Christmas in Albania, called Krishtlindjet, is so different from that in Malta. This is so, primarily, because  Albania has a large Muslim population. Only 30 per cent are Christian, Catholic and Orthodox. Besides, the former Communist atheistic regime spared no efforts to obliterate the Christmas religious festivities and, purposely promoted only  those of the New Year.

Christmas was not widely celebrated even before religion was outlawed.  The democratically elected governments that followed the fall of the Communist dictatorship have ushered in a new era, introducing  a more inclusive policy whereby all religious communities are free to celebrate the festivals of their respective beliefs.

Now, Christmas  Day and New Year’s Day , nationwide, are hailed as the end of the year’s  festivals, festat e fund vitit. Christmas carols, especially Jingle Bells and Last Christmas, echo the streets and the big department stores in Tirana and the main towns, all handsomely decorated from early December. Christmas trees, gaudily decorated, dominate the main squares of the country.

Both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are national holidays  but, obviously, pride of place is taken by the latter. The popular Christmas carol, We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, Good tidings I bring to you and your kin echo all the time from both local and national radio stations. I must say that both communities, Muslims and Christians alike, celebrate Christmas with great merriment. 

Far and away from the din of the ever increasingly commercial celebration of the Christmas festival in other parts of the world, I must admit that I embraced with relief Christmas in Albania. Indeed, liberating. No hustle and bustle. People, here, are in no hurry at all.

 In the villages, in particular, there is not so much shopping to do, the exchange of gifts is done with local produce. Grappling with the hard realities of life, especially in the villages, they are in no mood to bother about the acquisition of items they can do without. The most important thing is to provide bread and meat on the table during the Christmas season, but especially on Christmas Eve.

Fr Emanuel, with one of the girls that has just received her Christmas present.Fr Emanuel, with one of the girls that has just received her Christmas present.

In fact, most Catholic households in our villages would have reared a pig or two. Very often, the fattened pig is slaughtered on December 6, feast of Saint Nicholas, a feast strictly celebrated by almost all Catholics in the North of the country. The pork destined to be consumed during the Christmas festival is smoked. Very few own a freezer where the food can be preserved. Mothers make sure there are enough provisions to last during the last two weeks of the year. Ferlik pork (pig roasted on a spit) is served with fried potatoes, byrek, the Albanian version of our pastizzi, cold boiled eggs, kos, the home produced yoghurt, and salads.

The favourite desserts during the Christmas festival are the home-made traditional varieties of bakklava and lokum (Turkish delight). Mandarins, oranges, dried fruits and nuts are in abundance. Raki, the home-made grappa, and wine are toasted with Qofte levduar Jezu Krishti!, “Blessed be Jesus Christ!”.

This is still a frequent expression in greeting each other. The age-old tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve is quickly fading out. Many households bake their own bread. Unleavened maize bread is not uncommon.

Roast turkey substitute ferlik pork on the table of Albanians for those who can afford it, the new emerging middle class in the main towns. In fact, during the month of December, both sides of the main road to Shkoder, along the Zadrima stretch, are littered with farmers ‘herding’ turkeys to be sold to passersby. Roast turkey has always been the favourite dish for the New Year’s dinner in Albania.

Those who cannot afford a turkey, (it is quite expensive in Albania) are happy to cook chicken or buy some pork from the main street of the village where pigs have just been slaughtered there and then, thereby attesting to their freshness.

In the towns, food stores are full with panettones that people gift to each other. During this festive season, as the parish priest of the community, I get my fair share of pork, raki, and wine, which I dispose of discreetly  in my own way.

There are no street lights in Torovice. But the darkness of the village is broken by the front veranda lights and the occasional decorative  Christmas light sets twinkling from the windows and on walls.  The terraced houses clinging to the mountain side  make it  look like a crib. I made sure to set up a big Christmas tree in the church to brighten things up in such a depressed area where there is very little to be happy about.

On Christmas Eve morning, most Catholics come to church for confession. The Christmas Eve Mass starts at 10pm and is very well attended. In fact there is not for everyone in St Joseph’s parish church. Many have to be content with standing outside to follow the celebration.

But before saying this Mass, I go to say Mass in two other missionary outposts in the valley. I am not obliged to do so. But the people there do deserve it. They have all come down, in the last 30 years, to look for a better life in the valley of Torovice, right from the barren North Albanian  mountains where their ancestors had fled to avoid conversion to Islam enforced by the Ottoman colonial power.

People attending Mass on Christmas Day at one of the missionary outposts, namely Shkembi i Kuq, Torovice Valley.People attending Mass on Christmas Day at one of the missionary outposts, namely Shkembi i Kuq, Torovice Valley.

They frequently recall the days when they had to walks miles along difficult terrain in the mountains to get to the nearest church to attend midnight Mass.

The Franciscan Sisters, helping out in the parish, presented a Christmas play in the church, just after Christmas. This always goes down well with the locals.

This year, I tried to make as many papier mâché small cribs as possible, 30 in all. I was able to get cement paper, which, pasted with glue, dries fast and creates the rock-like formation of a crib. I bought the statuettes for the cribs at a good price from a small family enterprise in Schoder.

Young and old alike are keen to get hold of these cribs, raffled after the celebration of Mass. I still remember my early days in Albania when I could not find enough carton boxes to use as a base for the cribs. I learnt, later on, that the empty cartons boxes were taken up by those who live in makeshift shelters to  keep out the cold and water during the winter months.

Every year, I also make it a point to get hold of many toys as possible to give out to practically all the children of Torovice.  An English couple, who come frequently to Albania, supplied me with soft toys, some of which were prepared by elderly people in the Sheffield area. Of course, I bought all sorts of toys from a wholesale retailer shop in Tirana, made in China of course.  Nice and cheap.

Round Christmas time, the parish distributes hampers of food, very basic indeed, such as rice, macaroni, edible oil, flour, biscuits etc. A big trailer comes all the way from Brescia, Italy, laden with food to be distributed equally among 10 parishes most in need. The Coca-Cola factory in Tirana obliged with a handsome supply of hundreds of bottles and cans of soft drinks.

And so this is Christmas! This is my Christmas. I cannot think of a better and meaningful way to pass Christmas.

To help me out in the diverse pastoral and philanthropic activities connected with the mission of Torovice, I receive financial help from Malta . Lately, the Mosta-based Mission Fund, kindly contributed  €2,500 towards the mission of Torovice. The Mission Fund can be supported by donations online, or by bank transfers on one of  these accounts: 061 197 448 050 (HSBC), 163 007 980 19 (BOV), 200 008 207 62 (APS) jew 000 879 631 01 (BANIF). More information can be obtained from the website

Fr Emanuel Cutajar is parish priest, Torovice, Lezhe, Albania.

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