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01 Jan 18

Kosovo Muslims Relish Their Christmas Celebration

Aleksandra Hiltmann

Although most people in Kosovo are Muslim, that does not stop them from enjoying the Christmas and New Year holiday as much as any other Western country.

Pristina. Photo: Beta.

Layer upon the layer of light chains, glitter balls and other sorts of decorations have adorned the Kosovo capital of Pristina these days, transforming it into a fairytale city, as its residents and many visitors celebrate Christmas and the New Year Eve holidays.

Pristina's main street, Mother Teresa Boulevard, has looked especially enchanting, bathed in gold, silver, red and blue colours and glitter, with decorated, sparkling Christmas trees standing proudly at each end of the street.

Scores of people mingle around, some gathering in the Christmas Market Village to sip hot wine, others taking pictures with Santa Claus, who offers hugs to the bystanders to the sounds of English Christmas Carols.

This holiday scenery may come as a surprise to some, who may imagine that the mainly Muslim inhabitants of Kosovo would not be celebrating a Christian holiday with such enthusiasm.

But many residents of the city say that there can never be enough excuses for a celebration, while also explaining that their version of Islam is more moderate and open than outsiders realise.

Celebrate whatever you can

After centuries of co-existence between different ethnic and religious groups in the Balkans, and after the passage of different political regimes, many people in the Balkans like to celebrate a range of Christian, Muslim and even Jewish holidays.

Then there is New Year’s Eve, which in Socialist times was encouraged by some as a replacement for Christmas, but by others as a welcome addendum to Christmas itself.

“If there is something to celebrate, you should always celebrate,” a woman in her mid-thirties says, merrily, sitting in a bar.

She recalled that, as a child, she insisted that her parents set up a Christmas tree at home. “We are Muslims here, but we love Christmas,” she smiled.

Her friends agreed, saying that the Christmas and New Year holiday was always a great opportunity to meet up with friends, enjoy the street decorations, exchange presents and hold parties.

Another conversation over a glass of hot wine with a young man offers another view of the context in which Albanian Muslims in Kosovo celebrate Christmas.

According to him, since some Albanians are Christian, all Albanians, whether they are Christian or Muslim, can celebrate Christmas together.

His statement reiterates what analysts and academics frequently describe, which is that a sense of ethnic belonging in Kosovo is much stronger than religious feeling.

“For me, it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or a Muslim, as long as you are Albanian,” the young man says.

Orthodox Christmas not celebrated

The easy and joyful conversation enters murkier Balkan waters as it touches on one of the darker chapters of Kosovo’s more recent history – the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the war in Kosovo in 1999, for which most Kosovo Albanians blame the Serbs, both in Serbia and in Kosovo.

Asked whether he would also celebrate Orthodox Christmas with Kosovo's Serbian Community, the young man replies tersely: “No.”

Yet other Kosovars stress that even ethnic tension, which ran high in the 1990s, have slowly eased in recent years. In some parts of Kosovo, especially those with larger Serbian communities, old neighbourly traditions are slowly coming back.

But not perhaps in Pristina. “Orthodox Christmas is ignored here in Prishtina,” another man, from the local Roma community, says.

Two people living in a Serb community concur. “They don’t know what they are celebrating,” one says, questioning why Kosovo Albanians are so enthusiastic about Catholic Christmas.

She adds that many Albanians celebrate it because they perceive it as something “American” or “Western”.

For many Albanians, the West and especially the US stand for freedom, including religious freedom. The important role that the US played in ending the Kosovo war has further strengthened this perception.

The other person complained that Christmas and other religious holidays have largely lost their true spirit as they become more and more influenced by capitalism and a consumer-oriented society.

As a child of a mixed marriage, with Serbian, Hungarian and Croatian roots, this man says that he and his family celebrate both Catholic and Orthodox holidays and saints, while he also often visits Muslim Roma families for Bajram.

The man from the Roma community says that different local views 

on religious holidays may also reflect the fact that, under the Yugoslav Socialist regime, the authorities first banned and later discouraged celebrations of religious holidays.

“So, instead of a Christmas tree, people decorated a tree that they labelled a New Year’s tree,” he recalls, adding that this practice was equally popular among Christian and Muslim Albanians.

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