Excerpts from Lithuanian Customs and Traditions, by Danute Brazyte Bindokiene
The Lithuanian Charter tells us “A Lithuanian treasures his national heritage and customs.” Lithuanians and their descendants dispersed throughout the world, strive to keep their Lithuanian culture, language, art, songs and dance, customs and traditions alive amongst their families, organizations, and communities. Therefore, the “Lithuanian Customs and Traditions”, 1st and 2nd edition (1989 and 1993), published by the Lithuanian World Community, became a very successful book. Popular demand encouraged the Lithuanian World Community and its Education Commission to publish a 3rd edition. We are especially grateful to the author and editor, Danute Brazyte Bindokiene, for her original work and revised new edition. We appreciate the administration of all three editions by he Lithuanian World Community Foundation, and particularly for having financed the last two editions. We believe that this 3rd edition of “Lithuanian Customs and Traditions” will be useful and invaluable to families of Lithuanian heritage, schools, and all those who seek their roots, or have an interest in the customs and traditions of Lithuania.
Vytautas Kamantas, President, Lithuanian World Community
Regina Kuciene, Chairperson, Education Commission, Lithuanian World Community
I. Characteristics of Lithuanian Culture
- On being Lithuanian and the Lithuanian Language
- Lithuanian National Costumes
- Months of the Year in Lithuanian
- The Role of Agriculture
- Association with Neighbors
- Forms of Salutation, Greetings, and Congratulation
- Blood and Marriage Ties
- Women in Lithuanian Society
- The Lithuanian Home
- How Lithuanians Curse
II. National Holidays
- Independence Day
- Lithuanian Anthem
- Lithuanian Flag
- Lithuanian State Emblem
- Lithuanian Currency
- Saint Casimir’s Day
- Day of Sorrow
- National Day
- Armed Forces Day
III. Calendar Feast Days
- New Year’s Day
- Shrove Tuesday
- Palm Sunday
- Holy Week and the End of Lent
- Feast of St. John
- Feast of the Assumption
- All Souls’ Day
- Christmas Eve
- Christmas Eve Dishes
- Christmas Carols
IV. Family Celebrations
- The Wedding
- The Wedding Eve
- Wedding Eve Songs
- The Wedding Day
- Wedding Songs
- The Rue
- Lithuanian Girls’ Names
- Lithuanian Boys’ Names
- Lithuanian Forms of Christian Boys’ and Girls’ Names
- Mother’s Day
- Birthdays and Name Days
- Funeral Hymns
Lent was viewed with great solemnity in Lithuania. People fasted, prayed much, avoided holding or attending any form of entertainment. No one would have dared to hold a wedding during Lent or dance at a party.
As Lent drew to a close, especially after Palm Sunday, preparations for Easter began at full speed. The last three days before Easter were considered especially important and even called “great.” These were Holy Thursday (Didysis Ketvirtadienis), Good Friday (Didysis Penktadienis) and Holy Saturday (Didysis Šeštadienis). Lending anything was avoided on these three days because life would later be unlucky: luck is lent away. On Holy Thursday, it is necessary to wash or bathe in a river, lake or pond: all blemishes, pimples and boils vanish. If that is impossible, one must at least wash the face with cold water outside at dawn: the skin will be free of pimples. Wash your face with snow to avoid sunburn, it will be beautiful and white. On Holy Thursday you must clean and wash not only yourself but the whole house, thereby making it easier to keep the house clean all year. If a person rises early, sweeps the rooms and pours the sweepings over his neighbor’s fence, all uncleanliness will pass to the neighbor. Pests (fleas, cockroaches) may be exterminated in a similar fashion: after sweeping the house, pour the dirt on the neighbor’s property line and return home without looking back. All pests will disappear from the house.
Bugs and pests can also be eradicated on Good Friday by bringing sand or soil from the cemetery and scattering it where bugs such as crickets and fleas breed. They will immediately vanish.
On Good Friday, people conduct themselves in a serious manner, even children are forbidden to make noise because they will then be restless and loud all year. All forms of house cleaning cease because the dust can get into Jesus’ eyes and He is already suffering so much on Good Friday.
Next summer’s weather can be predicted on Holy Saturday. If the wind blows from the west, the summer will be rainy; a southern breeze means a warm summer; wind from the east brings a good harvest, while a north wind forecasts a cold, unpleasant summer.
People go to church on Holy Saturday to obtain blest fire and water. It is said that lighting a twig with blest fire and carrying it around the house will cause all the snakes to depart from the vicinity. The water was kept as protection against evil spirits, storms and fire.
Homemakers prepared the food for Easter on Holy Saturday, and later the entire family colored Easter eggs.
Easter eggs were colored by two methods:
- the eggs were dyed and various designs were scratched onto them
- the design was produced with wax.
It was a distinction to color beautiful Easter eggs. Everyone did his best to display his or her talent. Young girls, who wished to give Easter eggs as gifts to their beaus, worked especially hard to produce beautiful eggs because this determined whether her talents, skill and ingenuity would be appreciated.
In the past, eggs were colored with homemade plant dyes. For example, onion skins give a pretty medium light brown color; dried corn-flower petals a blue grey; hay particles a green; beets a dark red, and alder bark a very dark brown, almost black tint. In more recent times, eggs were colored with store-bought dyes.
When an egg is decorated by the scratch method, it is first hard boiled, cooled and dunked in the dye (a warm egg may also be immersed in dye). When the desired color is achieved, the egg is removed and its surface carefully scratched with the tip of a sharp knife (a pocket knife works very well for this purpose) until the color layer is removed and lines of white shell appear. These lines form various designs. Care must be taken not to pierce the shell. The patterns of scratched Easter eggs are more detailed, angular, sharper and rather intricate. No prior practice is necessary, the process is the same as drawing on paper with a pencil, only in this case the pencil is the knife tip and the paper is the colored egg. The design may be carefully drawn with a regular pencil or white chalk on the egg and the lines etched with a knife. The pattern is more visible if the egg is dyed a darker color.
When using the wax method you will need a metal container holding pieces of candle (preferably white); the container is placed on a stand over a lighted candle. The wax melts from the candle flame and must be heated to the point of almost smoking. The hotter the wax, the easier it is to draw the design on the egg. Certain tools are also needed to draw the pattern. They are easy to make: take several pencils and insert pins with different-size heads into the erasers. The larger heads are good for bigger patterns, thicker lines, while the smaller ones are used for fine lines and detailed designs.
Hard-boiled eggs must be thoroughly cooled. The dyes must also be cold. The pin head is dipped into the hot wax (keep it a little longer the first time, as the pin has to heat up) and used to draw part of the design on the egg. It is necessary to work rather quickly because the wax on the pinhead cools and hardens very rapidly. It then becomes impossible to transfer it evenly onto the egg surface. With a little practice, this task is easily accomplished. A beginner should make short strokes, dots and simple designs. As the hand becomes accustomed to the work more intricate designs can be made. Working is more convenient if the hot wax container is positioned very near the dyer, making it easier to reach and preventing the wax from cooling as quickly as it is brought to the egg.
