Icon image in red on gold
14th century icon in the National Museum of Medieval Art, Korca, Albania

Both Christianity and Islam were deeply rooted in Albania before the long dark Communist period (1944 - 1990) that strove to eradicate all forms of religious belief, even closing all churches and mosques in 1967. Christianity flourished from the 1st and 2nd centuries until Ottoman rule brought Islam to Albania during the late 1300s into the 15th century. After that many Albanians gradually, over time, turned to Islam, as conversion offered many cultural advantages.

In medieval Albania the most popular saints were the Virgin Mary, Saint Nicholas, Saint Veneranda and Saint George. St. Nicholas, Shën Kolli, was the most important after the Virgin Mary. Nicholas was venerated by Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. He was also the patron saint of many northern mountain tribes. In 1700 one in seven Catholic churches were dedicated to Nicholas, more than any other saint except the Virgin Mary. Many Orthodox churches and monasteries were also dedicated to him.

Both Christians and Muslims celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas. This feast also incorporated the pre-Christian festival of the return of the souls of the dead. In preparation, a sheep was kept in the house for weeks before being slaughtered and roasted, to be eaten after midnight on the eve of the feast. In some places the festival lasted a whole week, not just a day.

In the north a candle was lit and the door of the house left open so the saint and the spirits of the departed could come in to join the feast. The head of the household would raise a glass of raki, saying, "May the Night of Saint Nicholas help us!" In some places three candles were lit to provide protection from earlier gods. The longer the candles burned, the greater would be a household's prosperity. And so a common curse in the northern tribes was, "May the devil blow out your Saint Nicholas candle."

During feuds, a cease-fire would be called to allow Saint Nicholas celebrations. Feuding families in many northern tribes would meet on St. Nicholas Day to reconcile, thus ending the feuds. In some places bread was blessed and shared with everyone present.

Even now, the Saint Nicholas feast, known as Kerstov by non-Christians, though no longer observed, is remembered as a day one ought not work, a day of rest.

Today thirty percent of Albanians are Christian—Catholic and Orthodox. Catholics in northern Albania do still celebrate St. Nicholas Feast. These village households raise a pig or two to be slaughtered on the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6. The pork is smoked to preserve it for the Christmas feast.

The May festival of the Translation of the Relics from Myra to Bari, Italy, was celebrated in the north when people took their herds to summer pasture.

A Folk Tale from Albania 

Robert Elsie, The Christian Saints of Albania
Wikipedia, Religion in Albania and History of Albania 
Fr Emanuel Cutajar, Charming Christmas customs abound in Albania, December 28, 2018

back to top