Kolendanje – may the New Year be good to you!

This December, we came across a new custom in the villages of Hvar. Well, I say new, but only to us, and it turned out only the name was truly unfamiliar. Kolendanje is the local variation of very old folk custom in Croatia, with versions in many other Slavic countries. When we arrived at the house, it seemed like there was a party going on. The sitting room was full of teenagers, eating fritule and other treats. Every so often, another group would arrive at the door and go through the form of words to be invited inside to join them. In its general form, this is a winter celebration when a group of youngsters, sometimes adults, go round house-to-house of an evening, singing or chanting good wishes for the up-coming holiday, for which they are rewarded with treats, drinks or coins by the householders. Sound familiar? Yep, just like wassailing in England, first-footing in Scotland or carol-singing elsewhere, this is a fun event in many peoples’ winter calendar.

In standard Croatian, it’s called koleda, same as in Bosnian, Czech, Slovak and Slovene. (Other local variations are kolendra (Split), koledva (Dubrovnik, Cres) and participants are variously called koledas, kolendaši, kolendraši, koledvaši, koloyan, koleđani, and in Gdinj on Hvar there’s a procession called koleđanje.) It’s also called Коледа in Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian, Коляда in Russian, Коляда in Ukranian, Каляда in Belarusian, Szczodre Gody kolęda in Polish, and so on. Kolyada or koleda is popular!

Originally, it’s thought to be bound up in the celebration of death and rebirth at the time when the Slavic sun god Dažbog, began to regain his power with the lengthening days. The name is probably derived from the Slavic god Kolede. In some places, koleda is also associated with the ancient pagan festival of Velja noć (Great Night) in honour of Veles, the god of earth, waters, forests and the underworld.

We have a description of koleda customs in the 13th century, as mentioned in the Dubrovnik Statute of 1272. It mentions a Yule log which sailors carried into the palace of the Knez, and laid on the fire, celebrating the Knez in song, for which they received a reward. Notice how yule logs are also part of the custom, something I was sure came from a more nordic tradition!

Kolenda are also mentioned in 1706, when the Archbishop of Dubrovnik banned all church people from participating in the kolenda street singing. Do we guess these were rowdy crowds? Sounds just like wassailing, which was also banned in England because of drunken, raucous behaviour!  But the kolendari continued regardless, and in 1744 the Dominican Serafin Crijević wrote:
It is customary on the eve of certain major feastdays that young commoners will assemble in the evening before the houses of nobles and burgers to sing various songs, for which they are rewarded with some kind of gift

The preferred reward seems to have been food and drink of some sort – dried figs, oranges, almonds, walnuts, glass of wine, brandy, etc – or money. Householders that didn’t admit the revellers were treated to the alternative wording of the verses, being called misers and nanny goats!

Although the origins of kolenda pre-date Christianity, these days it has been well and truly incorporated into that religion, particularly in the timing, and in the words. From November to January, the eve of  saints’ feastdays are marked by koleda singing – Sv Martin (11 Nov), Sv Kata (25 Nov), Sv Nikola (6 Dec),  Sv. Lucija (13 Dec), Sv Tome (21 Dec), Sv Stefan (26 Dec), Sv Ivan (27 Dec). That’s especially the case for houses where someone of that name lives. And, of course, kolenda is also performed on the eve of Christmas (25 Dec), New Year (1 Jan) and Epiphany aka Three Kings (6 Jan… or 19 Jan depending on your calendar!) Local timings of events vary, for example on Korčula kolenda season runs from Sv. Martin to Epiphany, while on Brač koledalo starts with Sv Kata.

The words of the traditional songs go a long way back, and content can vary from romantic and historical themes to mythological to religious topics.  The local variation on Hvar starts with a greeting to the house owner, blessing the house and requesting a reward of food and drink. The refrain changes to refer to the appropriate saint / occasion, this version as we heard it for St Nicholas, or Sv Mikula as he’s known on Hvar.

Dobra večer ovom stanu
I od kuće gospodaru.
I litosko I dolita ovdi
Na dobro von Sveti Mikula dojdi!
Mi smo vos došli pohodit
kano čovika pravoga
da nikad ne zaboravi
običaja staroga.
I litosko I dolita ovdi
Na dobro von Sveti Mikula dojdi!
Pasali smo priko rape
izvadte vonka pašurate.
Pasali smo priko Rive
izvadte vonka bićerine.
I litosko I dolita ovdi
Na dobro von Sveti Mikula dojdi!
Good evening to this dwelling
And to the house’s master.
And this year and next here
May St Nikola be good to you!
We come to call on you
as a true good fellow
never to forget
the customs of the past.
And this year and next here
May St Nikola be good to you!
We came across the chasms
bring out the pašurate.
We came across the Riva
bring out the glasses.
And this year and next here
May St Nikola be good to you!

St Nikola had the reputation of giving secret gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, as celebrated on his feast day on 6 December. Nicholas, of course, became the model for Santa Claus (via the Dutch Sinterklaas) and is still celebrated by the giving of gifts, either on 6th December for kids in Croatia, or on Christmas Day which was the tradition I grew up with in Scotland!

Na dobro von Novo lito dojdi! May the New Year be good to you!

Hvar sunset

Hvar sunset

Read more

Fascinating research paper (in Croatian): Croatian tradition of koleda and veselanje by Marko Dragić  (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Split, Croatia)

Wikipedia article on koleda / koliada


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