After the desired pattern has been applied, the egg is lowered into the dye. The wax-covered areas remain white thus producing a design. It is easy to make an Easter egg of several colors by starting with light dyes and adding darker ones. As an example: a portion of the design is applied to the white egg, it is immersed in yellow dye; after it is removed, more design is added and the egg is placed in green dye. When the egg is removed, we have a two-tone design, white and yellow, while the egg itself is green. If more wax is added to the green shell, it can then be dipped into purple or red dye, thus adding green to the design. With some experimentation, very interesting results can be attained. The wax-method design usually consists of shorter strokes because long strokes cannot be made as the wax cools or runs out on the pinhead.
If the Easter eggs are not intended for consumption but only as decorations or gifts, fabric dyes may be used. They produce very vivid colors and thoroughly cover the shell.
We can also try using the old-fashioned method and color Easter eggs with onion skins. About two handfulls of dry yellow onion skins are placed in an enamel pot, a desired number of eggs added over the onion skins and covered with cold water. The pot is placed over a low flame, brought to a boil and slowly simmered until the eggs are hard boiled (about 10 min.). The eggs should be left in the brown liquid until cool. The light brown eggs may be decorated by the scratch method. They can also come out of the dyeing-pot with an interesting design! Before the white eggs are placed into the pot with the onion skins a few sprigs of rue or even parsley can be placed around the egg shell and fastened with thread so they do not slip off during the boiling. After the eggs are taken out of the pot, the plant sprigs are carefully removed: we have a white (or very light tan) design where they covered the shell!
After completing Easter preparations on Holy Saturday, the people went to church and remained through the night until the Resurrection services. They sang hymns and prayed as they kept vigil. In Lithuania it was a custom to recreate Christ’s tomb, sometimes even posting guards dressed in ancient Roman military costumes to keep watch.
The word for Easter, Velykos, has been borrowed from Beylorussian and means “important day.” The word is very accurate because Easter was the year’s most solem feast in Lithuania. Easter is not only the feast of Christ’s Resurrection, but also nature’s awakening from winter’s sleep.
The early Eastern morn, just before dawn, abounds with magical power. Much of this magic is concentrated in flowing water. Bathing in such water before sunrise prevents all boils, sores, rashes and other skin ailments. If it rains on Easter morning, it is necessary to stand bareheaded in the rain to ensure good growth. Small children who wanted to grow quickly were reminded of
As the sun rises on Easter morning, it “dances” swaying from side to side and changing color: from green to blue, to red and then golden yellow. This phenomenon can be seen by rising before dawn and watching for the sun’s first appearance on the horizon.
Everyone went to the Resurrection services. If on the way you passed a woman, you’ll have an accident. To avoid calamity it was necessary to turn around, return home and then take another road to church.
In Lithuania the Easter morning procession was usually conducted around the church. It was very solemn: church flags were held high, girls strewed flowers, the choir and all the people sang, alternating with a brass band, and the church bells pealed loudly. Three turns were made while singing the Lithuanians’ favorite Easter Hymn Linksma diena mums nušvito (A Happy Day Has Dawned for Us). After the services, a blessing was made over the Easter food which was arranged in baskets decorated with greens and placed on the altar-rails.
At the conclusion of the liturgy in church, the people hurried home. In fact, all large and small roads, every path was the scene of races: whoever arrived home first would be successful all year and would complete all work on time. Even persons walking tried to pass those ahead and reach home first. It is not surprising that accidents happened during such races. Perhaps that is why
it was said that a woman met on the road brings disaster (someone had to be blamed!).
At home, Easter breakfast was eaten. The meal began when the homemaker peeled a blest Easter egg, cut it and gave a piece to every member of the family. This was done so that peace and love would always reign within the family and everyone would live in harmony. Afterward, a variety of other dishes was consumed: meat, sausages, cakes. On Easter it was necessary to eat well and to satiety, to “recover from Lent” because of the fast all through Lent. If the area had poor families with no Easter food, their neighbors shared what they had and brought the disadvantaged families everything they need to be satisfied and happy.
Children hunted for hidden Easter eggs left them by the Velykų Senelė (Easter Granny) or Velykė. Bunnies who painted Easter eggs were also a familiar fixture, but they were only helpers for the Velykų Senelė. Very early Easter morning they loaded Easter eggs into a beautiful little cart pulled by a tiny swift horse. The Velykų Senelė used a sunbeam as
a whip. Sometimes the bunnies themselves pulled the cart laden with Easter eggs.
The Easter Granny travels around the country, stopping in every child’s yard to leave eggs in baskets placed or hung for that purpose. When they awake, good children find beautifully decorated Easter eggs (and in. more recent times even sweets). Bad children only find a single plain completely white egg. If this happens, the child is disgraced. His friends and family laugh at him. Sometimes bunnies accompany the Granny and help her distribute the Easter eggs. They are kept busy not only before Easter and on Easter day, but all year round baking cookies for children. When
parents leave their children behind, they promise to bring them a gift, bunny cookies. Upon their return, they tell the following tale:
“I’m walking through the woods (or orchard or past the bushes) and I see a bunny wearing an apron and hat, his sleeves rolled back, taking sweet-smelling cookies from an oven. I say to him: ‘May the Lord help you!’ He answers, ‘Thank you, thank you. Would you like a taste? They’re still hot.’ Of course, I dol They smell so good, they look so good. . .”
In the meantime the-child can hardly control himself:
“What kind of oven was it?” “Tiny, pretty.” “Did you get to taste any cookies?” “Yes, of course.” “Did you bring me any?”
At this point, the father, mother or other family member pulls out the goodies and distributes them to the children who are extremely impressed not only by the bunny cookies but also by the baking method itself. They can practically see the flushed, rushing bunny mixing the dough and stoking the oven. How wonderful that morn or dad just happened to be passing at the very time the cookies were done!
Bunny cookies are famous throughout Lithuania. It would be good to remember them outside Lithuania as well.
A variety of games were played with Easter eggs. The simplest is an egg-breaking contest. Two players face off, each holding an Easter egg and hit each other’s egg. The one whose egg remains intact is the winner. The egg is held in the fist so that only its tip protrudes. The other player hits it with the tip of his egg. If the egg breaks on the side, the impact was wrong and the owner of the broken egg is not considered the loser. The winner claims the broken egg. After the game the number of eggs won was tallied. It was of paramount importance to have a hard-shelled egg that withstands breaking. In selecting a strong egg, the contestant taps an unboiled egg against his teeth. If the sound is clear and sharp the shell is hard: if dull and muffled, the egg will break quickly, it’s not even worth coloring.
Some smart alecks devised an “unbreakable” egg. It was made this way: a raw egg’s shell is pricked at both ends. A thin straw is inserted into one end and used to blow out the contents through the opposite end. Another straw with one end shaped as a funnel is then placed into the hole and melted pine or fir sap is poured until the egg is full. If the sap does not flow smoothly, a helper inserts a straw into the opposite hole and draws the air out of the egg. After the egg is filled with sap, the holes are carefully concealed and the egg is then tinted along with others. It weighs about the same as a real boiled egg. Sometimes the empty shell was filled with melted sugar, but it was much heavier and the sugar hardened unevenly making it more difficult to play. Of course, if caught, the cheat was punished. The direst penalty was to eat the “Easter egg.”
