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
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 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.
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
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.
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.