Velykos Traditions

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Celebrating Easter in Lithuania

Traditional Lithuanian Margučiai

Traditional Lithuanian Margučiai
Etched By Christine Luschas Of The
Knights Of Lithuania Council #144

For Lithuanian Christians, Easter (Velykos) is the most sacred of holidays. It follows 40 somber days of Lenten moderation and marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each spring, Lithuanians commemorate the Passion of Christ by attending church services throughout Holy Week on Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

While the rites of these services are comparable to those in other parts of the world, many Easter traditions observed outside of church liturgy are uniquely Lithuanian.

Verbos For Palm Sunday

Verbos For Palm Sunday

One of these unique Lithuanian traditions is seen on Palm Sunday. In many parts of the world, churches provide their parishioners with palms. However, in Lithuania, churchgoers bring homemade palms with them to the church to be blessed. Since the climate is too cold for palm trees, Lithuanians weave branches of indiginous plants into decorative palms (verbos) for Palm Sunday. More like bouquets than common palm branches, typical verbos include sprigs from juniper, misteltoe, weeping willows, pussy willows, and osier decorated with colorful dried flowers.

Lithuanian Easter Eggs

Lithuanian Easter Eggs
By Christine Luschas Of The
Knights Of Lithuania Council #144

On Holy Thursday, Lithuanians clean their homes vigorously to ensure an upcoming year of abundance and good health. They wash and scrub floors, windows, pantries, stoves, and laundry in preparation for Good Friday. Beyond bringing good health and abundant harvests to the household, this ritualistic spring cleaning is thought to ward off fleas and evil spirits.

Holy Saturday is dedicated to painting Easter eggs (margučiai) and preparing the Easter Sunday feast. Traditional Lithuanian Easter eggs are stained with natural dyes extracted from bark, leaves, fruit, and vegetables. Stained margučiai appear in solid colors or patterns created when leaves or other materials are pressed onto the eggs during the staining process.

Christine Luschas Etching A Design To Make Margučiai

Christine Luschas Of The
Knights Of Lithuania Council #144
Etches A Design To Make Margučiai

More famously, Lithuanians are known for their ornate margučiai, which are either hand-painted or hand-carved into magnificent works of art. With the hand-painted method, they use the tips of needles and other sharp objects to paint intricate patterns with hot wax. Then, after the wax hardens, they dip the eggs into colorful dye. After the eggs dry, they are heated and then pressed gently with towels or paper to remove the wax and reveal the pattern. With the hand-carved method, wax is not used. Instead, these eggs are dipped in dye first. After they dry, designs are etched into the shells with a finely tipped, sharp object. Both methods require artistic talent and patience and both result in extraordinary, heirloom quality margučiai.

Lamb Created With Butter

Lamb Created With Butter
Photo By: Madeleine of Flickr

In Lithuania, the Easter Granny (Velykų Senelė) delivers Easter eggs and treats to children. Children often prepare for the Easter Granny by leaving empty homemade egg nests outside their homes in gardens and shrubs. On Easter morning, they wake to search for their hidden margučiai treasures.

The Lithuanian Easter buffet is a lavish contrast to the meatless Lenten fast. Opulent displays of roasted pork, baked ham, lamb, veal, sausages, roasted duck, and roasted chicken abound. If lamb is not served, then butter or cheese is molded into the shape of a lamb and served to symbolize Easter. Accompaniments include homemade cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, sautéed or creamed mushrooms, kugelis, rye bread, assorted salads, and horseradish. Wine flows and an equally impressive dessert selection of poppy seed rolls, nut rolls, honey cakes, and raisin and/or dried fruit “boba” breads follows the meal.

Hand-Carved Lithuanian Easter Eggs

Hand-Carved Lithuanian Easter Eggs
By Christine Luschas Of The
Knights Of Lithuania Council #144

We should mention two final uniquely Lithuanian Easter traditions. Before everyone indulges in the Velykos feast, the dinner host slices a hard-boiled egg into as many pieces as there are guests and passes the plate around the table to share this one egg with everyone. This sharing of the egg is believed to bring harmony and unity to the household.

