Colorful Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Croatia

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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Slavonia is a must for any visitor to Croatia who wants to experience the country's authentic cultural traditions as they are practiced today. While the fantasy film Game of Thrones made Dubrovnik a hot destination for sci fans, the real life history of the Slavonia region of Croatia is epic and profound. In Slavonia, visitors can access lore and pageantry that is highly symbolic and yet easy to appreciate because of its beauty and spirit.

The Republic of Croatia is organized into twenty counties, and four historic and cultural regions: Croatia Proper, Dalmatia, Istria, and Slavonia. Slavonia is located in northeast Croatia, where it borders Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Hungary. As a border region, over the centuries Slavonia's culture has been influenced by its historic neighbors as well as a string of conquerors that include the Western Roman Empire, the Lombards and Slavs, the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs of Austria.

This complex and diverse heritage is reflected in its festivals, which feature distinctive traditional dances and music recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. To visit Slavonia is to have a window on the history of the Croats.

Croatian traditions were one of the main reasons I had come to this country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. As someone who is enchanted with elaborate folk costumes, complex dances, and distinctive music, I knew the rich heritage of Croatian people would be fascinating. I would also be reminded that the most joyful celebrations also mark solemn passages of history.

In just a few sentences, my Airbnb hostess summed up the essence of Croatian history and identity, giving me an excellent grounding in her country's diverse cultural heritage.

“I belong to Slavonia and its traditions, and I will as long as I live–it doesn’t matter that I don’t live there anymore,” Ivana Miletic told me. “Slavonia is part of me, I can’t be anything else. I can’t deny being a Slavonian girl because then I would have to deny my parents and everything they invested in me during all these years.”

“Croatia has many regions--Dalmatia, Istria, Međimurje, Lika, Zagorje and Slavonia—and they each have their own cultural tradition and identity,” she said. “This is because different areas were settled by people who came from different places."

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
Cavtat AirBnB hostess Ivana Miletic will always be a Slavonian girl

Ivana's apartment a short distance from Dubrovnik was my base for a two-week stay in Croatia, but I would be making an excursion to attend the country's largest annual folk festival, held in Slavonia, a seven-hour drive or one hour flight to the northeast. I happened to mention my plans to Ivana, and in one of those 'small world' moments, the casual comment created the opportunity for me to get insight from a local on Slavonia, which happened to be where Ivana was born and raised. All I knew about Slavonia was that it bordered Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Hungary.

Croatian Traditions Include Regional Dialects

“A big difference between Slavonia and other regions of Croatia is the dialect,” she explained. “Every region of Croatia has its own dialect, that is why you will find the word “towel” said differently in every region. For example, the Croatian school word for towel is ručnik, but in Slavonia, we say peškir, in Dalmatia they say šugaman, and in Istria they say brisač. Some of the dialect is now becoming extinct, and we are trying to save it in schools.”

“When I came to live in Dalmatia, here in Cavtat, and started working in the school, I often didn't understand what people around me were saying,” Ivana said. “Even today, after living here for eight years, I often find myself asking ‘What does that mean?’ And, I am in Croatia, in my own country, surrounded with my people.”

“I was raised by tradition and I have participated in those customs my whole life,” Ivana said. “My mother was and still is traditional and she always insisted that we as a family do things by tradition. Not all traditional customs are easy to do or to follow. I am grateful to my parents who taught me how important it is to unity and our identity to honor, respect and to live tradition.”

Ivana told me with pride that as a girl and young woman, she had celebrated Slavonian traditions by participating in the Brodsko kolo, Croatia's largest and oldest traditional dance and song festival, held for three days each June in the city of Slavonski Brod. She assured me I would be in for a treat!

Folk Songs and Dances Are Beloved Croatian Traditions

After a short flight from Cavtat to Zagreb, I rented a car and made the drive to Slavonski Brod is less than two hours, enjoying the peaceful rural scenery of fertile fields. Slavonia encompasses about a quarter of Croatia's land mass--and can take credit for almost half of the country's agricultural production.

I received a warm welcome from my guide Sanela Ćavara, who gave me an introduction to the meaning behind Slavonia's folk traditions and insights into the history of Croatia as we walked over to the Brod Fortress, where the festival would be taking place. The expansive site encompasses a massive square bordered by stone buildings, constructed by peasants working as forced labor in the early 18 century. The fortifications were erected by the Austrians who occupied the area at the time as a defensive measure against the aggressively expanding Turkish Empire.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
In the 18th century, Slavonski Brod was an important strategic center controlling the border crossing towards Turkey and connecting major commercial routes. The fortress was built to protect the area from attack by the aggressively expanding Turkish Empire.

