Albania is nearly 60 percent Muslim and about 25 percent irreligious, with only about a sixth of the population being practicing Christians. As a result, Christmas is not as widely celebrated in Albania as in other European countries. However, even non-religious and some Muslim Albanians do observe the season.
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Another reason that Christmas is a little more “low profile” in Albania is the lingering effects of decades of Communist rule. The Marxist government that ran Albania throughout the second half of the 20th Century banned Christmas and persecuted Christians who tried to celebrate it anyway. As a result, New Year’s Eve and Day “took the place of” Christmas. And still today, “Santa Claus” appears bearing gifts to children on New Year’s Eve under the name of “the Old Man of New Year,” and the greatest feasting and fanfare centres around New Year’s Day.
Nonetheless, Christmas has begun to increase somewhat in popularity in Albania in recent years, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers celebrate “Krishtlindjet” every December 25th with special services. A midnight mass to welcome Christmas the very moment it arrives and a “follow-up” service on Christmas morning are traditional.
As Albanians place great emphasis on family togetherness, this year end season is a special time for family feasting and fellowship for those who celebrate it. Gifts are exchanged, everyone is greeted with “Merry Christmas!,” Christmas cards are sent to friends and family, and new clothes and items that will be used by the whole family are busily shopped for.
The main Yuletide meal comes on Christmas Eve and is traditionally meatless. Fish, vegetables, beans, and various desserts are consumed in large quantities. Stuffed Christmas turkeys, however, have also become popular.
It also worth noting that many foreigners who live in Albania “bring Christmas with them.” They put up and decorate Christmas trees, do their best to cook the festive meals they are used to in their home countries, and engage in full merriment even if their neighbours aren’t always doing the same.
And tourists visiting Albania for Christmas will find that many local hotels hold special Christmas parties this time of year. Others with “connections” are able to find a local family who celebrates Christmas to spend the holiday with and to get a firsthand look at how many Albanians keep Christmas.
Here are some ideas on what to do include:
- Visit the main square of Albania’s capital city of Tirana, where a giant, fully decorated Christmas tree is on display during the Christmas season. You can see fireworks explode above the tree in the night sky when Christmas arrives, and they will likely last past midnight. This is the “main event” for Albanian Christmases, so you may not want to miss it.
- Look in stores, at restaurants, and in bake shops for “bakllava,” a famed Albanian Christmas dessert that resembles a multi-layered pie. There are nuts dripping with gooey honey and syrup between each layer of pastry, and few people who taste bakllava once manage to stop there.
- Tour the Rruga Murat Toptani Christmas Market in Tirana. It is held along a busy street, where authentic and seasonal food and drink, “prototypical” Christmas items, and unique Albanian arts and crafts are all sold in a dizzying Christmas shopping medley.
Those visiting Albania for Christmas will find that it is only celebrated with fervour in select areas and by part of the population. Yet, there are still significant, popular Christmas events to attend and interesting Albanian Christmas traditions to explore.