Another tradition is egg rolling. Players prop one end of a rounded chute fashioned from bark or wood (or cardboard in modern times) at an angle from the ground. They take turns rolling an egg down the chute attempting to tap another’s egg. If they succeed in tapping another egg, they claim both eggs. The player with the most eggs at the end of the game wins.

Watch a beautiful, tranquil video of Lithuanian artists decorating margučiai via both techniques: etching and painting. As the film concludes, you’ll see the egg rolling game.

Linksmų šv. Velykų! Happy Easter!

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Užgavėnės

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Lithuania’s Mardi Gras

Užgavėnės Costume

Photo by: Andrius Petrucenia of Flickr

Known around the world by many names including Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fastnacht, and Carnival, Užgavėnės is one of the most jubilant Lithuanian holiday celebrations. Seven weeks before Easter and the day before Ash Wednesday, Užgavėnės marks the end of winter and the beginning of Lent. Lithuania’s unique version of Mardi Gras, it is a day filled with food, dance, and merriment.

This holiday is known for its pancakes served with an abundance of toppings. These pancakes are similar to breakfast pancakes made with flour and buttermilk, but are heavier and crispier since they are fried in hot oil or lard. Toppings include sour cream, fruit sauces and syrups, and caviar among others. Lithuanians feast on pancakes throughout the day as a last hurrah before the long Lenten fast.

While festivities vary by region, three characters appear traditionally throughout Lithuania‘s Užgavėnės. The first character is the buxom female effigy of winter. Known as Morė or Boba, she is made of straw and typically decorated with garish rouged lips and cheeks. She is paraded through town and then burned at the stake to symbolize the death of winter and the birth of spring.

Užgavėnės Morė

Užgavėnės Morė

The second character is the rotund Lašininis, whose name translates as “porker” or “fatso.” Lašininis is the male effigy of winter. Conversely, slim-figured Kanapinis (whose name translates as “of hemp” or “hemper”) is the male personification of spring. The two characters battle wildly, but Kanapinis always prevails.

Užgavėnės participants dance and frolic in a variety of costumes; mostly either light-hearted and cheerful or dark and frightening. Some celebrate by marching in parades while others dance at village parties. Merrymaking continues late into the night until the first rooster crows for the dawn of Lent.

Note: To learn more regarding historical observances and Užgavėnės rituals by region, see Vilnius University’s Anthology of Lithuanian Ethnoculture.

Watch an Užgavėnės celebration from 2009 at the Open-Air Museum of Lithuania in Rumšiškės, just outside of Kaunas.

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Christmas (Kalėdos)

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Permission to reprint this article generously provided by Bridges: The Lithuanian-American News Journal.

Noyalas, Christiana (2012, December). ‘Twas the night before Kalėdos: The Kūčios table. Bridges: The Lithuanian-American News Journal, 36 (10), 12-13.

‘Twas the Night Before Kalėdos: The Kūčios Table

By Christiana Noyalas

Table Set for Kūčios

Christmas celebrations in Lithuania are rich in ceremony and tradition. Christmas Eve, or Kūčios, is the more symbolic and reflective of the two days. In preparing for the holiday, the house is thoroughly cleaned; unresolved conflicts among friends and family are reconciled; ancestors and recently departed souls are remembered; the dinner table is laid with hay and linen to symbolize the birth of Christ in the manger; and 12 dishes are prepared to represent the 12 apostles.

The physical and spiritual housekeeping is in preparation for Jesus’s birth and the holiness he represents. Lithuanians are superstitious and carrying baggage into Christmas is thought to be unlucky. Similarly, the house is cleaned to make the home more inviting for visiting family and the souls of the dearly departed who visit while everyone is away at midnight Mass.

When the table is set, an extra place setting is added to represent a relative unable to attend Christmas Eve dinner due to distance or other circumstances or to represent a relative who passed away during the year. Table decorations include candles and sprigs from evergreen trees. Not only does the dinner table hay symbolize hay in the manger where Jesus was born, but it also serves as a resting place for departed souls.