"Our dances reflect the history, economy and cultural customs of each region, town, and village," said Sanela. "When we celebrate something, it usually includes our dances, which is how people connect and show their emotions. The songs and dances tell stories about love, and the life of the hard-working people in our villages, usually in a very funny way. Dances can also be rituals that reflect the seasons of the year, and marriage and work customs."

The festival was still a few hours from starting, but the grounds were humming with activity. Clusters of young people gathered together, laughing and flirting, attired in lavish folk costumes. It was easy to imagine I had been transported back in time to a by-gone era.

Slavonski Brod Folklore Ensemble Preserves Croatian Traditions

Sanela introduced me to Josip Perčević, President of the Slavonski Brod Folklore Ensemble, who took some time away from overseeing preparations to share some of the history behind the festival. Josip told me the ensemble has 300 members who perform 50 times a year, regulalry participating in various folklore festivals throughout the world, including events across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

He explained that since 1991, the Slavonski Brod Folklore Ensemble has been the lead organizer of the event, which has been held every year since 1963. Although there had long been folklore programs in the city of Slavonski Brod and the surrounding villages, these gatherings were local in nature and not as comprehensive.

Under the direction of the Slavonski Brod Folklore Enesmble, what had been a simple folklore show expanded into a system of year-round unique productions held in Slavonski Brod and other nearby locales, such as Donji Andrijevci, Donja Bebrina and Sikirevci. The annual June program, which has been held in Slavonski Brod for 53 years now, was renamed Brodsko Kolo Folklore Festival. Folk dancing groups participate from all over Croatia, including Slavonija, Zagorje, Međimurje, Dalmacija, as well as neighboring countries Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia. The opening performance is always danced by Brod Folklore Ensemble.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
The historic Brod Fortress at a quiet moment; during the Brodsko Kolo, Croatia's largest folk festival, its grounds are alive with folk dancers from all over Croatia, as well as neighboring countries Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia, and, of course, folk music and dance fans. The huge Brod Fortress was designed to accommodation of 4,000 soldiers, who had to defend 2,150 meters of ramparts. Today, it is the site of cultural celebrations.

The historic Brod Fortress at a quiet moment; during the Brodsko Kolo, Croatia's largest folk festival, its grounds are alive with folk dancers from all over Croatia, as well as neighboring countries Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia, and, of course, folk music and dance fans. The huge Brod Fortress was designed to accommodation of 4,000 soldiers, who had to defend 2,150 meters of ramparts. Today, it is the site of cultural celebrations.

Josip told me that the program board members includes local village folklore societies, whose work has attracted the attention of ethnologists and ethno music experts. They helped raise awareness of the need for preserving traditional native values of the region and knowledge about customs, traditional games (kolo dancing), and clothing.

"The team who designs and is responsible for the quality and traditional values of the program is very professional and has participated in the project since the very beginning," he observed. "Because of its high quality, the festival has been recognized by the Croatian Ministry of Culture which is in fact the most significant source of support."

Traditional Dances Inspired By Catholic Holidays

I asked Josip what it was that brought people together for the festival every year.

"Historically, kolo dances were danced most often on occasions related to Catholic holidays," he said. "Those celebrations called for the most festive clothing; the attire of each village had local characteristics, so the garments usually revealed the dancers' origins. In addition to clothes, it is important to mention that particular villages have their characteristic kolo dances as well as singing modes. Some of the places practiced kolo dances in a ceremonial manner, such as a rainmaking ritual during dry periods, the spring procession of Ljelje, and Christmas kolo dance, and so forth."

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Josip explained that some of the event's standing programs are the Croatian Folk Costumes Show and the Miss Folk Costume Croatia pageant, in which 35 young women take part, wearing folk costumes of their native region. The participants come from all parts of Croatia and its diaspora.

Croatian Traditions an "Act of Defiance' During War

Josip made clear that while the traditions are a source of great joy to Slavonians, they are also profoundly meaningful.

