Longform | Christmas

‘Decorating gives you life’

By - 30.12.2022

End-of-year grandeur in Bistazhin and Pjetërshan.

There is no specific date for when the decoration of houses, yards, squares and churches for the end of the year holidays should begin. It just feels like the time has come. Towards the beginning of November, at dusk, in big cities like Prishtina, Prizren, Peja, Ferizaj, Gjilan, Gjakova and smaller ones such as Klina or Suhareka, the lights are turned on.

However, a unique and old decorating tradition can be found in two villages near Gjakova, Bistazhin and Pjetërshan.

The municipality of Gjakova, where these villages are located, borders Rahovec. The Fshajt Bridge passes over the Drin River and also forms a border between the two municipalities. Behind this bridge lie the two villages. On winter evenings, they are made easily visible by the lighting in the churchyards and the cross placed on top of the Zonja Rruzare Church, at a height of 52 meters.

While in the cities, decorations are usually put up after a company has won a tender, in these two villages everything comes from the community. This begins four weeks before Christmas, a period known as Advent.

“In the spiritual and religious aspect, we have Advent, where for four Sundays a candle is lit inside the church and a prayer is said,” said Don Lush Sopi. Don Lushi is in his 60s and is the parish priest of Bistazhin and the first Zonja Rruzare Church.

“Candles are used as decorations and we spiritually prepare for the coming of Christmas. But the external regulation is of great importance, because it strengthens the internal,” said Don Lushi, who during these four weeks travels with 11 other parishioners around the churches of the Gjakova municipality to give the worshipers the opportunity to confess. “After a difficult year, the holidays make it easier, they free us and relax us mentally,” he said. 

The Zonja Rruzare Church in Bishtazin. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Thirty years ago, as a 30-year-old man, Don Lushi had undertaken a mission: to do something different. Born in the village of Binçë in Vitia, he started his parish mission in Zllakuqan in Klina, where he spent 18 years. For the last three years he has been serving in Bistazhin. “I can proudly say that this village has the most beautiful church in the country,” said Don Lushi, interrupting the conversation to give candles to members of the congregation, who take them to light in the cemetery on Christmas Eve.

Since 1992, Zllakuqan, in the Klina municipality, has decorated a large oak tree in the church yard.

“I have never mentioned it, out of modesty, but in Kosovo, I was the first person to decorate the churchyard in Zllakuqan. Seeing how it was done in other places, we decided that we should decorate it with the youth. Before then, as far as I know, it wasn’t done anywhere,” said Don Lushi.

Don Lush Sopi, parish priest of the Zonja Rruzare church in Bistazhin, in Gjakova, started the tradition of decorating churches in 1992. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Having not been seen until then, the decoration drew everyone’s attention.

“It was very interesting. That road connects Klina with Istog and Gjurakoc and many vehicles pass by. When we decorated it, there was no bus that didn’t stop to take pictures and look at it. It was something unbelievable at that time. We had a very large oak, 150 years old, which we decorated. After that we did the church and the courtyard. It was perfect,” he said.

The volunteers of Zonja Rruzare

Alongside Don Lushi sat Lekë Tuci, 46 years old, who leads the decoration of the church and the churchyard.

“I have always been here. We have decorated the interior of the church since I can remember. My brother, for example, has always arranged the nativity scene as he wished, with no one interfering. Around 2001 or 2002, we started to decorate the church more,” he begins to explain.

He picks up the phone and shows the group chat where they communicate.

“We meet each other here often, but here we have the group, where we agree to gather and to start. Everyone gathers at once. There used to be more young people, but we work very well with those who are still here,” said Tuci, whose house was just a few steps away from the church.

Lekë Tuci leads the decoration of the church and the courtyard in Bistazhin. He claims that the tradition of serving drinks from small temporary huts started in this village. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

According to Tuci, the inhabitants of these villages, including those of Islamic faith, stop and bring them drinks or something to eat, as a sign of respect for their work. According to Don Lushi, even 30 years ago, Muslim Albanians used to come to Zllakuqan, when it was decorated for the first time. 

