culture:

1. Meeting & Greeting

When attending a social gathering, do not be surprised if the host introduces new people to their guests starting with women then moving to men, from oldest to youngest. You should not address a person by their first name until you are told to do so. The typical greeting routine is a handshake, eye contact, and a verbal greeting based on the time of day, dobro jutro (good morning), dobar dan (good afternoon), and dobra večer (good evening). Failure to greet someone at events or gatherings that traditionally require a greeting or providing an exceedingly familiar greeting to mere acquaintances, are both serious offenses of Croatian social etiquette.

2. Gift Giving

When invited to a local household, bring flowers to the hostess and make sure there are an odd number of stems. Croatians have a superstition about giving an even number of flowers to someone. Chrysanthemums are used at funerals and for gravestones, so do not give this to a hostess, friend, or acquaintance unless told it is appropriate. When in doubt about what flowers to choose, or how many, give the host another gift; A bottle of good wine or a box of chocolates are both acceptable gifts for a hostess.

3. Traditional Proposals, Engagements, & Weddings

Traditional Croatian ways expect a young man's marriage proposal to start with an apple which has a coin stuck into it, referred to as the mark or obiljezje of his desire to marry. If the lady accepts the gesture then they are pronounced officially engaged. Another traditional Croatian wedding custom, that seems bizarre to many individuals in modern times, is the buying of the bride. The future groom would traditionally call to the lady through her window, expressing his desire to marry her, while his best man and family stood in the background watching the event with the musicians playing romantic tunes. The father or elder brother would open the door as acknowledgement that the soon-to-be bride was in fact inside the home, but they would not give her away just yet. From there the bidding would begin, until  price was agreed upon and the family finally gave the future bride to her groom, so long as he made a promise to take care of her and cherish her forever. This atypical wedding proposal is not really about the money, but more about the prospective groom proving to the family how worthy he is to have the woman’s hand in marriage, as well as his good intentions with his desired wife. There are other modern or classic ways of proposing in Croatia, but the method depends upon the bride’s family. The family can be playful or adventurous and make fun of the groom to test how far he will go for their daughter too. 

Rovinj City, Croatia

In ancient times, some Croats believed that the bride needed protection from evil spirits who wished to bring bad luck on her wedding day. One of the preparations to avoid this from happening was to put a veil over her face that could only be removed after the ceremony. Alternatively, participants of the wedding ceremony would also occasionally wear masks and create a great deal of noise to ward off evil spirits.

After the wedding celebration, before the bride enters her married home, she must throw something over the roof; the item can be anything from a glass of rakija (local alcoholic drink) or an apple. If the thrown items do not reach the roof or falls back towards the bride, it is believed that the couple will separate in the future. 

4. End of Life Celebrations

Paying respect to the dead and their bereaved family is a cultural expectation in Croatia. The common funeral ritual entails decorating the house of the deceased, where the family, friends and other members of the community will keep a vigil. Deep expressions of loss and sorrow are usually reserved for women of the family. On the day the body is brought to the cemetery, a bell is slowly rung outside the house to signal that the deceased has begun his or her last journey. Each family member kisses the deceased on the head before the body is wrapped in a sheet and transferred to the coffin. When it is time to carry the body out of the house, the legs are laid straight to prevent his or her return, according to local folklore. Only the male members of the family are supposed to carry the body to the cemetery. People gather together at the cemetery and a priest often says the last blessings and prayers. If a newborn baby dies, the baby is dressed in white and laid on a small bench. The father is the only person who puts the body into the grave, although he is usually accompanied by other members of the family, except for the mother who should not be involved. In fact, mothers never actually attend the funeral of their own children. 

Historically, after the funeral no meal was served, the windows of the deceased home were closed, and no laundry was done within the house for eight days. In modern times, this practice is carried out for two to three days only. Family members usually seek out their meals outside of the home or eat with neighbors, instead of eating in the home during this period as well. In the old days when a husband died in Croatia, his widow would supposedly wear mourning clothes until the day she died.

Dubrovnik Coast, Croatia

Remember: Croatia has an Evolving Culture

Not all of these practices are used in modern times, but many Croats in rural areas continue to practice these rituals. As modernization gradually covers the whole of the country, some of these practices will be only read in books and shared from one generation to the next, but the traditions are still important to remember. 

The world consists of different cultures with handfuls of practices. Students should attempt to respect every belief, practice, and ritual while studying in Croatia, no matter how strange it may seem.