Another amusing Easter game was egg rolling. This was best done outdoors, but also could be played in a larger room. A trough is made from pieces of wood or bark to measure about 10 cm long and 15 cm wide (it can also be much longer). One end of the ramp is propped up to produce a downward incline, but not too steep. A small circle is drawn at the bottom of the slope for the playing field into which the eggs will roll. When the game is played outdoors, the trough must be placed on a smooth surface because the eggs will not roll in the circle if there are pebbles, high grass, etc. When played indoors, the surface of the circle must not be too slippery for the eggs will roll out. A low wall or enclosure may be built around the circle. When all the preparations are completed, the players begin the contest. Four to eight persons play. Each uses an egg of a different color to tell them apart. Eggs may also be marked in different ways. The egg is let down the incline. After one contestant finishes, the next rolls his egg aiming to reach the other’s egg and tap it. If the egg hits the first one, its owner wins and takes the first egg. The eggs are rolled down the
slope in turn. A contestant who wins an egg rolls out of turn until his egg fails to hit another. Another player then takes his egg from the circle and rolls it.
Eggs used in the rolling contest may already be cracked (for instance, already used and won in an egg-breaking contest), but their sides should be intact because eggs with cracked sides do not roll well. The trough may be straight or curved in different ways to make the eggs roll longer. The slope may also be made of cardboard from an old box, plastic or any other material strong and rigid enough to support the weight of an egg.
A simpler egg-roll is done without a trough. A circle at least one meter in diameter is traced on a smooth surface. Barriers or enclosures are placed around the circle to keep the eggs from rolling out (crumpled newspaper may be used). A gate is kept open on one side through which the players push their eggs. The first player is chosen by lot. He rolls his egg into the circle. The
second player attempts to roll his egg so that it will tap the first one. The game is played like the one using an incline, but in this case the eggs are rolled into the circle by hand with the player kneeling or sitting on the ground. Because the egg does not roll down a ramp, the entire game depends on the contestant’s skill, how he rolls his egg into the circle. If the egg is rolled so hard that it leaves the playing field, the contestant loses his turn.
In the past, only young men and adolescents played egg-rolling contests. It was not proper for girls to do so. They provided their beaus with eggs, cheered the contestants on and guarded the eggs won. Today mostly children (boys and girls) roll eggs.
If guests arrive on Easter, they are given Easter eggs as gifts. The guests also bring an Easter egg for each family member (or at least the hosts and sweets for the children). Easter morning children go “egg begging” but only to the homes of acquaintances, close neighbors or godparents. When they arrive, they say hello and stand silent at the door. It is quite obvious to everyone that an Easter egg is required. The children politely say thank you, wish a Happy Easter and continue on. When Easter was celebrated for three days, no one went visiting the first day, it was unacceptable to intrude upon people on such a holy day as if someone had thrown you out of your own home.
The first day of Easter was said to be dedicated to God, people were expected to conduct themselves seriously and quietly, spend time with their family, eat well and “recover from Lent.” The second day was for recreation, visiting friends and having company. The third day was devoted to relaxation. People slept late, recovered from all the merrimaking because work was waiting in the wings.
For Easter, homemakers set out Easter dishes which remained on the table all day. When guests arrived, the women could then spend time with the company and did not need to work. The table was covered with a white cloth and decorated with greens or fruit tree branches (mostly cherry) which were cut and set in water several weeks earlier so they would bloom for Easter. (Easter
lilies were unknown.) Greens were also attached to the tablecloth hem which hung down from the table. The table was laden with cold Easter dishes: baked ham, goose, suckling pig, a basket or plate full of Easter eggs, sweet cheese, bread, cakes, etc. Beer (mostly homemade), liqueurs and cider were served as beverages.
Everyone who arrives to extend Easter greetings must be served. It was considered very impolite for the guest to refuse refreshment. Everything had to be at least sampled and the cook praised, else she would feel insulted.
The young who behaved with such solemnity all during Lent wanted to have fun on Easter. They assembled at a larger house to sing and dance. This usually was done in late afternoon or evening. During the day, it was popular to swing in swings and sing. If the Easter weather was warm and fair, the swings were hung from a tall tree so the young could swing higher. Given inclement weather, the swing ropes were tied from barn rafters. People swung not only for the fun of it but to ensure a good harvest next summer, just as on Shrove Tuesday. While swinging, the girls and young men sang special songs.
A group of young men assembled to practice singing Linksma diena mums prašvito (a popular Easter hymn), some other songs and make the rounds. These are the so-called lalauninkai (from lalauti — to talk loudly and much). In many other countries, such as the United States or England, carolers make the rounds before Christmas singing Christmas carols and songs. They may be compared to Lithuania’s Easter lalauninkai.
These singers are usually unmarried men sometimes accompanied by a fiddler or harmonica-player. Upon arriving at a house, they first sing an Easter hymn, convey their Easter wishes and then carol. The homemaker gives them cake, sausages, Easter eggs while her husband serves liquid refreshments. The Easter eggs are handed out by the young girls of the household. Although most homes were visited, it was predominantly those with unmarried girls. They were told before Easter that the singers would arrive and tried to make beautiful Easter eggs. This was a perfect opportunity to display their talents and show off before the other village girls. It sometimes happened that the singers refused to accept an Easter egg judged to have a poor appearance and this was considered a major disgrace.
The songs these carolers sang were noted for the refrains repeated after every verse. The verses were short, usually composed of only two lines. The refrain had no connection with the song’s overall content. These singers were especially well-known in Dzūkija which is famous for similar types or harmony songs.
An example of such a song is:
Oi ant kalnelio
Stov žalia grūšelė,
Vynelis vyno žaliasai.
Po ta grūšele
Vynelis vyno žaliasai
On the hill
a pear tree stood;
under the pear tree
lay silvery dew. . .
The refrain — vynelis vyno žaliasai — refers to new wine.
It is not necessary for lalauninkai to sing the customary ditties, other songs may be selected.
On Easter, a person can learn the following summer’s weather, about his personal happiness and gain protection against various pests if he knows what to do and what guesses to make.
- If he wishes to avoid seeing snakes all summer, he must avoid seeing a needle the first day of Easter.
- If an accident or calamity occurs on Easter, things will go wrong all year, the year will be unlucky.
- We’ve already mentioned the races home from church on Easter morning: anyone who arrives home first will be first to complete all work, everything will go well for him (especially work in the fields).
- Prayers are said to be really heard on Easter, it is therefore necessary to pray a great deal.
- If Easter morning is sunny and beautiful, the summer will be fair, the weather good; if it rains (or snows) bad weather is to be expected. The worst sign is to hear thunder on the first day of Easter but even this evil may be found to have a “silver lining.” If thunder rumbles before leaves have sprouted (trees very rarely had leaves in Lithuania at Eastertime), thieves will have a difficult time plying their trade that year.
- If the sunset is very red, dangerous thunderstorms may be expected that summer.
A nation’s character can be identified from many things: customs, traditions, folk art, folklore; how people make merry, how they mourn, how they treat others and so on. But a nation’s traits are also mirrored by negative qualities, for instance, how people express their anger, how they curse.
