The Croatian Licitar on Our Label

What is a Croatian Licitar?

Croatian licitarThe red heart you see in our Croatian Soapworks logo and on our Croatian soap labels is called a “licitar” (pronounced “lit-see-tar“).

Licitarsko srce, or “licitar hearts”, have been handcrafted in Northern Croatia for centuries. They have become part of the country’s cultural heritage, and have ultimately developed into one of Croatia’s important national symbols. They are very popular as souvenirs, and we think they make a charming addition to our Croatian soap labels!

Croatian licitars are colorfully decorated cookies/cakes/biscuits that are traditionally made from a honey-based dough containing flour, sugar, eggs, water, yeast or baking soda, and spices.

The dough is shaped using molds or cookie-cutters, baked, coated in a shiny, colored gelatin (usually red), and skillfully hand-decorated. It takes many weeks to make licitars from start to finish.

Real licitars are completely edible, and the recipes are closely guarded secrets that are passed down through generations.

Although referred to as “gingerbread” hearts, licitars actually contain no ginger or molasses. Like bread dough Christmas ornaments, they will stay fresh and shiny for many years.

 

Croatian Licitar Designs

Croatian licitar with mirrorTraditional Croatian licitars are red, decorated with a swirling outline and small flowers. and often have a small mirror in the center. Given by loved ones or admirers, the mirror lets the receiver see the face that the giver loves.

You will also find licitars decorated with pictures and verses or other personal messages. They are crafted into a variety of sizes and shapes, but the most popular are definitely the hearts.

licitar Christmas ornamentsLarger licitars are gifted to loved ones on occasions like Valentine’s Day, Easter, weddings and other special occasions. Smaller licitars in the shapes of cherries, dolls, birds, horses, horseshoes, etc. are commonly used to decorate Croatian Christmas trees.

 

Croatian Licitar Origins

The old tradition of honey/gingerbread cookie/biscuit making and giving dates back to The Middle Ages, when they appeared in medieval monasteries throughout Central Europe. They were made in intricately carved wooden molds and decorated with bright colors. In Austria and Germany, they were called lebkuchen, and lebkuchen bakers were documented as far back as 1296 in Ulm and 1395 in Nuremberg. Lebkuchen are traditionally soft, but are also made in a harder form, molded into decorative shapes and decorated with sweets and icing.

German LebkuchenThe sweet treats were called gingerbread because of the spicy dough, although it may have contained honey rather than ginger. They were often shaped to look like flowers, birds, animals and even armor. In 1444, Swedish nuns were baking them as window decorations and to ease indigestion (thanks to the ginger in them). In Medieval England, gingerbread biscuits were thought to have medicinal properties and were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers’ markets. Ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or ate a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of snagging a real one!

By about the 16th Century, the idea reached Northwest Croatia. The Croats developed their own unique interpretation of the treats and named them “licitar”, which is thought to come from the word lebzelter. Licitar makers, called Medičari, became highly sought-after for their expert craftsmanship, and their work was held in high regard.

The production of licitar in Croatia took place primarily in Zagreb, Samobor, Varaždin, Karlovac, Koprivnica and throughout the Hrvatsko Zagorje region, but the best Medičari (craftsmen) were known to be in the village of Marija Bistrica. While licitar are not a religious symbol, they may have become popular as souvenirs for pilgrims to the village’s centuries-old Croatian National Shrine of Mary. You can still learn (and learn about) the original licitar craft in Marija Bistrica today.

Examples of similar honey/gingerbread treats in Europe include Poland’s pierniczki (from Torun), Bulgaria’s меденка (meaning “made of honey”), Romania’s turtă dulce, Russia’s Тульский пряник (Tula gingerbread), the Czech Republic’s perník, Slovakia’s medovník, and, of course, they were the inspiration for English gingerbread men. In Slovenia, they are called medenjaki.

 

UNESCO “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”

In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Croatian licitar as an important part of Croatia’s heritage. This designation on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity ensures that the world is made aware of such cultural masterpieces and to promote and safeguard the tradition. Enjoy UNESCO’s video about licitar:

Other Croatian traditions that have been designated by UNESCO include lacemaking in Croatia (in Pag, Hvar and Lepoglava), the children’s wooden toys made in Hrvatsko Zagorje, Klapa (the multipart singing of Dalmatia), Bećarac singing and playing from Eastern Croatia, Zvončari (the annual carnival bell ringers’ pageant from the Kastav area), and others.