Christmas Special: My Albanian New Year's Tree!

As a child growing up, I knew Christmas had arrived when my father celebrated his birthday on the 19th December and this often coincided with Albania’s most important music event, ‘Festivali I Kenges’, an annual song festival now in its 56th year, which we wouldn’t miss for anything. I was glued to the TV again this year. In 2003 I participated for the first time, when I was only 16 years old, and just so happened to win it. The next day was my dad’s 50th birthday and my mum had organised a big party so despite winning the festival, and to the dismay of the journalists, I switched off my phone and enjoyed the party with family and friends not realising that this would be the last time Christmas would be just about family. From here on in, Christmas and New Year became very busy for me. I was now in demand performing at concerts and events and, when midnight arrived, you would find me either on stage or in the car traveling between events. However, it isn’t about my Christmases as a singer I would like to write about today.

Before my singing career took off, my Christmases were similar to those of many children in Albania who grew up in the 90s’. Albanians had only really just started to celebrate Christmas as during communism, which ended in the early 90’s, practising religion was forbidden, although people would get around this at Christmas by decorating a “New Year’s” tree instead. We got in to the Christmas routine quickly – I think American Christmas movies helped. We were happy to believe in Santa Claus and so, on Christmas Eve, we would place presents under the “New Year’s” tree, a red tablecloth on the table, and open a bottle of wine for mum and dad and a coca cola for us kids. My parents would often fell asleep, but we would wake them up at midnight to see Christmas in. “Gëzuar” (cheers), “Gëzuar Krishtlindjet” (happy Christmas). It wasn’t a big party, but it was special.

Despite the freedom to celebrate Christmas and other religious events, Albanians continued to take New Year very seriously. I’m sure Albanians will agree that for them New Year will always be an important celebration, something that is central to our traditions and, in my view, helps maintain religious harmony in Albania – we might fight over politics but when it comes to religion we are very respectful – as no one religious celebration takes precedence over any other. There is a lot of preparation for the New Year and some important “rules”. First, the fridge has to be well stocked, and food displayed on the table and not touched until the party is underway. This symbolises that family and friends will eat well for the coming year. Mama would cook days in advance and, I have to admit, I would look forward to getting stuck into the delicious baklava or kadaif (traditional desserts). Secondly, curtains, carpets and bedding have to be washed, which symbolises a clean start to the New Year. By eight in the evening, everyone would be at the table ready to enjoy a big family meal and it would last until the early hours – drinks, music, dancing and lots of singing. Is it a wonder why there are so many singers out there? However, the power would go out regularly, usually as our favourite TV show was about to start, sometimes for a few moments but often for a lot longer. So out came the candles, card games and more singing. This will be my fourth Christmas and New Year in the UK and although it is very clear that Christmas takes precedence over New Year I do my best to keep my Albanian New Year tradition going. How long this will last, I don’t know.

Bajram (Eid Mubarak) sometimes falls in December. At school we would write cards to our classmates, and I still have some given to me during my school days. “Dear my friend Anjeza, I wish you a happy Bajram, a happy Christmas and a happy New Year” the cards say. Well If religion means love and peace then there isn’t a better example than this. Ironically, communism heightened the excitement of enjoying the freedom of having faith and religious celebrations, and let’s face it, what is wrong with celebrating? If it makes people happy, that is all that matters.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a beautiful and exciting 2018.