When a person curses he most often expresses anger toward another, he upbraids and degrades him. To voice these ill wishes, the person cursing uses words or phrases he considers to be the angriest, foulest and most offensive and which he would never use in ordinary conversation.
Certain nations are notorious for the abundance of their curses. They are often unconsciously mixed into daily conversation and are almost used as adages. The linguistic influence of neighboring nations (in particular Slavic) is felt in certain oaths used by Lithuanians. Emigrants also borrow expletives from the language of the country where they live. However, we cannot judge the true nature of the Lithuanian nation from these foreign profanities. If we examine the purely Lithuanian swearwords we will note they are distinct from the expletives and curses of other nations.
Lithuanian oaths are an amalgama of folk beliefs from various timespans. They contain remnants of ancient paganism and Christian elements. At times references are made to ancient mythological beings: the god thunder, fairies, witches and certain living creatures; at others, to the devil, hell, Lucifer and so on. Curses are closely related to magic. Primitive man believed in the magical power of certain words or sayings, thus curses wish: “May thunder strike you down!” or “May the earth swallow you up!”
Most Lithuanian expletives are based on the words devil, hell, toad, snake, thunder and serpent. In curses, these words are embellished by other vivid expressions, producing coarse and angry invocations. The most striking curses help the person voice his feelings better and have a stronger impact on the person cursed.
The format of vulgarities depends on the degree of anger being expressed. The vilest Lithuanian curses are called profanities. They convey the direst things to another: a shameful death, eternal suffering, terrible calamities. For example: “May nine demons take you!”, “May you hang yourself from a dead branch!”, “May your tongue not fit in your mouth!”, “May the spring’s first thunder kill you!”
Admonishing curses are more restrained. They do not invoke disaster nor intend vengeance, but merely express hatred for and outrage at another. It is a form of angry namecalling or dismissal of an annoying person. For example: “You pock-marked toad!”, “You slough of a serptent!”, “You son of a snake!”,”You cursed fairy!”, “You horned witch!”
Another type of curse is the non-malicious invocation using the format of a profanity. The things such curses intend are certainly not terrible, a smile usually hides behind the anger. For example: “May a rabbit butt you to death!”, “The deuce take you!”, “May a shoe swallow you!”, “May you drown in a spoon!”
Sometimes certain swearwords are replaced by sound-alikes which have nothing to do with evil-wishing. When a person flares up and has an urge to curse, he pulls himself together and stops in midstream. The expletive’s angry content is turned into a joke.
From these few paragraphs it is evident that Lithuanians were not accustomed to using vile words, especially those degrading women or certain relationships between people. Their curses, in comparison to those of other nations, are relatively “clean” and “innocent” but they do not lack wit or inventiveness.
For examples of Lithuanian curses please refer to the Lithuanian text since translation would rob them of their colorful meaning.
Some examples of Lithuanian curses:
Po simts geguciu!
O tu rupuzgalvi!
O tu zalty prakeiktas!
Tu parve koja uzpakaline!
Tu suns kumpi!
Lisk tu vabalo blauzdon!
Eik i pekla, molto minti!
Eik sunu, sukuot!
Kaip tave sventa zeme nesioja!
Suk tave devynios!
Kad tave perkunas be zaibo trenktu
Saint Casimir’s Day is celebrated on March 4th. He is Lithuania’s only saint and his feast day was very popular among the people. When Lithuanians heard priests speak in church about other saints, it was hard to picture where they had lived, their living conditions and surroundings. The people accepted the saints, loved them, took them to their hearts, but they still remained distant.
Saint Casimir was different. He left his footsteps on the Lithuanian soil, his body was buried in Vilnius where the people could visit him and pray at his casket. Lithuanians believed that St. Casimir understands their prayers and indeed answers them. Was he not the son of a Lithuanian king? Did he not travel across Lithuania, did he not see her people and hear their complaints?
St. Casimir was so cherished by Lithuanians that stories of his life and miracles had gone beyond the church walls and spread through the population, became tales and legends. The saintly prince’s special devotion to the Blessed Mother was also very dear to the Lithuanians because Lithuania is Mary’s Land, known for its many shrines dedicated to her and sincere veneration. Especially the young were attracted to St. Casimir’s youth and high regard for chastity. On June 11, 1948 Pope Pius XII named him the special patron of all Lithuanian youth. Thus, St. Casimir became the patron of youth not only within Lithuania, but in all the world’s countries where Lithuanian young people reside.
St. Casimir was a true Lithuanian by birth. He is descended from the famous and respected Gediminaitis clan. The great Lithuanian dukes Kestutis, Algirdas, Vytautas the Great and others belonged to this family. St. Casimir’s father was Kazimieras Jogailaitis who ruled Lithuania (later along with Poland) from 1447. His grandfather was Jogaila and his grandmother, Jogaila’s fourth wife, Sofija the duchess of Alsenai (a pure-blooded Lithuanian) who grew up in the Vilnius region.
Kazimieras Jogailaitis married the daughter of Emperor Albrecht II, descended from the Hapsburg family. They had six sons and six daughters (one of whom died very young). Casimir was the second son, born on October 3, 1458. He was renowned for a life of great piety, good works and virtue. Upon contracting tuberculosis, he died at the age of 25 on March 4,1483 in Gardinas. He was buried in Vilnius.
Shortly after his death, people came in large numbers to visit the holy prince’s tomb and pray for intercession with God. His body was associated with numerous miracles and blessings from God. The process to canonize (declare a saint) St. Casimir was begun soon after his death in 1521, but for various reasons was delayed until November 7,1602 when Pope Clement VIII officially proclaimed St. Casimir’s feast on the church calendar. It was believed that Casimir had been canonized by Pope Leo X (before 1521) and that Clement VIII merely officially confirmed the fact. His feast day – March 4th – was the date of his death.
People appealed to their saint at times of various misfortunes. His first miracle is considered to be his apparition in 1518 at the Dauguva River during the war with Moscow. A large Russian army had assembled and threatened the city of Polotsk. A rather small force of Lithuanians stood to defend the city and fortress. The Lithuanians had to cross the swollen Dauguva River. Unable to find other help, they prayed to the saintly prince to intercede. St. Casimir is said to have appeared to the Lithuanians astride a white horse, wearing a white cloak. He urged the army to fight and rode first into the roaring river. The Lithuanians followed his example, fought fiercely and defeated Moscow’s troops. The news of the prince’s miraculous apparition and the victory spread throughout the country.
The miracle was investigated by bishops of that time and confirmed as authentic. The very fact that St. Casimir came to help in a battle against Lithuania’s eternal enemy Moscow elevated him even higher in the eyes of the Lithuanians. The saint became a symbol of the fight against the Russians and Russian Orthodoxy.
Such veneration, so closely linked to anti-Russian feelings, did not go unnoticed by Russia which often occupied Vilnius. Whenever the Russians approached the city, St. Casimir’s relics were hidden and taken outside the city; after the danger had passed they were again returned to the church. The Russians made every effort to prevent St. Casimir’s veneration, they banned his feast, but were unable to squash the people’s enthusiasm. Thousands gathered annually on March 4th to pray at the tomb of their beloved saint.
