Forbidden Christmas dinner

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Growing up in the Republic of Albania, Merita McCormack looked forward to New Year’s Eve when her father, dressed in a red suit and a bushy white beard, would enter the house with pockets full of nuts, fruit and coins to give to his delighted children. While most children around the world would call him Jolly Old St. Nick, to McCormack he was the Old Man of New Year by order of the Communist regime.  

Restrictions of this kind began in 1967 when Albania became the first country in the world to become an official atheist state, thus banning the religious practices of the country’s Christian and Muslim populations. According to McCormack, who grew up during this period, the government went to extreme lengths to rid the country of religion.

“The majority of the clergy were killed and the churches made into centers,” said McCormack, a parishioner of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean. The tradition of Christmas was kept alive outside the country by Albanians in the Balkans and around the world. Those Christians who continued to live in Albania during this time could not celebrate Christmas, but would instead serve their traditional holiday food on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

“The Catholic Albanians (would) have fish for dinner on Christmas Eve, (and) hallva and tollumba, both dessert cakes with syrup,” said McCormack. The Orthodox Albanians would have a four-course meal Christmas Eve. The dinner would start with pickled peppers stuffed with cottage cheese, black olives, pickled tomatoes, salami and Albanian feta cheese along with one boiled egg per person. Chicken noodle soup with lemon was served during the second course, followed by rice and a type of meat such as turkey, ham or lamb, with fried potatoes. The meal would end with Baklava and seasonal fruits. 

On New Year’s Day, families would dine on leftovers and if they ran out, they would eat lamb instead of turkey. Throughout the day, visitors would travel from house to house visiting friends and family. It was important to have your thickest and biggest Baklava there to greet them, McCormack said. Raki, a type of moonshine, and red homemade wine were popular drinks.  

Since the fall of the regime in 1991, religious holidays and traditions have returned with a new fraternity among the country’s different religious denominations. Many Albanian Muslims attend midnight Mass with their Christian brothers and sisters as a sign of solidarity. 

McCormack converted to Catholicism in 1996 and enjoys learning about the traditions she could not practice as a child. Every year she looks forward to making the meals of her ancestors for her family, and is thankful that she can now celebrate the birth of Christ. 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016