Christmas celebrations have a special pattern on Hvar, and no doubt on other Dalmatian islands. There is a definite start-date, the first Sunday in Advent, when the first of four Advent candles is lit, to be followed by each of the others in turn every Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas itself.
Advent has been celebrated in the Western Christian Church since the 7th century AD, and it starts on the nearest Sunday to November 30th, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. In 2014, this fell on November 30th itself. Most households honour the tradition of the Advent candles with a decorative arrangement of the candles surrounded by decorative flowers, fruits and other ornaments in the centre of the dining table. In the churches, the four candles are placed in front of the main altar.
As elsewhere in Europe, although not in the UK, St. Nicholas' Day has a special part in the Christmas celebrations. Children receive gifts on that day rather than on Christmas Day. Their presents have traditionally been modest tokens rather than extravagant luxuries, especially because in winter Hvar has few shops selling non-essential items. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Zastražišće and Stari Grad, places which are renowned for their special devotions, singing and feasting on December 6th. In Stari Grad, there is a long-standing ritual of burning an old wooden boat with a giant bonfire in front of St. Nicholas' Church on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day.
St. Nicholas' church is situated not far from the Benedictine monastery in Stari Grad. It has been extensively renovated in the last couple of years, as the building had become unsound in parts. The repair work has been comprehensive. Outside, the restored roof is an exemplary piece of craftsmanship. Inside, the floors and walls have been made good, providing a proper setting for the many votive boats and other emblems which create a particular charm in this little church. For a report in Croatian on the extent of the repair work, click here.
In 2014, the bonfire had to be postponed by a day because of unprecedented heavy rain on December 5th, which caused minor flood damage in many parts of the island. It was rescheduled for 2pm on St. Nicholas' day itself, and despite yet more rainfall, fireman Stjepko Rosso and his team managed to get the blaze going with skilful handling. The boat, the "Škuna" from Vrboska, was duly reduced to cinders in a matter of a couple of hours.
The fire was kept well under control with good-humoured expert teamwork until the very end. Meanwhile the Mass drew to a close inside the church, and the children received their customary gift from St. Nicholas: apples thrown down from the organ loft to the young congregation, who collected their prizes with glee. Then everyone filed out for the traditional procession down to the waterfront, although the 2014 route was shorter than usual because of the inclement drizzly weather.
St. Nicholas (270 - 343 AD) was a Greek who became Bishop of Myra (now in Turkey). He was renowned for his devoutness and generosity. It is now thought that he was originally buried on the Turkish island of Gemiler Adasi, or St. Nicholas' Island, but his remains were subsequently removed to Myra for safety. They were later removed from Myra to Italy, part to be buried in Bari in 1087, while another part was taken later to Venice. It was claimed that a sweet-smelling liquid would emanate from his tomb in Myra, and this is said to have continued in Bari. St. Nicholas is patron saint to many groups of people, most notably sailors and children. In Stari Grad, this is reflected in the many votive offerings of boats and sea images which adorn the church. I have been specially pleased to learn that children receive apples as St. Nicholas' gift, as my grandfather Prvislav used to give me a St. Nicholas apple each year, and I had not heard of the tradition being continued in Dalmatia until now. Long may children continue to be pleased with such simple, humble but meaningful presents!
A week after St. Nicholas's feast day comes that of St. Lucy. In Stari Grad, she too is honoured with a bonfire the day before the actual feast day.
Stari Grad's chapel dedicated to St. Lucy is tiny, so the majority of the congregation have to stand in the chapel's little courtyard for the annual Mass celebrated in her honour. Fortunately, by contrast with the St. Nicholas celebrations the previous week, December 12th 2014 was a mild, fine, clear day, so being outside was no great hardship.
St. Lucy of Syracuse, Sicily, was a martyr in the Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. She was cruelly tortured and finally executed in 304 AD, when she would have been about 21. She was born into a noble and rich family, but her father died when she was young. Her mother became very ill, and went with Lucy to the shrine of St. Agatha in Catania, where she was miraculously cured. Lucy persuaded her mother to distribute her wealth among the poor. However, this meant that Lucy's dowry was also dispersed, which so angered the young pagan man who was due to become her husband in an arranged marriage, that he denounced her to the Governor of Syracuse. When Lucy refused his command to make a sacrifice to the Roman pagan gods, the common test for Christians, she was sentenced to horrible punishments. Her eyes were taken out, although some accounts state that this was a self-inflicted mutilation. At all events, legend has it that after she was killed, her eyes were found to have been miraculously restored into their sockets.
St. Lucy is said to have predicted the end of the Christian persecutions, as well as the end of Diocletian and Maximian's rule. Diocletian abdicated because of ill-health in 305 AD, a year after St. Lucy's death, forcing Maximian to step down at the same time. After Diocletian's death, sometime between 311 and 316 AD, his Mausoleum was converted to Christian worship as the Cathedral of St. Domnius, and the crypt below was dedicated to St. Lucy. Her remains were apparently moved many times after her death, and such relics as are left of them are kept in Venice.
St. Lucy is the patron saint of the blind, as well as martyrs, merchants and writers, and she is said to protect against illness epidemics and throat infections.
© Vivian Grisogono 2014