The names and titles of Moscow’s leaders have changed but it appears their opinion of this Lithuanian saint has remained constant. The last time St. Casimir’s casket was transferred from the Cathedral of Vilnius, it was taken to the church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Antakalnis (a suburb of Vilnius) in 1953. This is where it remains to this day.
* * *
The first church named after St. Casimir was built in Lithuania in the middle or the end of the 16th century near Ukmerge. It was built by the Jesuits. At approximately the same time, a church in the saint’s honor was built in Vilnius. In Lithuania there are some twelve churches named for St. Casimir.
Respect and love is shown this Lithuanian saint not only in Lithuania but outside her borders as well. Many churches are named after him. His name was also given to a congregation of nuns established in 1907 in Paterson, N.J. Some Lithuanian cities incorporated the saint’s likeness in their coat of arms (for example, Kretinga, Darsuniskis, Kvedarna, etc.).
Wherever Lithuanians live in foreign lands and have parishes, we find churches or at least chapels bearing St. Casimir’s name. The first Lithuanian church in the U.S. was built in 1862 in Shenandoah, PA and named after the saint. The parish was organized jointly by Lithuanians and Poles, but the Lithuanians were later pushed out and the parish was left to the Poles. St. Casimir, the patron saint of youth, is cherished by Lithuanian young people both in Lithuania and abroad. Various youth organizations – Ateitis, Scouts, Knights of LithuaniaÄ¨ave chosen him as their special patron.
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For the celebration of St. Casimir’s Day on March 4th, many pilgrims came to Vilnius from various Lithuanian places. After services in the cathedral, the people lingered for a while. This gave rise to the so-called Kaziuko muge (Casimir’s Fair). Thousands of sellers, buyers and visitors came to these fairs. They were held outdoors. The most typical Kaziuko muge merchandise was Vilniaus verbos. These are various dried flowers and grasses braided together into typical Lithuanian designs and tied to short sticks; they are taken to church on Palm Sunday and later used to decorate the home.
Another typical Kaziuko muge product or muginukas, was a heart- shaped honey cookie, decorated with colored sugar flowers, zig-zags, dots and birds. Popular men’s and women’s names were written on the cookies. People bought and gave them to selected loved ones. It was a custom to bring some back for anyone who had to remain home.
For Lithuanians, March 4th is not only St. Casimir’s Day but a national holiday as well. When it is commemorated at home, the family can discuss this popular Lithuanian saint, his miracles, life and piety. For every member of the family a muginukas can be baked with the name inscribed on a heart-shaped cookie decorated with colored sugar designs. The cookies can be baked out of gingerbread dough or the recipes included here.
These recipes were obtained from Mrs. Sofija Statkiene, who had this to say about Casimir’s Fairs and muginukus:
I first saw the cookie-hearts in March of 1940. I was in Vilnius at that time and attended Kaziuko muge with some friends. A coworker bought me a cookie-heart with the word Kaziuk (little Casimir) written on it.
Outside of Lithuania the cookie-hearts were baked for St. Casimir’s Fair in Adelaide, Australia. That was in 1953. Now these cookies are very popular at Kaziuko muges organized by Lithuanian Scouts in Chicago and elsewhere. They are presented to each important guest attending the fair. The smaller ones are sold to visitors.
1 cup honey
3 tbsps. sugar
3 tbsp. cream
4 oz. butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 cups flour
Note. A little more flour may be needed if the dough is too soft to roll out and make the cookies.
Cream eggs with sugar, pour in honey, melted (cooled) butter, spices and cream. Blend well. Mix the flour with baking soda and the baking powder, stir into the other ingredients.
Knead dough until it does not stick to hands anymore. Cover and refrigerate about half hour. Roll out on floured surface; cut out hearts with a cookie cutter or make your own pattern (especially if you want to make big hearts). Bake at 3500 until golden brown (about 10-15 min.). Decorate after the cookie cools completely.
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 cup butter or oil
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 cups flour
Note. A little more flour may be needed if dough is too soft to roll out.
Prepare dough the same as above. Refrigerate before rolling at least half hour. Bake at 3500 until golden brown (10-15 min.). Decorate after the cookie cools completely.
Children can try making Vilniaus verbos using multicolored dried flowers and other plants available in many stores. Real verbos are made by braiding or tying the plant stems to a narrow stick with a strong thin thread. Designs can be obtained for the verbos when glue (which dries invisible) is used to attach flower blossoms, wood chips and petals. Actual Vilniaus verbos were made from the natural colors of dried plants, as well as plants dyed in different colors. The designs are mostly geometric and a spray of dried hair-grass dyed green is affixed to the top.
Kaziuko muges are widely held outside Lithuania also. They are mostly linked with the Scouts who organize this interesting affair for the Lithuanian community every year around March 4th. These fairs usually draw crowds of Lithuanians (and also non-Lithuanians) even from far away because they offer an opportunity to meet long unseen friends, buy beautiful Lithuanian handicrafts, books and records, eat a delicious Lithuanian meal and try to win the raffle. These muges are especially important to people who live far from Lithuanian communities and are seldom able to associate with such a diverse, happy crowd of fellow Lithuanians.
But the Kaziuko muge is not an exclusive tradition of the Scouts. In Lithuania, in Vilnius, they were not associated with any specific organization. If these fairs are not held in a particular Lithuanian community, they can be organized by the district board of the Lithuanian Community in conjunction with other local organizations (or without them). The fairs serve to replenish the organization’s treasury and provide the people attending with an opportunity to see fellow Lithuanians and spend several hours in Lithuanian surroundings.
Preparations for Christmas Eve take all day. The house is cleaned, food prepared not only for the special supper (Kucios) but also for the first day of Christmas. People fast and abstain from meat. Lithuanians still adhere to this custom though the Church has abolished abstinence: food may be eaten as often as desired, even meat. It used to be said that only a handful of boiled peas and water may be taken on Christmas Eve. Only small children, the infirm or very old persons were allowed to eat a bit more.
Although official fasting no longer exists, we should refrain from meat on Christmas Eve so as to preserve Lithuanian tradition. It is vitally important that the Christmas Eve dinner (or supper) include no meat dishes because it could then no longer be called Kucios but an ordinary meal prepared for any other evening.
On Christmas Eve the house must be thoroughly cleaned, all the bed linens changed and all family members must bathe and don clean clothes before the evening meal. For the Christmas Eve dinner, the table is prepared as follows: a handful! of fine hay is spread evenly on the table. This is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger on hay. The table is then covered with a pure white tablecloth, set with plates and decorated with candles and fir boughs. Live flowers are inappropriate for the table, in particular red or white poinsettias which are so popular in some countries at Christmas time. A small plate with as many Christmas wafers as there are persons present is placed in the center of the table. In some Lithuanian regions these wafers were called God’s cakes (Dievo pyragai) for they were obtained from the parish and were imprinted with Biblical scenes of Jesus’ birth. Although plotkele was the popular and better known term, the word is borrowed from the Slavic. It is better to say paplotelis, plokstainelis or even Dievo pyragas.