The Zonja Rruzare Church lies on a well maintained lawn in the middle of the village. Surrounded by houses on all sides, it is built in the style of modernist architecture. It was built in the early 1970s by architect Pren Krasniqi, from the village of Nepolë in Peja. The architectural influence of the time has left its mark there –– the massive concrete walls are covered by hexagonal stones, all hand-carved.

“One worker carved three to four stones per day when it was built. It’s a colossal job,” said Don Lushi.

The entire church was surrounded by lights, along with the parish building. The lights are 1,000 meters long and 1,250 sets of lights are scattered throughout the yard.

“For all of this, 25 to 28 working days are needed. That’s how long it took us to arrange it this year,” said Don Lushi, who besides taking care of cemetery maintenance also works with the decorations. Those who have jobs help them after hours, while one group works intensively.

Many volunteers from the village of Bistazhin help to decorate the church. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

This year, in order to save electricity, Don Lushi, together with the village community, have set a schedule for when the lights will be on.

“We know we have an energy crisis. So the lights stay on from 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.,” said the priest, before Tuci interrupted to tell a story.

“One night I passed by around 1 a.m. and the lights were off. A vehicle had stopped and some people had entered the yard. I stopped and asked them why, they told me that they had come for the lights. I went in and turned on. They took pictures and left, then I turned them off,” said Tuci.

Three doors led inside to the ground floor of the church. Tuci insisted that we should see the second floor, where stained glass windows were installed decades ago. Unlike the ground floor, they were handmade and in block form. When the light reflected on these windows it looked like the cover of Pink Floyd’s famous album, The Dark Side of the Moon.

“We were the first to build a small wooden hut [to serve drinks]. We started by gathering together there, drinking tea, coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. We sell the drinks cheaply and the proceeds we use for the church, for example, for buying the lights,” said Tuci.

Inside the church that day work was being done, as in the evening over 400 worshipers would be waiting for Christmas. A nun and a volunteer made sure everything was in line.

A nun at Zonja Rruzare church preparing for the Christmas celebration. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The white lines on the church’s circular ceiling lined up with the stained glass windows, which turned the light from outside into colors. Next to the brown seats were two balconies for worshipers and the church choir. 

“Pope John Paul II, the holy miracle worker Padre Pio, Our Lady of the Rosary after whom the church is named, Mother Teresa, followed by the four apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” Don Lushi said, pointing out who was depicted in the stained glass.

Don Lushi stands in front of the stained glass. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

“Do you see that in this statue, Christ has a wound on his chest? Well, now look at the stained glass over there at Christ. See how the hole is in the same place? A bullet hit there during the last war,” said Don Lushi, who is now preparing a plaque that explains the origins of the hole.

An attention-grabbing church

Along narrow roads, about 6.5 kilometers from Bistazhin, is the village of Pjetërshan. There are few Albanian-language media outlets that have not sent a team or published news about this village. The village has caught people’s attention because of the church’s decorations.

A decorated house between the villages of Bistazhin and Pjetërshan. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In Pjetërshan, on the road, a large house competed with moonlight that emanated from the open sky. The whole house was illuminated by lights. Illuminated pine trees linked the house to the main street, which was also lit up. Shining deer were scattered in the large courtyard. The closed blinds signaled that no one was home. Closed blinds were common, seen in every second house. This indicates that a large number of the diaspora come from these villages.

Near Pjetërshan, you could see the intensity of these lights mixed with those from the Church of St. Joseph the Worker. A straight road from the center of the village that passed by the school led towards the church. A tunnel of lights was placed at the entrance. The trunks of the linden trees were wrapped in lights, as were the pine trees. On the left side of the entrance there was a nativity scene. A little further down, hot drinks were sold from a small wooden cabin.

The church and the decorated courtyard in Pjetërshan. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

A nun was arranging the last details, while the parish priest Don Marjan Uka, 39, waited for us. He had traveled from Stublla of Vitia to Klina, Prizren, Budisalc and finally, in 2017, he settled in Pjetërshan.

“Decorations in the church and courtyard started between 2008 and 2009. From 2017, we made a bigger change, we decorated the lindens, the pines, and from 2018 to 2019, Pjetërshan began to have a very large influx of visitors, not only from Kosovo,” said Don Marjani. 