"I must certainly point out that Brodsko kolo was also held during the war years, during the aggression on Croatia. Numerous participants performed--it was an act of defiance against the enemy who was trying to suppress Croatian traditions and traditional values to the extent of ethnic cleansing," he said. "Naturally, our would-be oppressors failed in their attempt. The persistence of both the Brodsko kolo organizers and many participants is also evidenced by the fact that almost all folklore societies were active throughout the war years as well. The only year when the Brodsko Kolo Folklore Festival was not held was 1992, when our city was under the heaviest shelling and constant enemy attacks."

Honoring Slavonian Traditions As a Way of Life

For many Slavonians, like Mirela Mrvelj, honoring the traditions is a way of life. Mirela, 37 years old, lives in the village of Bicko Selo, which neighbors Slavonski Brod. She started dancing when she was 10 years of age. She enjoys wearing the costumes, which are family heirlooms that are more than 150 years old. She said it can take two hours to get her hair styled, and up to four hours to put on a costume!

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

The name of the group Mirela dances with is KUD Biđani. They have rehearsals twice a week and participate in about 20 performances and festivals each year.

Mirela knows about 50 different dances. The first dance she learned was "Taraban." The "Mjesta" dance symbolizes Mirela's village and is distinct from those of other villages."Mjesta", "Taraban" and "Bunjevačko kolo" are fast dances while "Povraćanac" is a slow dance. These dances are different in several ways, such as the number of people who are dancing, the choreography of the steps, and the way they hold hands during the dance.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Mirela recalled a moving and memorable sensation she once experienced during a performance. As the dancers were acting out the motions of making bread, she had the feeling that she had returned to the past, imagining how her grandparents lived. In that moment, she felt very proud and had a deep sense of belonging.

Mirela Mrvelj of Bicko Selo dresses
Mirela Mrvelj of Bicko Selo dresses for a folk dance performance with the assistance of local priest Mato Knežević. To create the "kika" hairstyle can take up to two hours, and putting on a folk costume can take four hours.

"It is very important to preserve our traditions," Mirela said. "We mustn't forget who we are."

Mirela Mrvelj of Bicko Selo dresses
Matea and Matej Vinarić are sister and brother who also participate in Brodsko kolo. They live in a village near Slavonski Brod called Donji Andrijevci.

Matea is 15 years old and started dancing when she was seven. Her favorite costume is 90 years old and was given to her by her great-grandmother, who is still alive.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Matej is 22 years old and began dancing when he was ten. Now a student in Zagreb, he is the leader of a singing group "Sinovi Atara" there. His favorite costume is also an heirloom, and was his grandfather's. Matej also plays the tamboura, an instrument that is symbolic of the region's musical heritage.

The Tamboura, A Traditional Croatian Instrument

Nikola Novosel is the artistic leader of the tamboura players of the Slavonski Brod Folklore Ensemble, and he gave me an education on the instrument's significance in the region.

"The tamboura is a traditional string instrument originating from the Near East," Nikola said. "Its ancestor was brought to our region by the Turks in the 14th and 15th century. Four distinct styles of tamboura tuning systems developed in Croatia--the samica tamboura was created first, after which the two-course (Farkaš) and three-course (Janković) were created, as well as the four-course or Srijem system."

"Because tamboura systems were created here, we feel we can rightly call it a Croatian traditional instrument," he continued. "The tamboura is wide-spread in Croatia, and played across the country, from Lika to Zagorje, Međimurje, Podravina, Pokuplje, Slavonia and Baranja and western Srijem."

Nikola explained that Croatia's neighboring countries have played a major role in the evolution of the instrument, saying Vojvodina's and Hungary's players greatly contributed to the tamboura-playing technique, as well as tamboura's current guitar-like appearance. He also noted that the tamboura's homeland is Bosnia, and members of the Šokci and Bunjevci South Slav ethnic people brought the instrument with them when they migrated to Slavonia and other regions of Croatia, as well as to various other places around the world that have become home to the Croatian diaspora.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
Matej Vinarić playing tambura in the Bicko Selo orchestra.

Nikola told me he has played the tamboura since the beginning of his professional career in 1979 when, as a music culture teacher, he started leading a tamboura orchestra.

"I am a self-taught tamboura player, but I received help in learning how to play the instrument from Slavonia's famous music instructor, conductor and ethnomusicologist, Mihael Ferić," Nikola said. "My first performances were those with RKUD Đuro Đaković in 1981 where I mostly served as moral support on the stage, and less as a player, because of severe stage fright."