All family members make an effort to come home for the Christmas Eve supper, even from a distance. Perhaps not so much for the meal as for the sacred family ritual which draws the family members closer, banding everyone and strengthening warm family ties. If a family member has died that year or cannot attend the meal (only for very serious reasons) an empty place is left at the table.
A plate is still placed on the table and a chair is drawn up, but no spoons, knives or forks are set. A small candle is placed on the plate and lit during the meal. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased family member participates in the Kucios along with everyone.
Long ago, the principal dish was a mixture of various cooked grains: wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans. This mixture was called kucia. It was eaten with honey diluted with warm boiled water. The word kucia itself comes from the Belorussian and means a porridge of dried grain.
Twelve different dishes are served on the table because Jesus had twelve apostles. All the dishes are strictly meatless: fish, herring, slizikai with poppy seed milk, kisielius (cranberry pudding), a dried fruit soup or compote, a salad of winter and dried vegetables, mushrooms, boiled or baked potatoes, sauerkraut (cooked, of course, without meat) and bread. In keeping with Lithuanian Christmas tradition, only the dishes as they were prepared in Lithuania for this meal should be eaten and fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, exotic seafood should be left for another meal. It must not be forgotten that Lithuania is a northern European country where cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, etc., do not grow in winter. The people whose lifestyle produced the Kucios traditions made do with foodstuffs prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter.
Children whining that they do not like and are unaccustomed to such food should also be ignored. An explanation of the meal’s significance and a calm statement that everyone will eat only what is served on the table should forestall or at least lessen this problem.
In certain Lithuanian regions apples were placed on the table because December 24th is the feast day of Adam and Eve. The apples recalled our first parents through whose sin mankind fell and that the world was saved through the submissiveness of the New Eve— Mary, the Mother of God—to God’s will.
Everyone gathers at the dinner table as soon as the first star appears in the sky. If the night is cloudy, the meal begins when the father or grandfather announces it is time to eat. When everyone is assembled at the table, a prayer is said. The father then takes a wafer and offers it to the mother wishing her a Happy Christmas. “God grant that we are all together again next year,” the mother responds and breaks off a piece of wafer. She offers the father her wafer in return. The father then offers his wafer to every family member or guest at the table. The mother does likewise. After them, all the diners exchange greetings and morsels of wafer. Care is taken not to skip anyone for that means terrible misfortune or even death the following year. In breaking a piece of wafer, each tries to get a piece larger than that remaining in the other’s hand for it means his year will be better. The person holding the wafer tries to prevent a large piece being taken for this will “break his luck.”
If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes an apple after the wafers have been shared, cuts it into as many pieces as there are diners and gives the father the first piece. This symbolized the fall of the first parents when Eve gave Adam the apple which he took and ate. Then, the apple pieces are distributed to those at table.
The order of eating the other dishes is not established, everyone eats what he wishes, but it is essential to at least taste every food. Whoever skips a Kucios dish will not survive until the next Christmas Eve.
The meal is eaten solemnly, there is little conversation or joking and alcoholic beverages are not served. If anyone needs to drink, water, homemade cider or fruit juice is served. After the meal is consumed, no one hurries to leave the table: the first to rise while another is still eating will die first. The family remains seated, the mood lightens, predictions and forecasts are done about next year, health, happiness, love and etc. Christmas Eve is rich in prognostications.
Here is but a small sampling of prophecies and divinations:
· While seated at the table, look at the walls where the candlelight casts the shadows of those dining. If your shadow is large, wide and of the whole person, the year will be good, there will be no illness, everything will go well. If the shadow lacks a head a terrible calamity will occur; if it is skinny, unclear and wavering, the year will be difficult.
· A stem of hay is pulled from under the tablecloth. It cannot be picked, the first one the fingers encounter must be drawn. If a long slender stalk is withdrawn the girl can expect a tall slender husband (or at least beau), while a short, fat, bent stalk means a short, fat crooked husband. If this happens to a man, his future wife will be slender and tall or fat and short like the straw drawn. Married persons can also guess next year’s happiness from the kind of stalk pulled. A thin stem indicates a flat, empty wallet, a “lean” year, while a fat one means a prosperous year, a full wallet. If a married woman pulls a straw thicker in the middle, she will have a baby that year.
· Other predictions may be made while still at table. Three plates are used, a key is placed under one, a ring under the second and a coin under the third. The plates are mixed and one is chosen. The ring signifies love, marriage; the key means owning an apartment or house; while the coin indicates a prosperous year. A piece of paper is crumpled, placed on a plate or cutting board and its shadow examined. The first impression is decisive. If a form of transportation is seen, the person will travel a great deal next year; if a house or building, a move will be made to a new place; if a flower or other plant, a wedding will be held; if a cradle, a new family member will arrive; if a coffin or burning candle, death. Similar prognostications are performed by pouring melted wax into cold water and examining its shadow.
After everyone leaves the table, the food is left to stand overnight. The spirits of deceased relatives or loved ones will visit the home during the night and eat. It was believed that the baby Jesus allows the souls of all the departed to return to earth to visit their families. It would be disgraceful to have the visiting spirits return without taking refreshment.
The country people believed that Christmas Eve night was miraculous: various omens and rituals could not only be used to predict the future but all of nature felt the significance of the night. At exactly midnight all animals were able to speak like humans. But to listen to their conversation was extremely dangerous because you could learn the day of your death. At precisely midnight all water turns into wine, you must simply hit the correct moment which is of very short duration. If the sky is clear on Christmas Eve night and full of stars, the year will be good. That night you must also pray before retiring else nightmares will trouble you all year.
· After dinner a girl sweeps the floor, pours the sweepings into her apron, takes them to a crossroads and tosses them out. Then she stands and listens from which side dogs are barking, from there she will get a husband.
· Sitting with her back to the door, a girl throws a shoe over her head: if the shoe lands with the toe toward the door she will leave home that year (marry, go to a distant school; a man will leave for the army, a faraway job, etc.). If the shoe heel faces the door, he or she will remain at home.
· All the shoes in the house are gathered together and placed in a pile, they are then lined up one behind the other to the door. The person whose shoe touches the door will be the first to leave home (some say, the first to die).
· To see the future, go into an empty room after the Christmas Eve supper, prop a mirror against the door, bend down and look at the mirror through your legs: you will see your future husband or wife.
· Take a full glass of water, a gold wedding band, a mirror and two candles. Place all the items on a white tablecloth. The wedding band is dropped into the glass, the candles are lit and placed on either side of the mirror. Sit in front of the mirror, take the ring out of the glass with your fingers and then drop it back in. Do this three times. The third time you remove the ring from the water, look through it into the mirror: you will see your future or the man you will marry.
· Drip several drops of wax from a blessed candle into a cold glass of water. Place the glass by your bed. That night you will dream about your future spouse.
· Take a bowlful of water and twelve pieces of paper written with men’s names. Fold the papers over the bowl’s rim so that one half hangs over the water. Place a piece of candle into a sliver of potato or turnip, light it and float it on the water. Stir the water with a finger to cause the candle to float around. The paper at which it stops or which it sets on fire indicates your husband’s name. Questions about the coming year can also be written on the pieces of paper, but the answer can only be “yes” or “no”. The paper which the candle lights or at which it stops means that those things will come true.
