New Year celebrations are a big thing in Albania, much more than in the UK. This is because of the communist past where Christmas could not be celebrated and instead all the efforts and the attention were on New Year. We had Father Christmas (wearing the same red suit and a white beard) but he was ‘Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri’ meaning the ‘Old Man of New Year’. So he would come on New Year’s day and give children presents. He would also represent the old year that was about to end and in a popular children’s theatre the old man is replaced by a young man, who brings along the new year and also hopes and a new start for everyone.
We also had the tree but again not the Christmas tree but New Year’s tree. And on New Year families would celebrate together, cooking big meals and turkey, and the traditional homemade bakllavas and kadaifs (sweets of turkish origin in Albania but very engrained in the culture). The main blocks of Christmas celebrations were there but under a different name and happening on a different date.
An Albanian speciality which remains popular is the festive New Year’s eve TV programme with songs and comedy sketches that would accompany families’ dinners until the early hours of the morning. And also the fireworks a modern addition, where almost everyone will fire fireworks from their balconies or terraces at midnight on New Year’s eve.
Our representation of New Year was wider than just the year’s end, as it incorporated all the Christmas imagery but with a different meaning and messaging. And it had the positive message of the start of a new year that would bring excitement and joy.
Communists don’t celebrate Christmas!
You may not know this but Albania is the only country ever that has banned religion and made it illegal. The communist leader Enver Hoxha persecuted and eliminated thousands of priests and religious activists in an effort to eradicate what Marx called ‘the opium of the people’ when referring to religion. Of course this was a criminal act that caused the death and sufferance of thousands of people and it remains a dark moment of our history.
So being a child in communist Albania at Christmas time was a curious thing. My grandmother was religious, with the Orthodox church and she was also born in Corfu (from Albanian parents who had immigrated in neighbouring Corfu from the south of Albania).
She had two important dates in December, the 14th of December the date of celebrating the patron of Corfu, Saint Spyridon and Christmas day.
For the first she would cook ‘llukumadhe’ a type of pancake that we would eat with a lot of sugar until we (children) would feel our bellies exploding.
For the second we would have a family dinner and she would burn candles in secret. Of course we couldn’t say anything to other people about these events as this could compromise my grandfather’s position (he was a military doctor that had studied in Russia and fought with the partisans) and consequently everyone else’s (his children, my mother’s, father’s etc.). So we had to be quiet and secretive about it.
As a child I was never encouraged to believe in Father Christmas as it wasn’t part of our beliefs. Babagjysh, the old man of New Year was a positive, religion-free figure that brought hope, a new beginning and happiness and as a child I had some feelings for him.
Christmas is back in Albania
Since the change of regime in Albania in the early 90s, religions are no longer illegal. For historic reasons before communism, people in Albania followed three main religions – muslim (brought in by the Ottoman invasion in the beginning of the 15th century), orthodox (introduced in Albania earlier as part of the Greek Church) and catholic (even earlier with the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church). So after the ‘communist religious blip’ we are back to where we were before, with most of the population being muslim, a smaller percentage catholic and an even smaller one orthodox.
Because religion has not had a very strong role in people’s lives in Albania, Christmas as a religious celebration is celebrated by a minority.
The occasion however as a general public holiday and festive day is celebrated in a different way, for example a Christmas evening booked at a restaurant with live music and a lot of dancing (dancing is a strong part of Albanian traditions).
The long journey to Christmas in the UK
I try to be weary of generalizing and I know not everyone is the same and the ways people celebrate Christmas in the UK can be different. But for almost everyone and judging from conversations and what people say on social media, Christmas is a big ordeal!
It is a big occasion when families get together and there is a lot to organise from the shopping list, to the christmas menu, the list of presents, decorations for the house, the tree, christmas music etc, etc. And there is the whole christmas branding, adverts, lights, supermarket offers, retail sales, etc. It is quite easy from an outsiders point of view to associate Christmas with commercial opportunities (for businesses and consumerism for consumers). But behind that there is a genuine element of spending time with your cousins, brothers and sisters etc something that doesn’t happen often.
Even my mother who since I started living in the UK has attempted to learn a bit of English following a ‘Learn English’ book for children said that she read in her book about a little boy who said ‘I love Christmas as it is the time when I see my cousins, who I don’t see very often, only once a year’.
So there is the family spirit and it is the one I have appreciated the most in my last 4 English Christmases.
When it comes to New Year celebrations, New Year has less importance and is often spent with friends organising themed parties where everyone dresses up in the chosen theme.
New memories similar to the old ones
Without wanting to sound nostalgic I feel that although it is in a different time and space my son’s memories of Christmas will be quite similar to the ones from our New Year’s celebrations.
What he loves the most is seeing his grandparents, their dog, his cousins, being with everyone around and spending that leisurely time in each others company.
For me, my best memories of New Year were similar, the spirit of everyone coming together, celebrating and having some special food and special time. Presents were never a strong part and I hope we manage to teach that to our son, that Christmas is not about the presents only. This may prove hard as for children naturally the unwrapping of presents on Christmas day is at the heart of the excitement but we need to try our best to emphasise the importance of the company of each other, instead.
My cousins and I had our favourite activity during New Year celebrations – playing with cards and betting small amounts of money. The excitement of winning (and misery of loosing) was what kept us playing until our banks were empty. The other one was on 1st January, we would go around to our relatives houses to try some of their baklavas and also be given a small amount of cash. This was part of the tradition and we would have it every year. After doing the round of the houses we would sit down at a cafe and enjoy an ice-cream or some other sweet, in a ‘civilised way’ we would call it, like our parents would do.
I am sure my son and his cousins will have their own stock of memories built over the years.
After all that is what Christmas and New Year (in the Albanian way) are about, spending time with your cousins!
I have included this post as part of the Daily Post theme – Happy, happy, joy, joy as this post is all about happiness at special times of the year, Christmas and New Year.