Kūčios Table by Amber Reunion

Photo by: Irene of Amber Reunion

Kūčios dinners are traditionally meatless, eggless, dairy-free and are always prepared with local produce. As Lithuania is usually snow-covered by late December, most produce served is either dried, preserved or stored in a cold cellar. The meal always begins with sharing of the Christmas Eve wafer (known as kalėdaitis, plotkelė or paplotėlis), which is similar to communion wafer. This is followed by 12 dishes, which commonly include beet soup, herring, whiting, potatoes, sauerkraut, mushrooms, Christmas bread, poppy seed milk, oatmeal pudding, cranberry pudding, biscuits, nuts, dried fruit, and apples. No alcoholic beverages are served.

Christmas Day (Kalėdos) dinner, by contrast, is contemporary and without restrictions. Meat appears in many varieties, from roasted turkey, goose and pork to baked ham to an array of smoked and cured sausages. Horseradish, pickles and relishes complement the main courses. Assorted cookies, cakes and sweet pastries are served for dessert. Rules are relaxed today and it is common to see Lithuanian Christmas tables straying from local fare to include imported seafood and produce. Wine, spiced cordials and other alcoholic beverages are served.

Linksmų Kalėdų! (Merry Christmas!)

Christiana Noyalas (Naujalis) is a marketing professional with a passion for cooking and genealogy. A resident of southeastern Pennsylvania, Christiana serves on Philadelphia’s Lithuanian Music Hall Association board. She test drives cookware and shares recipes on her blog, www.toolsforkitchens.com.

A Sample Menu for Kūčios

Beet Soup – Barščiai
Herring with Mushrooms – Silkės su Grybais
Mushroom-filled Crepes – Lietiniai Blynai su Grybais
Fish in Tomato Sauce – Žuvis su Pomidorais
Smoked Salmon – Rūkytos Lašišos
Beet and Bean Salad – Burokelių Mišrainė
Sauerkraut Salad with Peas – Rauginti Kopūstai su Žirniais
Potato and Carrot Salad – Bulvių ir Morkų Mišrainė
Cranberry Pudding – Kisielius
Christmas Eve Biscuits – Prėskučiai (or Šližikai)
Poppy Seed Milk – Aguonpienis
Christmas Compote – Kompotas

Straw Christmas Ornament from Lithuania

Straw Christmas Ornament from Lithuania

Poppy Seed Milk (Aguonpienas)

  • 1 cup poppy seeds
  • 5 to 6 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons honey or more, to taste

Place the poppy seeds in a small saucepan and cover them with one to two cups of cold water. Bring the poppy seeds to a boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool slightly.

Drain the water from the poppy seeds using a fine mesh sieve. Discard the water that drains from the poppy seeds. Place the poppy seed mixture in a small food processor and process until a thick mass forms. This may take some time. After a thick mass forms, transfer the mixture to a glass pitcher.

Pour four cups of cold water over the poppy seeds and stir until well combined. Add honey and stir again. Serve chilled. The poppy seed milk may be sipped by itself or served over Christmas Eve biscuits.

Kisielius (Cranberry Pudding)

Kisielius (Cranberry Pudding) with Cream

Cranberry Pudding (Kisielius)

  • 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries (3 cups)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla

Place the cranberries in a saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them (approximately three cups). Add the cinnamon and cloves and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the cranberries are split and their pulp appears. Remove from heat. Remove and discard the cinnamon and cloves.

Force the mixture through a food mill or sieve. Discard the cranberry skins. Reserve one cup of cranberry juice and chill it in the refrigerator. Return the remaining juice and pulp to the saucepan. Add the sugar to the saucepan. Stir the potato flour into the chilled cranberry juice until it is completely dissolved. Add it to the cranberry mixture and bring the pudding to a boil stirring constantly. When the pudding is translucent, remove it from the heat. Stir in the vanilla. Pour the pudding into individual serving bowls and chill until set.

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