· The simplest form of fortunetelling is to count in twos. Dry slizikai, matches, peas, firewood by the hearth, candy or anything else can be counted. If it comes out in pairs, a wedding will take place next year. After finishing the augury, the family gathers around the Christmas tree. A beautiful tradition is singing Christmas carols in unison (some Christmas carols are provided in this book) and reading Bible excerpts about Christ’s birth. The reading is usually done by the oldest family member. If you still have grandparents (or parents) who were born and lived in Lithuania, ask them to relate how they celebrated Christmas when they were little. It would be good to tape the entire family program, later include the date and put it away. It will become very precious when the children are grown and the grandparents no longer living.
Christmas presents and Santa Claus (Kaledu senelis) were relatively new things in Lithuania during the period of independence. Earlier, people celebrated Christmas not for the presents but because it was the birthday of God’s Son. The Kucios meal, prayers said in unison and an opportunity to spend time with loved ones were quite sufficient to create a festive atmosphere. In more recent times, however, things we are accustomed to see in other, non-Christian countries were added: Christmas trees, gifts, tinsel, Santa Claus.
Even when Christmas trees were decorated and gifts expected in Lithuania, the children had to “earn” those gifts. When he arrived, Santa Claus required the children to perform. Every child did what he could: some recited poems, others sang, danced or played an instrument. If Santa Claus did not come in person, the children still had to perform, because Santa “sees all” and will see them also. After presents were exchanged, the children usually went to bed while the adults went to Midnight Mass (which is still called Berneliy—Shepherds’ Mass).
It should be mentioned here that at Christmastime Lithuania is already in the grip of winter. The fields are covered with sparkling snow, streams, rivers and lakes are under ice. Country roads were also snowcovered and the people usually travelled in sleighs. On Christmas Eve night bells were attached to the horses’ harnesses: sometimes one or two or an entire string of bells. Sometimes small, high-pitched handballs or a good-sized bell. From all sides on Christmas Eve night resounded with the chiming and tinkling of bells: near and far, soft and loud. . . The mysterious, quiet night air of Christ’s Birth resonated with endless ringing, the murmur of sliding sleighs and Christmas joy.
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Christmas Eve and the traditional evening meal is usually a joyous family occasion. But it can also be a day of profound pain, loneliness and sorrow. In our adopted countries, we have many Lithuanians whom the war separated from their families. Many others have been left alone through death or for other reasons. Every Lithuanian community has elderly persons, unmarried or forgotten individuals. The memory of past Christmas Eves causes them great heartache.
Sometimes Lithuanian families invite single individuals to share their Christmas Eve meal. Yet there are still many who are not invited, many for whom the festive mood of Christmas Eve does not prevail in their hearts.
A perfect solution is a joint Christmas Eve meal. In certain Lithuanian communities such dinners are planned under the auspices of the Lithuanian Community (Lietuviu Bendruomene) or other organization. Such joint Christmas Eve suppers are quite different from the pre-Christmas gatherings often called Kucios sponsored by various organizations, societies or clubs. These affairs are usually held a good deal before Christmas, practically throughout December. Though wafers are shared and some Christmas Eve dishes served, there is very little true Christmas Eve spirit at such dinners. They do remind the participants of their distant homeland, they do solidify warm ties among an organization’s members and provide an opportunity to spend several pleasant hours with people of like thinking.
Upon closer examination, the names given to the months of the year by English-speaking, Germanic or some other nations are derived from the names of ancient gods or Roman emperors. The names of the months in Lithuanian are unique and original. The months of an agricultural nation are named after natural phenomena or tasks performed at a particular time of the year. These names are typical of the Lithuanian nation, her nature and the Lithuanian way of life.
The months of the year in Lithuanian can be explained as follows.
Sausis (January) – the first month of the year. At this time of the year, Lithuania is in the grip of a profound winter. All of nature is covered with a thick blanket of snow. Rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and bogs are under ice. No open water can be found anywhere. If it snows, the snow is fine, dry (“sausas”), blown by the wind. The snow does not come down in wet, heavy, slushy flakes. In other words, it is dry (“sausa”) in Lithuania at this time of the year, and therefore the month has been named “sausis.”
Vasaris (February) – The winter is coming to an end. People are beginning to make plans for summer (“vasara”) tasks, to think about the summer. During this month, the first thaws begin: the sun shines more brightly at midday, water begins to drip from the roof and toward evening stretches into gleaming “ice candles” – icicles. Sled tracks rut smooth roads. Everyone feels that though spring has not yet arrived the weather is turning toward spring, toward summer.
Kovas (March) – a time of change, of struggle (“kova”) between the cold and spring. One day it’s snowing, the next it’s freezing, the following day the weather again turns warmer. Hilltops begin to darken for the snow melts there the quickest. Some birds return, among them the rook. The rook (kovas) belongs to the crow family (Corvus frugilegus). It is a large black bird with a blue and purple sheen to the plumage. They circle above the treetops settle on the fields in scores to march about in search of food. The air is filled by a chorus of caws and croaks as the rooks court, build their nests and mate. The cawing proclaims that spring has nearly arrived. It can thus be said that the month derives its name from two sources: the winter’s battle (kova) with spring and the returning of the rook (kovas).
Balandis (April) is already a spring month. Doves (“balandis”) coo and mate on the farm and the cooing of wild doves can be heard in the slowly greening countryside. Other songbirds have yet to return, so the dove’s soft cooing is not yet drowned out by the magnificent songbirds.
Geguzis (May) is the most beautiful month in Lithuania. Everything is sprouting, blooming and verdant. In the forest the call of the cuckoo (gegute or geguze) is heard. The bird is cherished by Lithuanians and gives the month its name.
The cuckoo is a mysterious and magic bird. It is the harbinger of true spring. Until the cuckoo’s call is heard, venturing outdoors in bare feet is dangerous even if the weather is warm because the earth underneath is still frozen and can cause ailments. The cuckoo’s call dispels the last vestige of winter and ensures the cold is gone for good.
The cuckoo’s first call determines a person’s fortune for that year. Upon hearing the cuckoo for the first time, a person frets whether he has money on his person. If he does, he’ll have money all year, things will go well; if he has no money, his pockets will be empty all year long, the wind will blow right through them. It is very good to be carrying a full bucket, basket or bag when hearing the first call of the cuckoo. You will then be wealthy (full of everything) the entire year. It is also to one’s advantage to be in a happy mood when the cuckoo’s first call is heard. A frowning, unhappy person is condemned to live in a foul mood all year.
When a person hears the cuckoo’s first “coo-coo” he or she may ask: “How many years will I live? In how many years (months) will I wed?” The answer is the number of times the cuckoo calls after the question. Upon hearing the cuckoo’s first call, a young woman walks backwards until she backs into a tree. She must then break a small bough from the tree and pluck it clean until it looks like a hook. With this hook she can “catch” the young man she prefers.
