A traditional Lithuanian Christmas

  • 2000-12-21
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - For Lithuanians, Christmas Eve is the most important time of the holiday season. Families gather in their homes to partake in the traditional "Kucios" meal. "For me this is the most important day of the year," said 58-year-old Vilnius resident Egle. "I look forward to having my whole family sitting around the table."

Lithuanian "Kucios" is a unique tradition. "I spend the whole day preparing the meal," said Egle. She spreads hay evenly over the table and then covers it with a white table cloth. This is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger on hay. The meal itself consists of twelve dishes symbolizing the twelve apostles. Meat is not served, only fish and vegetables.

Before sitting down to eat, relatives share thin white wafers known as "paploteliai." Everyone at the meal has to share his or her wafer with all the others by breaking a small piece off of the other person's wafer and then embracing that person. "For me it's like a new beginning. All families have tensions and by sharing the wafers we forgive each other and wish the best to each person for the next year," said Egle. Although each family prepares the meal in a different way, there are some foods that appear on all tables: herring, beet and bean salad, "kisielius" or cranberry pudding, a dried fruit compote and "slyzikai," Christmas biscuits with poppy seeds.

Following the meal, it is common for one of the older women of the household to foretell the future and offer folk wisdom. Each family member pulls a stem of hay from under the tablecloth and, depending on its thickness and length, can predict different aspects of life for that person. An unmarried woman, for instance, will have a tall, slim husband if she pulls a long thin stem from under the tablecloth. "I predicted that my daughter would conceive a child one Christmas Eve and she did. The stem of hay was thick in the middle," said Egle.

Traditionally, the food was left on the table over- night as it was believed that the souls of deceased relatives and friends would visit during the night and would need refreshment. Prior to being Christianized in the 14th century, Lithuanians celebrated Christmas Eve as a pagan winter solstice festival that celebrated the victory of the sun over the forces of darkness.

Relatives also exchange gifts after the meal. The gifts do not need to be expensive, and in some families the gift givers remain anonymous, with all the tags simply reading "From Santa." Religious families will attend mass at a Catholic church at midnight, symbolic of the birth of Jesus. Special musical programs are prepared in churches for the occasion. "I always go to mass that night but it is less common for younger people to go. I don't think the tradition will die. When my grandchildren get older they will see the beauty of the experience and will begin to go too," said Egle.