Lithuanian Kūčios: awe-inspiring rites in anticipation of Christmas

Kūčiukai cookies
Kūčiukai cookies on the Lithuanian Kūčios table. Shutterstock photo.

The Lithuania Tribune spoke to Marija Liugienė, chief coordinator at Vilnius‘ Ethnic Culture Centre, about Christmas Eve, or Lithuanian Kūčios traditions.

How significant for Lithuanians has been December?

December has always been a time of waiting. According to the agrarian calendar, people would wait for solstice and, according to the Christian faith, it meant the birth of Jesus. Over the years, the time of solstice waiting has coincided with Advent. What do Lithuanians wait for nowadays? How many of the compatriots comprehend the gist of the waiting?

Frankly, it’s hard to tell this, as no research has ever been done on that. Definitely, it would be ideal if we could get through the time being aware- and conscious- of its significance.

But regardless of our relation to time, I believe many of us feel that this time of year is not ordinary- on the contrary, exuding a feeling of a sacral stretch of time. I dare to say that the time when we all are getting a little bit better, generous, more sensitive and more attentive to each other. And this is great.

What are the most vivid Lithuanian winter and Advent traditions embedded in our ethno-culture? How do they intertwine with each other?

Advent precedes the huge shift, i.e., the biggest holidays. Likewise ahead of any holiday, it’s desirable to have one accordingly prepared for them: pay back debts, get with everyone on good terms if possible and, importantly, purify the soul and body.

Thence, the old traditions of fasting, which includes ridding of dairy and meat dishes and abstention from all sorts of amusement. In fact, there are many inhibitions, constraining man’s agricultural and entrepreneurial activity and spiritual life during the time. It is believed that, during it, the dead’s souls become more active, as well as ghosts, devils and other ephemeral otherworldly creatures.

Why did our ancestors during Advent get together in the evenings in the old days? What was the reason for that?

The entire period of Advent has always been full of mysticism and lingering uncertainty. People, especially in the old days, believed that spirits are particularly sneaky, snoopy and precarious. Therefore the folks would do what our predecessors always did facing danger: get together and try to stave off the ill entities in the entirety- working together and them having fun, singing, dancing, telling fairy tales and scary stories and carousing, to the limits, sure.

The need to congregate has persisted until these days, especially in the rural hinterlands. Just look around: how many all kinds of jamborees, meetings, concerts, exhibitions, presentations and other sorts of get-together are there in December. Sure, most of the events are happening owing to the end of the year, when usually work gets done and people want to celebrate the completion. But, still, the roots of the gatherings go back centuries ago.

What kind of jobs are on the must-complete list to follow the Advent traditions? Why?

As a rule, through the month of December, works that don’t require rush was done. Also, kind of light works, therefore, women in the sticks would spin threads, tear feather; meanwhile, men would fix harness, twist ropes, knit nets or chop twigs for twig-intertwined baskets. But all threshing work had to be done before Advent.

Why did Lithuanians slaughter pig and dress flax usually in December?

The latter logically ensued all the other agricultural works on farm. Pigs would be slaughtered in December out of practical intentions: to stock enough meat for the months until the celebrations of Shrovetide, the time through which the countrymen, especially youngsters, tried to get in good physical shape and get ready for the wedding. The period from the end of Advent until Pancakes Tuesday was abundant with weddings. After slaughtering a pig, before starting to make ham, the farmer’s wife would dip the meat into salt and every good housewife knew that it takes around 4-6 weeks to get the meat salted.

What dates stand out in the celebratory string in December?

Well, for example, every 4th of December would be devoted to care of the livestock. That day, women were prohibited to engage in any work with sheep’s wool.

On the 6th of December, called earlier as a day of Horses, the farm keepers would better feed their horses, tap and comb them in a sign of gratitude, would pamper the animals with a larger ratio of oats on that day and ask God to make sure that next year is good. Let’s remember that, a millennium ago, epic heroes would be buried with their stallions, or at least with their heads and hoofs at least.

The 13th of December was called the day of Light, or name-day of St Lucia. It is quite possible that, in ancient times, various rituals with flame were performed. In anticipation of the solstice, people would revere a glint of sunlight that they would tame in their furnace.