If the first cuckoo is heard in the company of a large group, the year will be happy, many dances, weddings and parties will be attended. If the cuckoo happens to call from the tree under which a person is seated, it is a bad sign, the year will be difficult. If this befalls an unmarried girl, she will bear an illegitimate child.
This is but a small sampling of the beliefs related to the cuckoo’s return and call. It shows that the cuckoo was a favorite bird. It is thus not surprising that the spring’s most beautiful month is named after the cuckoo.
Birzelis (June) – The month derives its name from the newly budded birch (“berzas”) which is a symbol of the miraculously restored nature, youth and fertility. Homes, farms and animals are decorated with birch branches not only at Pentecost but for other occasions as well. The custom survives from pagan times.
Liepa (July) – In the heat of the summer the air is redolent with linden (“liepa”) blossoms and resounds with the buzzing of bees as they gather clear golden honey. Lithuanians are known as beekeepers and the linden is a decorative tree favored in villages and forests. The name of this month is thus very significant and appropriate.
Rugpjutis (August) is a time of toil. Because rye (“rugiai”) was Lithuania’s major grain crop and life without daily rye bread was inconceivable, the harvest month is named after the cutting (pjauti) of the rye (in years gone by, rye was cut with sickles), thereby the name of the month “rugpjutis”- month for cutting the rye.
Rugsejis (September) is also related to the cultivation of rye. Because rye is a winter grain, the fields are prepared in the fall when the seeds are sown. The rye germinates and sprouts before the first frost and then hibernates under a thick blanket of snow. Early in the spring it revives and begins to grow vigorously. Lithuania is a northern country where the summers are relatively short, therefore certain cultivated plants cannot be grown to maturity during the summer and must be sown in the fall.
Spalis (October) – This name is difficult to understand for those who have distanced themselves from farm work. Besides rye, flax was a vital crop for the Lithuanian farmer. It was used not only to make the cloth the family needed, but was also sold as a cash crop to buy the necessary articles the land could not produce. Lithuania’s flax was of a high quality. During the years of independence flax was exported to distant foreign lands, thus producing income for both farmers and the state. The name “spalis” is related to flax processing which was done in the fall. The fiber from which linen thread is made is encased in the stem of the flax plant. The stem is covered with a hard material similar to bent- grass or wheat straw. The stem must be broken to remove the fiber. The hard shell crumbles and the fiber can then be processed further. The crumbled particles of the flax stem are called strives (“spaliai”). Sometimes the strives were used as insulation and poured over the ceilings of houses under construction, but mostly they were dispersed, buried into the ground to rot.
Lapkritis (November) is the late autumn month whose name is derived from the falling of leaves (“lapu” kritimas”) and the onset of frost. November is usually cold, wet and muddy. The sun makes only rare appearances and the days are mostly gloomy. The nights are especially dark, suited for get-togethers and the telling of horror stories. In Lithuania, All Soul’s Day is celebrated at the beginning of November.
Gruodis (December). The rains of autumn and the mud finally end. The ground freezes with the cold, it becomes hard and coarse. Every clod of soil hardens, ice covers the puddles. Country roads, a mire of mud in the fall, are now bumpy and lumpy, wheels shake and jump as they turn unevenly. Soil that has frozen into such lumps is called “gruodas”. Hence the month’s name.
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Since we have stopped to examine the Lithuanian names for the months, we must not pass over the days of the week with their distinct names typical of Lithuanians. Because the week has seven days, they are named after the sequence of the days: the first (“pirma”) day (“diena”) of the week is called “pirmadienis”, the second (“antra”) – “antradienis” then “treciadienis”, “ketvirtadienis”, “penktadienis” and “sestadienis” (Saturday). The name of the seventh day is perhaps somewhat unusual for instead of “septintadienis” we have “sekmadienis”. The word “sekmas” is an old form of the word “septintas” (seventh). Sekmadienis is derived from the old word because the word septintadienis (literally – the seventh day) sounds a little awkward and does not fit in with the pronunciation of the other days of the week.
That Lithuanians celebrated birthdays was recorded as early as in the 16th century. It is believed that name days became more accepted after the establishment of Christianity. Churches were named after saints and held solemn devotions on days set aside to honor particular saints (St. Anthony on June 13th, St. Casimir on March 4th, St. John the Baptist on June 24th, St. Ann on July 26th, etc.). People given those saints’ names also celebrated their name days on the same dates. It is quite possible that at first only the name days of persons given popular, more familiar names like Ann, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, John were observed. These calendar feasts were well known to all. Eventually, the rarer Christian (or national) names began to be celebrated as well, for the names could easily be found on almost any calendar while it was more difficult to learn a person’s birthday.
Only in the most recent years (most often among the urban population) were birthdays celebrated. Of course, in some countries where Lithuanians live today it is more accepted to celebrate birthdays. We may therefore adapt local custom or observe both birthdays and name days.
It is senseless to decide which occasion is more important: birthday or name day. It can be claimed that a person’s birthday is more important than his having this or that name, but celebrating birthdays is not acceptable to everyone. Young persons and children celebrate birthdays with more enthusiasm, while older individuals are more inclined toward name days. Not only women, but also men, are sometimes unwilling to admit the passing number of years and thus find name days more agreeable.
The main purpose of the occasion is to congratulate and honor the celebrant. We will discuss here only the customs more characteristic of Lithuania’s inhabitants. Although these customs are linked to name days, they are also appropriate for birthdays.
Frequently, the celebration begins early in the morning when the said individual finds upon arising garlands festooned around his house or apartment door. In the summer the garland is made of leaves (interspersed with flowers) while fir and pine branches are most often used in the winter. It must however be remembered that a wreath should not be hung in the middle of the door for in some nations this signifies a death in that home. It is a symbol of death, not a festive occasion. The Lithuanian custom is to hang the garland around the entire door, attaching it not to the door but to its frame.
If the door cannot be festooned, the chair of the person celebrating the birthday or name day must be decorated (even better, both door and chair). The chair is already decorated when the celebrant comes to the breakfast table.
A very typical Lithuanian birthday or name day custom is to lift the person being honored in a chair. If the family members are able to do so, the celebrant is quickly seated in the decorated chair and lifted up three times. This is done so everything will go well for him next year, so he’ll be healthy and happy. This is easily accomplished when the occasion is celebrated by a child. Adults are hoisted aloft at the party when stronger men are present. Otherwise the lifting ritual can be skipped. It is essential to lift a child, otherwise he grows very slowly and is sickly.
After this ritual, the celebrant is congratulated and presented with small gifts. If the party is held at this time, the guest of honor is girded with a patterned sash, placed across his shoulder and tied on the opposite side at the waist. The sash is worn throughout the celebration. After the celebrant is so girded, the guests sing the congratulatory song “Valio!” The melody and words can be found at the beginning of this book, among the forms of congratulation. We recommend that the Slavic “Ilgiausiu metu” song not be used when we have a good Lithuanian substitute. Blowing out candles (or even placing them there) on a birthday cake and making a wish at that time, was unknown.
The person observing a birthday or name day is allowed to celebrate all day. Friends and acquaintances make an effort to extend their best wishes in person, stop at his home or make a telephone call. Greetings by mail are considered too impersonal and formal and acceptable only for those who live far away.