Don Marjani, parish priest of the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in Pjetërshan, Gjakova. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

The phenomenon of sharing photos from this church on social media has made Pjetërshan a December destination for thousands of visitors. But the work starts much earlier.

“To be honest, we immediately start talking about preparations in January. There are around 50 volunteers, who start preparations intensively in August and September. After that, the work is done in three weeks,” said the young priest, who is inundated with interviews during the holiday season.

No one had expected that Pjetërshan would become a winter tourist destination, because everything had started as a community initiative.  

“We didn’t expect it, because we didn’t know what kind of dance we were entering. Now the responsibility is even greater, because the expectations have grown. It was not our intention to decorate it to attract people, but we decorated it for the community,” said Don Marjani, who insisted on calling it Christmas decor, even though the New Year festivities take advantage of the occasion. 

The decorated courtyard of the church of St. Joseph the Worker in Pjetërshan, Gjakova. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In 2021, the media outlet Euronews compared the decoration of Pjetërshan to Washington and Moscow, as the most beautifully decorated places for Christmas.

“It was extraordinary, something to be proud of. It’s also heartbreaking, because when such a comparison is made, the state should step in and contribute to make it even more beautiful,” he said. He has a plan of what needs to be done.

“Let’s invest in the Christmas market. My plan to make the whole road from the school to here a market. There are 700 meters where the villagers would sell drinks, food and other things. But we can’t do this on our own,” said Don Marjani as he shows that with their own efforts they have put 1,000 sets of lights and 1,200 meters of lights in trees and elsewhere.

Bethlehem at the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in Pjetërshan, Gjakova. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

As in Bistazhin, members of the congregation in Pjetërshan donate money for the decorations. The sales from the huts help them a little. Through sales they can calculate an approximate number of visitors. They use the number of glasses used as a way to measure the number of visitors. These numbers show that in the period between 2020 and 2021 there were over 20,000 visits, and over 13,000 visits before Christmas 2022. 

The electricity bill during this period is higher. Pjetërshan also has adapted to the energy crisis by keeping the lights on for a shorter time frame and they tend to buy lights that are more energy efficient. However, they are unable to minimize the eventual damage to the lights, which is inevitable due to the rain and their poor quality.

“We always buy those of better quality, lights that we have arranged with efficient bulbs and strong cables. But, the small lights do not make it through the season. Out of 1,000 sets, when we take them down, around 200 sets of lights are free from damage. However, the best investments reduce our budget for the next year,” Don Marjani explains. The preparation this year cost 6,500 euros in total.

In both churches, the pine trees inside were taken from the mountains with permission from the forest authorities, according to Don Lushi. 

The church and the decorated courtyard in Pjetërshan, Gjakova. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Gjakova lies beyond the villages

A few kilometers further, Gjakova, the town to which these two villages belong, was also decorated. The city’s central park, in front of the Asim Vokshi Palace of Culture, was transformed into a festive square.

2023 was written in big lights, warning us that we were enjoying the last days of 2022. A large pine tree was surrounded by small wooden huts.

Among the lights, silhouettes of people walking, taking pictures and buying hot drinks from the cabins stood out. The atmosphere was that of a holiday. The Municipality of Gjakova put up all of these decorations with a private company, a contract worth about 29,000 euros.

Adhurim Haraqija, from Gjakova and an employee of this company, put together this project with a team from the municipality.

“We have worked to bring a more beautiful festive atmosphere through the decorations. However, we have given a special importance to the iron frames, so that they are stable and safe, because children will be wandering everywhere,” said Haraqija, who also takes care of maintenance.

In Gjakova and other cities, the end of year decorations are done by private companies. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

He has worked on the decoration of Gjakova before and he has also decorated Peja and sent some decorations to Bajram Curri in Albania.

If you dig deeper into public contracts, you notice that cities have spent much more on end of year decoration contracts than Bistazhin and Pjetërshan. Prizren spent over 36,000 euros, Podujeva over 19,000 euros and Drenas almost 10,000 euros.

Some more and some less, as Don Lushi said, “not every church has the same budget, some decorate more — some less. But it’s enough, because decorating gives you life and calms you down.”

In Pjetërshan and Bistazhin, the lights and other decorations stay turned on until January 6, and return, full of light and life, at the end of the next year.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.