What is the origin of fasting?

Fasting has been through the centuries as a means for bodily and spiritual cleansing. All religions in the world prompt people to fast at least a couple days in the year. Traditionally, Lithuanians’ meals, due to the adverse climate, were substantial and caloric. But the rites prohibited working hard in Advent, so light meals were not out of place, but compatible with the physical sluggishness.

What did our ancestors eat when fasting? What nourishment was deemed the best during the cleansing?

Fasting days included Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. All would consume mostly vegetables and fruits, for example, cooked beans, fried apples, hazelnuts, sauerkraut, red cabbage salads with coldly pressed sunflower oil, herring with steamed carrots and onions, roasted hemp with flax seeds and various mushroom dishes. Quite a popular vegetable was a Swedish turnip, quite a forgotten vegetable now. Our ancestors would mix it with potatoes, mash into porridge and spice it with poppy seeds or poppy milk. Sure, there would be oat pap on the table, but the menu was short of vegetarian as fish-eating was allowed.

What was the mandatory list of must-do things in anticipation of God’s son?

The fasting rituals were particularly stringent on Christmas eve, with many refusing to put a poppy seed into mouth before his birth. There was a popular belief that abstention will bring success: young girls will get married, herdsmen will find more wild duck nests with freshly laid eggs in spring and, for the elderly, it bid a longer life. All would be very concerned about settling all rifts and rows, get on better terms with neighbours and, sure, forgive for wrongdoing the family members and neighbours.

It was customary to invite over single neighbours for Christmas eve (Lithuanian Kūčios) dinner. Notably, if some pauper would swing by, he would be bathed and dressed in clean clothes and offered a seat at the festively-decorated and dish-rich table.

Sure, all the corners of the hut had to be cleaned up thoroughly before it, and the Christmas tree had to be decorated. While on the way to the forest, birds and animals would be taken care of – get hay from barns, for example. People would be wary of not getting too full at the dinner and it was advisable only to taste each of the available dishes.

So effectively, the supper was kind of a sacral act, and food only served as a means to strengthen the family ties and get in touch with the souls of deceased ancestors. So, not surprising that even until now some families still leaves an empty plate for the passed-away.

I still remember how many gone grandma would exert putting 12 dishes for Lithuanian Kūčios supper and my grand-daddy would lay wisps of hay under the tablecloth. But then in my childhood, I was aware that the traditions vary from one region to another. Can you tell me, please, how?

In fact, there are over 100 Lithuanian Kūčios dishes and, you are right, there are many regional differences. For example, in the Vilnius region, locals would necessarily savour Lithuanian-style ravioli with poppy seeds stuffing. The dzūkai, аn ethnic group in southern Lithuania, would usually make soup with mushrooms, especially boletuses, and bake buckwheat pies and cakes.

The aukštaičiai (an ethnic group in northern Lithuania) would always put on the table boiled wheat served in honey gravy. Meanwhile, the žemaičiai, or Sаmogitians, living in the country’s western and north-western parts, used to spice their celebratory Lithuanian Kūčios supper with frizzled mashed hemp. Characteristically to Samogitians, fish and fish dishes would be abundant for the supper. Аnd finally, the suvalkiečiai, who live in the south-west, used to relish boiled peas and beans. And for all the ethnic groups, kūčiukai served in poppy-milk was a must that evening.

Obviously, the Lithuanian Kūčios traditions over the years have changed, sometimes beyond the recognitions, but the latter dish has persisted longest on our Lithuanian Kūčios tables. Whatever we tend to put on them now, I reckon is fine, but putting on the table imported fruits and supermarket-advertised kūčiukai is definitely a bad idea, I think.

And, finally, what is the origin of the word kūčia or kūčios, meaning Christmas Eve?

Prominent Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Būga derives the word from the Greek word kukia, which means in the language a mix of various seeds with poppy seeds and honey. Interestingly, such a dish, consecrated in the Orthodox Christian Church, is still served in Slavic regions for a funeral or in commemoration of anniversaries of the dead. Some language researchers believe the word originated from the word kūtė, i.e., a barn, allusion to Jesus‘ birth in a barn.

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