A look at Lithuanian Mardi Gras

  • 2009-02-25
  • By Justinas Vainilavicius

CHANGING SEASONS: The Lithuanian celebrations are meant to celebrate the final days of winter and welcome in the spring.

VILNIUS -  Every year thousands of people put on scary masks and carnival costumes to celebrate Uzgavenes (before the Lent), the Lithuanian equivalent of the Mardi Gras which marks the last day of feasting before the fast of Lent. The festival has deep pagan roots that heavily influence the Uzgavenes celebrations.
Intentionally, the holiday is meant to celebrate the last days of winter and to greet spring. People traditionally dress up as a scary character 's such as a witch, a devil or the grim reaper 's to scare winter away. Dressed like this, they, especially children, go from one door to another demanding treats for singing funny songs and showing exciting outfits.

Originally they would ask for pancakes, the traditional Uzgavenes food, but today children more or less do not see them as a valuable enough treat. Pancakes are inseparable from the festivity, however. They can be served with a variety of toppings and symbolize the returning sun because of their round shape.
Making the mask and the costume is an essential element of Uzgavenes. Lithuanian carnival costumes differ from their counterparts in other countries. They usually are not stunning like their Brazilian counterparts, nor do they resemble the exquisite and expensive Venetian ones.

Uzgavenes masks can be made from whatever material the mask-maker wants, ranging from paper to wood. Most of the masks have a grotesque and deformed appearance. A common mask, depicting Ragana, the witch, would definitely include a huge nose, a couple of big teeth in an otherwise toothless mouth and other features to make it look more ugly, while the rest of the head is covered by a scarf.
Velnias, the devil, is another important 'sand usually the most popular 's character and can always be spotted by the mask's distinctive goat horns. All the costumes include a couple of layers of clothes, as it is still freezing cold in February.

The biggest celebrations take place in cities' central squares and streets. Rumsiskes, an ethnographic village-museum in the open air, is where the biggest festival is held. It attracts tens of thousands of costumed people.
They also build the largest effigy of winter, named More, another significant Uzgavenes tradition. It is made of various materials and has the vague shape of a woman. It represents winter and is burned at the climax of the celebration. The effect of the burning is tremendous 's elated people dance around the effigy and sing traditional songs.

There are also lots of competitions. Every masquerade gathering includes songs and the traditional Uzgavenes slogan: "ziema, ziema bek is kiemo!" literally meaning "winter, winter get out of my yard!"
This ritual has a long history, dating back to pagan society, which tried to eliminate a representation of winter by holding a loud and ebullient festival.

The process of defeating the coldest season of the year is also presented in the form of a theatrical battle between Lasininis, meaning "Porker," and Kanapinis, which means "Hempen man." The big and plump Lasininis represents winter, whereas Kanapinis, his opposite, is spring. Although they may look an uneven match at first sight, Kanapinis always wins the battle, just like spring would always replace winter.