Lithuania’s Mardi Gras
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.
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.