Since those early days, Nikola has led tamboura orchestras in schools where he taught, as well as leading bands in several area communities.

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

He explained that as the art director or manager of an ensemble, he is the leading person when it comes to creating art policy. Sometimes he also leads a part of the ensemble (dancers, singers, instrument players), and sometimes he only supervises the work of the managers who act in cooperation with him and execute his ideas. The duties of the art manager include drafting the annual plan, selecting the repertoire and performances and taking care of the supply and maintenance of the inventory necessary for public performances, such as costumes and instruments.

The Meaning Behind Traditional Croatian Folk Costumes

For me, a highlight of the Brodsko Kolo Slavonski Brod Festival was enjoying the elaborate and evocative costumes of the performers milling about, and I was curious about the meaning behind them.

Nikola explained that the most practical traditional costume consists of a white rubina (shirt made of home-made canvas) decorated by handiwork on the chest (rišelje, zlatovez), corduroy pants (rajtozne) reminiscent of riding pants, which are mostly black, dark brown or dark green.

For footwear, they wear peasant shoes (opanci) with woolen socks which have characteristic patterns, and which can be white or, in eastern parts of Slavonia, green. Opanci can be worn with kalčine, socks made of rolled wool with patterns like the ones used on a man’s short coat, which is called a jankel, reklja, or špenzel. Tamboura players prefer wearing boots for practical reasons. Dancers always wear hats, but tamboura players avoid them because they are impractical when playing.

A moving clip that demonstrates the sense of community at Brodsko Kolo and the affection for the folk music and dance by people of all ages.

Nikola said the meaning of traditional costumes is very important in the presentation of traditional music. It speaks to the characteristics of how a certain region used to dress. Wearing traditional costumes complements and aesthetically enhances a stage performance.

Each region has its peculiarities in terms of music, dance, customs, dialect and typical clothing. Croatian folklore is so diverse that these features vary almost from village to village. Slavonia is particularly diverse in terms of the variety of traditional costumes, number of traditional songs and kolo dances.

Circles of Cheerful Songs

Slavonia's dances are mostly performed in closed circles of people singing cheerful songs. An upbeat instrumental backing is the basis for the relatively reserved dance steps, which is a consequence of the heavy, richly-decorated women's costumes which prevent vigorous movement. The topics of the songs are light and merry, celebrating love interwoven with humor, dedicated to where one comes from and how he lives his life. Many of them also sing about the defiance toward those who stand as an obstacle to achieving love or other plans. The songs can be played with instrumental backing or a cappella, never solo, but together and in polyphony (two or three voices).

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
"I contribute to cultivating folklore tradition because I care for it and believe that it is my primary duty, as a music culture teacher, to introduce our children to our traditional culture," Nikola said. "I believe that cultivating traditional heritage is exceptionally important for preserving national integrity and and maintaining the existence of each nation. Moreover, in cultivating our cultural heritage, we learn to respect others' cultural values as well."

"My children are also involved in music," he continued. "All four of them were members of the Brod Folklore Ensemble and finished music school. When it comes to folklore tradition, the most active of my children is my youngest daughter, Lucija, who is a member of the Students' Cultural-Artistic Association (SKUD) "Ivan Goran Kovačić" from Zagreb. My son Filip is an ethno-jazz tamboura player, and Julija studies ethnomusicology. My oldest daughter also danced in FAB but, unfortunately, as an organ and harpsichord player, she is not involved in folklore tradition."

"By participating in the cultivation of folklore heritage, I go back to a time which is behind me and which I partly lived through myself," he said. "In Slavonia, we can see a rare desire for preserving traditional heritage, mostly among the rural population. This is less present in the cities, and the trend is slowly spreading among young people in rural areas."

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Modernity Challenges the Preservation of Croatian Traditions

"The interest in folklore has been dramatically dropping," he observed. "This was caused by the society's attitude toward traditional heritage. Very little attention is dedicated to traditional culture in kindergartens and schools. It mostly comes down to individuals' enthusiasm rather than a systematic cultivation of traditional heritage."

