Culturally enrich your holiday season with the string and accordion rhythms of the Croatian Feast of St. Nicholas, the first Saturday in December. The public is invited to join the annual event, sponsored by the Anacortes Croatian Cultural Center (801 Fifth St., Anacortes).
St. Nicholas, explains Maria Petrish, founder of the Croatian Cultural Center and director of the internationally acclaimed Vela Luka Dance Ensemble, was a “compassionate fourth-century bishop and is the patron saint of seafarers, widowers, and those in need. You’ll find statues of him,” she adds, “at the entrance to harbors in many Croatian maritime communities, and many churches are named after St. Nicholas, particularly in Slavic countries.”
The St. Nicholas Feast day begins with a 10 am mass at St. Mary’s Parish (4001 St. Mary’s Drive, Anacortes, WA 98221). A procession follows to Seafarers’ Memorial (601 Seafarers Way, Anacortes) for a short ceremony to honor individuals lost at sea. About 11:30 am, the merriment begins, with a no-host lunch and music nearby at the Croatian Culture Center. In addition to the lunch menu, traditional Croatian pastries will be for sale.
Croatians, who hail from the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea, Petrish says, are not big dessert eaters, which accounts for their remarkable health. “At Christmas, though,” she adds, “we would indulge in sweet things made with orange peel, raisins, almonds, walnuts, and dried figs, flavored with cognac or brandy. We had no whipped cream or much butter, because there was not enough flat land to sustain a cow. Our milk and cheeses came from goats or sheep.”
For people of all cultures and backgrounds, traditional Croatian foods—much of it influenced by the Ottoman Turks—and culture have a large following in Anacortes. You’ll find folks lined up for such specialties as cevapcici (a savory sausage-shaped meatball) and ajvar (a roasted eggplant and red pepper spread) at the center’s many annual celebrations and every Saturday, May to October, in conjunction with the Anacortes Farmers Market.
Croatians emigrated to Anacortes in two waves. The first, around 1900, were seeking greater economic opportunity. The second, after World War II, were political refugees fleeing Tito’s communist Yugoslavia. Says Petrish, whose family had run a 500-year-old shipping and wine business, immigrants “were farmers, some were shop keepers, others carpenters or stone masons. They came from all walks of life. As island people, if they wanted fish, they would go catch it. What they all shared, without exception, was their elemental passion for the sea. When they came to the San Juan Islands, they were not looking to be fishermen, they were searching for a home near their beloved sea. Fishing happened to be handy.”
It was members of this second wave, more educated and aware of their country’s history, who kindled in Anacortes regular celebrations of Croatian culture with the music, food, dance, and traditions of their homeland.
The Cultural Center itself is housed in a beautifully restored former 1891 Presbyterian church established by Annie Bowman, wife of Anacortes founder Amos Bowman. The Queen Anne-style “Little Church,” as the structure is affectionately called, is the oldest surviving church building in Anacortes, and designated an Anacortes Historic Landmark Building. In addition to being the center of local Croatian cultural life, the facility’s main hall, gallery, kitchen, and private outdoor courtyard may be rented for parties, weddings, receptions, classes, seminars, and other gatherings of up to 134 people.
The St. Nicholas Celebration is open to the public. To join the feasting at the Croatian Cultural Center, please call (360) 299-2525.
originally written on November 14th, 2014 by Jan Hersey