If you'll be spending your holidays in Eastern Europe, there are a couple things you should know: The winters in Albania are especially wet, and although many do celebrate Christmas, it's probably not going to look like your merriments at home.
Half a century ago, Albania became the world's first atheist state. Religion of any kind was banned entirely, which forbade the celebration of religious holidays. Even today, Christianity takes a backseat to Islam in this coastal country. Only 10 percent identified as Roman Catholic and less than 1 percent identified as Orthodox in the 2011 census.
Yet, the holiday centered around Jesus' birth continues to gain traction today. Many Albanians now exchange gifts on December 25 and participate in a holiday feast, albeit one without meat. Get acquainted with Albania's Christmas customs so you, too, can partake in the cultural revelries.
New Year's Has Always Been a Bigger Holiday
When the communist regimes in Eastern Europe eliminated the celebration of Christmas, people channeled their holiday energy into New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. As a result, Christmas in countries such as Ukraine and Russia is still less celebrated than the holidays that follow it.
A New Year’s tree is typical for Albania, as is the giving of gifts on New Year’s Eve. Santa Claus in Albania is called Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri, the Old Man of New Year. Families gather on December 31 for a feast of traditional foods.
Christmas Is Becoming Increasingly Recognized
Even before the religion ban, Christmas was not widely celebrated due to the majority of the population practicing Islam. Muslims have two major holidays per year, neither of which take place during winter, so don't expect everyone you come across to participate.
Christmas still isn't universally observed today, but Albania has recently made it a public holiday. They call it Krishtlindjet.
Today's Christmas Customs
“Gëzuar Krishtlindjet” is the Albanian version of "Merry Christmas." Feel free to greet the locals with it when you pass by them during your holiday shopping. Like many Americans, Christians in Albania traditionally attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. They send out Christmas cards, go to markets, and open gifts from Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri. However, you might not come by a Christmas tree unless you visit the one stationed in Tirana, the capital city.
While the region has recently warmed up to the idea of a stuffed turkey, the feast that evening is typically one without meat. Fish, vegetables, and beans all certainly have places at the table. Baklava is a common dessert.
Albania is also home to a hefty expat community that has played a major role in introducing Westernized traditions into the region. They decorate trees and cook big meals inspired by their home countries.
Tourists are often treated to Christmas parties at their hotels, but keep in mind that December 25 is not exactly the main event. Stay for the big New Year's celebration to see how the Albanians really party.