Even during the hardest times, or when far from their homeland, Lithuanians have upheld their customs and traditions. Like life-giving roots that help us remember what was important to our ancestors, historical traditions also help us shape our modern Lithuanian identities.
With time the traditions of the ancient Balts were overlaid with Christian values. Today this unique, centuries-old blend continues to gain new features, all the while remaining a core element in our national character.
The night that the animals talk
Lithuanians have their own special way of celebrating the night before Christmas, which we call Kūčios. While we await, together with the rest of the Christian world, the birth of the infant Jesus, for Lithuanians this night also remains connected to ancient agricultural traditions and the winter solstice. To this day, it is customary for Lithuanians to celebrate Christmas Eve with their families. Straw is laid on the table, which is then covered with a white tablecloth. Perhaps the most important detail is that the meal must contain 12 meatless dishes. It is important to taste each one so that the coming year is filling and successful. At Kūčios it is important to remember family members who have passed away – a plate is set for them at the table and is left filled for their spirits overnight. Lithuanians believed that animals speak on Christmas Eve, so they used to bring them some food from the table. Various traditional games are still played on Christmas Eve – for example, after the dinner whoever pulls the longest straw from under the tablecloth will live the longest. Another traditional game involves the unmarried young women present standing near the main door and throwing a shoe onto the threshold; if your shoe lands pointing at the door you will soon marry, but if it is pointing inward the young men will walk past your home. To this day it is customary, before Kūčios, to pay your debts and make amends with anyone with whom you have been angry.
Chasing away winter with pancakes
“Winter, winter, run away!” – for hundreds of years we have chased winter away (usually in February). Užgavėnės – our Shrove Tuesday – is an old holiday celebrated on the last meat-eating day before Easter. In older times in Lithuania it was a feast dedicated to fertility, satiety and abundance. These ancient traditions have survived to our times – on Užgavėnės groups of masked, costumed characters can still be seen marching through the streets and we eat pancakes, because it’s believed that if you don’t eat plenty of rich food that day you will be hungry all year. An excellent place to celebrate Užgavėnės is at the Lithuanian ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės, where the largest Užgavėnės monster – the Morė – is lit on fire.
Greeting spring with verbas
For more than 400 years in Vilnius, spring has begun on the first weekend in March, when the streets and squares of the Old Town are filled with craftsmen: ceramicists, wood carvers, sash and basket weavers, sausage makers and bread bakers. And most importantly, people selling verbas – the beautiful oblong bouquets of dried flowers and plants that Lithuanians carry on Palm Sunday. This spectacular event – the weekend-long Kaziukas Fair – is related to the feast of St. Casimir (March 4) and has spread to many of the country’s towns. People not only buy and sell crafts and food at Kaziukas – there is plenty of music, singing, dancing and eating. For hundreds of years the fair has been famous for the Vilnius region’s spectacular verbas, which are bound from dried flowers and grasses that still smell of summer.
The Easter egg – a symbol of life
Easter is a beautiful spring holiday in Lithuania that combines Christian traditions around the Resurrection with ancient, archaic rituals related to the rebirth of the land, new life, and preparations for the work ahead. The end of a long period of fasting is now celebrated with festivities, dancing and singing, and tables laden with festive treats. The most important accent of a Lithuanian Easter is a basket of brightly coloured eggs. We decorate them using wax and natural dies from onion skins, beets and turmeric, and leaf and flower imprints. Lithuanians of old saw eggs as powerful symbols of life, fertility and the cosmos. Some Lithuanian families still follow the customs of sprinkling each other with water and playing on swings on Easter day.
Bonfires and ferns on the shortest night
Lithuanians have many names for the celebration that takes place on the shortest night of the year: Joninės, Rasos, Kupolė. Ancient Lithuanians believed that witches gathered at crossroads at midnight on June 23rd and flew off to the hills of Šatrija or Rambynas to whoop it up. On this special night, across the country Lithuanians light bonfires to chase away witches and other evil spirits. We search dense forests for magical fern blossoms, which are said to reveal all the mysteries of the world to those who are lucky to find them. Grasses gathered on Joninės night are said have magical powers, and anyone who bathes in the next morning’s dew will be healthy the rest of the year. On this magical night, young women weave wreaths of grasses and flowers and let them float down streams. The singing and leaping over bonfires lasts till morning. Joninės festivities can be witnessed in all parts of the country, but are most spectacular and authentic at the Kernavė archeological site near Vilnius.