As I've written about before, the New Year’s Eve dinner remains one of the most meaningful holiday traditions for Albanian families like mine. While many European countries focus celebrations around Christmas, we Albanians hold the ringing in of the new year as most important. The customs we follow today actually originated fairly recently, mainly taking shape during the 50-60 years of communism in the 1900s. As someone who was a child in those times, I recall several details around the distinct Albanian way of celebrating New Year's Eve back then.
New Year's Eve in Decades Past
Under the communist regime, Christmas held no meaning, as Enver Hoxha's dictatorship established Albania as an atheist state. According to documents in government archives, the last recorded Christmas greeting dates back to 1966 - a telegram from the Albanian Orthodox Church congratulating the leader of the Catholic Church in Albania. For over 40 years, Albanians did not publicly celebrate any religious events. Instead, the most significant holiday was December 31st - New Year’s Eve. Workers would receive small gifts for their children, stores overflowed with hard-to-find foods, and there was an indescribable magic in the air.
Women would take the day off to thoroughly clean the household - washing curtains, blankets, and anything else in sight. The motivation was to welcome visiting relatives and neighbors to a sparkling home, as well as buy any new furniture or items to decorate. People believed that putting in this effort would bless them with an abundant new year. The evening itself was spent feasting at home, then for the first days of January, Albanians would visit extended family and neighbors to exchange New Year's wishes. It was common for close families to "compete" to see who could serve the most sweets, drinks, and fresh and dried fruits when paying these visits.
The Main Event - The Food
Above all, New Year's Eve centered around the celebratory foods and meals. This holds true even today. Preparations still begin a week in advance of December 31st, with baking the traditional New Year's baklava dessert.
The conventional cooking consists mainly of roasted or fried seafood, usually served with pershesh (a boiled pasta dish mixed into the seafood pan juices). Veal, lamb, or pork also makes appearances at the table depending on regional customs. In coastal or lakeside areas, the star dish is often a fish casserole. Regardless, Albanians take pride in having a table overflowing with various salads, appetizers, and other delights - even if it's just immediate family gathered. And there are always copious leftovers.
New Traditions Emerge
Where the classic celebrations featured entire families crowding around the single state-run TV channel for comedy shows and an exclusive late night movie, today's myriad options still find humor programs as the top viewing choice for New Year's Eve. Popular shows like Portokallia, Al Pazar, and Albanian sketch comedies battle for the highest viewer ratings.
More recently, there are signs that old traditions are shifting. Rather than preparing a feast to welcome visitors, younger generations now cook more intimate meals catered to their own nuclear family preferences - seafood spreads, unique salads and appetizers. However, there remains a strong movement to maintain old world rituals. It has also become fashionable for New Year's Eve dinners to be held at restaurants offering special fixed-price menus, though out of budget for many Albanians. Ultimately, the importance lies in spending it with close family, friends and avoiding loneliness during festivals.
After dinner, Albanians often head out to watch fireworks displays and town square concerts, not just in the capital Tirana but all around the country. They'll continue the night at local bars, drinking and reveling with friends until the early daylight hours when the new calendar year has officially begun.