"One of the factors that caused this is the acceptance of foreign cultural values imposed by the media," he asserted. "There are no shows about traditional heritage neither on national TV nor on the other TV channels. The situation with the radio is a bit better, but young people hardly even listen to it. In general, parents of today’s generations of children are themselves prone to lightly accepting everything that is foreign, without applying any criteria, and they don't even try to introduce the children to their folklore tradition and ignore any related events that take place. Furthermore, many children are addicted to playing video games which are more accessible and better suited to their way of life and thinking. Another contributing factor is the liberal education which allows them freedom of choice and having no responsibility."

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region
Matea and two other members of KUD "Tomislav" ensemble picking grapes in the vineyard in their everyday costume.

Nikola would have been glad to know that at least one young woman continues to cherish her Slavonian heritage even as she embraces globalization.

Yet Many Croatians Consider Traditions To Be "Treasures"

Upon my return to Cavtat, Ivana, my AirBnB hostess, made me realize you can take the girl out of Slavonia, but you can't take Slavonia out of the girl. Ivana was delighted to broaden my education on Slavonian traditions, sharing ones she has continued to observe despite leaving the area to move to the Dalmatian coast.

"Slavonia has many traditions that are saved and preserved like treasure," she said. "Lots of families, mostly in villages and rural parts of Slavonia, practice customs that have existed for centuries."

“For example, every region has their own customs of celebrating Christmas or Easter,” she continued. “In Slavonia we have a custom that on Badnjak, which is what Croatians call the day before Christmas, young boys get up very early in the morning, 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., and take a wooden switch and go to the houses of neighbors, families, and friends. They go alone if they are old enough, or with their dads. People know they will be coming, so they are also awake.”

The boys must turn the fire in the stove of each house they visit, and as they stir the fire with their switch, they say ‘Macilo se, prasilo se, rodilo se, telilo se’. That means ‘Let there be born children, cats, pigs, cows etc.’ They ask for a fertile year. Then they are given some candies, fruits and some tea, and then they go in other houses. This is tradition, and its kept alive in Slavonia. But this is not a tradition in Dalmatia.”

Ivana explained that in Dalmatia, there is a tradition that children go on Christmas Eve to neighbors’ houses and sing "Kolenda," a traditional Christmas song. In Slavonia, on Christmas Eve, there is also a traditional custom: before dinner the father or head of the house gets straw and puts it under the dinner table and then the children play in it--symbolic of Jesus' birth in a manger.

“I think it is very important to keep this heritage alive, but not everyone chooses to do this, only the ones who practice the traditions and want to pass them on to their children,” Ivana said. “My family did this and I am very proud that my mother and father gave me chance to be a part of my history—and also create my present and future. I wouldn't be today who I am if this wasn't part of my life. I am very grateful for that.”

She then explained that just as Slavonia has Christmas customs, there are traditions for other holidays and celebrations.

Warm Affection and Serious Meaning

Ivana described a wedding tradition that takes place before the ceremony.

"When the bride and her family are at home, and the groom, his brother and best man come with musicians," she said with a mischievous smile."In order to get into the yard of the bride, they have to pay to 'cross over the river.' The river is made with some huge plastic cans filled with water. Neighbors stay next to the 'river' and sing to the groom, his brother and best man traditional songs that mean 'We love our bride very much, and you can't get her before paying, we will not give her just like that!’ Then the best man and brother throw money in the river, and are allowed to pass. But not too far. Once they are in the yard, they still can't get to the bride. The brother of the bride then presents a series of ‘false brides’ and each time, the groom says he wants the other, better bride. Eventually, the brother will present the real bride to the groom."

Colorful Croatian Traditions Cherished in Slavonia Region

Ivana explained that after that before everyone goes to the church for the wedding ceremony, the bride’s mother prays for everyone, and blesses the bride and says goodbye, as this is the moment the bride is leaving home forever. After the wedding in the church, everyone does two folklore dances that are most important and familiar in Slavonia. Those are called: "Šokačko kolo" and "Kukunješće".

Nikola of the Brod Folklore Ensemble summed up both the warm affection and serious meaning that the folk traditions hold for Slavonians.

"My wish is for visitors to be better acquainted with the historical events in these regions so that they could have a better understanding of our cultural tradition," he said. "I hope they will be chosen to experience some of our customs."

"Slavonian people are diligent and kind-hearted," he said. "We gladly demonstrate customs, costumes, food specialities such as kulin, ham, sausage, čvarci. But Slavonians get angry easily and become defiant if someone encroaches on our way of life. We are proud of bravely defending our homeland and traditions from different aggressors throughout recent and ancient history."

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