Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

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Traditions run deep here, and that’s one of the things I love about Croatia.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, something I’ve celebrated since I was a kid. Sarge grew up in Florida and missed out on this particular custom. In my childhood suburb of Cincinnati, St. Nicholas Day was definitely a part of the Christmas culture. If you woke up Dec. 6 with coal in your stocking, you knew you had a few weeks to shape up before Santa came. St. Nick was the one who filled stockings with fruit, nuts, chocolate coins and probably a toothbrush. The official countdown to Christmas break was on.

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Our boys came home from school on Monday talking about how their classmates said St. Nick brought sticks to naughty children here instead of coal. And instead of stockings, kids here polish up a shoe or boot and place it on a windowsill or doorstep. They go to sleep hoping for candy instead of sticks.

Last night, our boys chose the biggest shoe they could find. Our oldest cleaned up a hiking boot, and our youngest set a high-top Converse outside our doorstep. In the morning, they woke up to shoes full of tangerines, pistachios, candy coins, a chocolate St. Nick and a chocolate Krampus (the Christmas devil). Oh, yeah, and the evil American Elf on the Shelf showed up here, too. We should have named him Krampus.

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I don’t remember Krampus ever being part of our St. Nicholas traditions growing up, but as an adult, I can fully appreciate the fear the beast-like creature can instill in kids who don’t want to be punished for being naughty.

Krampus was on full display in our town in Croatia today. Just after dark, Krampus, St. Nicholas and a man dressed as an elf marched through the Old Town in an odd little ritual that’s part of the advent celebration here. It wasn’t quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the boys were expecting, but it was memorable.

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When I read up on other traditions associated with this day in Croatia, I learned that in the fishing village of Komiza on one of the islands, they honor St. Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. On St. Nicholas Day, they carry his statue in a procession and burn an old boat in front of the saint’s church as they pray for protection for the next year. Then they throw the ashes on newly built boats as a blessing.

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As a family living abroad, we are short on holiday traditions this year. We haven’t tromped through woods for a tree or even put up a fake one. We will miss family gatherings back home. And since we are away, we aren’t sending out our annual Christmas cards.

But today, in addition to the treat-filled shoes, we also had a bottle of homemade fresh-pressed olive oil placed on our doorstep. We ran into people we knew in Zadar’s Old Town. We admired the Christmas market’s lights, and the smell of vendors’ pancakes and mulled wine. And we’ll all have a hard time getting Krampus out of our minds.

Pardoning the turkey

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We are starting off Thanksgiving week celebrating the way any American family would. We’re binge-watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix.

After living in Croatia for half a year and watching only a handful of shows in English, I figured out how to make our VPN (Virtual Private Network) connect. Now we can listen to music on Pandora, catch my favorite radio podcasts (I love “This American Life”) and watch sitcoms that weren’t available on the web in Eastern Europe.

And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, Sarge helped me with the grocery shopping, a chore he hates. While it was less crowded than any supermarket in America on this date on the calendar, it was a challenge in other ways. A walk down the spice aisle, for example, put our language skills to the test. I now know that “majčina dušica” might translate as “mother of the nuns” in English, but it’s actually “thyme.” Good thing there was a picture on the package. Through trial and error, I’ve also learned the difference between buying heavy cream and sour cream here, even though the packaging is deceptively similar.

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I heard the Interspar grocery would be selling turkeys. That was not entirely correct. I should have done shopping the old-school way and ordered one directly from the butcher. All we could find was turkey legs. So, we will be having whole roasted chicken and some turkey legs. The rest of the turkey gets a pardon.

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We will also have sweet potato casserole with no marshmallows (none to be found in Croatia). I also couldn’t find cranberries of any sort, or canned pumpkin, or measuring cups. I’ll improvise. We’ll still have other standards: mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls. And I will try to make pie dough without measuring the ingredients in actual measuring cups. Tea cup measuring should suffice.

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The kids are celebrating “Italian Week” at their international school this week, and they’re not off for American Thanksgiving. We won’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade together. But we might get crazy and let the boys stay up late to watch Netflix or play a family game of “Cluedo” (the board game “Clue,” our favorite).

A year ago, we had an unusual “Friendsgiving” in New Mexico with Sarge’s pilot friends from America and Tunisia when he was working in Roswell. This year, we’re straying from family tradition again. Turkey, relatives and American football won’t play a central role in our feast.

We will still be counting our blessings. We have much to be grateful for this year, especially the opportunity to live abroad and grow closer as a family of four. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and it will be different in a place where not many other people are celebrating. We won’t have a crackling fire, a La-z-boy chair to nap in after dinner or turkey leftovers for sandwiches the next day.

We will have a spirit of togetherness just the same. We’ll think about what we are grateful for, appreciate what we have and enjoy the simple pleasures of family nights, ordinary days and holidays, wherever we are to celebrate them.

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