Pagan or Christian, it's still a reason to celebrate

  • 2001-12-20
  • Krista Taurins, Ausrine Bagdonaite and Aleksei Gunter, TALLINN
RIGA, VILNIUS and TALLINN - Christmas traditions throughout the Baltics tread a fine line between pagan ritual and Christianity. The return of the sun on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, roughly coincides with the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. The two types of traditions blend together to make unique celebrations in the three countries.

Lithuanian Kucios

In Lithuania, Christmas Eve supper is one of the most sacred parts of the holiday. Called "kucios" - an ancient feast celebrated in accordance with the sun's calendar - it's the most important part of the Christmas celebration.

An intimate family celebration that has changed little over the years, the pagan spirit of the dinner has blended with the Christmas celebration and now the two are indistinguishable.

"Lithuania has colorful traditions that make it different from the countries of Western Europe. Christmas traditions did not appear all of a sudden, they came from pagan times and developed over the centuries," explained Arturas Saltis, a 21-year-old history student who values ancient Lithuanian Christmas traditions.

Colorful, indeed. Kucios is a ritual supper, but the entire day of Dec. 24 is known as kucios as well. The day is devoted to cleaning up the house, and dinner is eaten after the evening stars appear in the sky. Everyone dresses up in festive gear.

Dinner is composed of 12 dishes, each containing no meat other than fish. No fat, eggs or dairy products are added, and the result is that the majority of the entrées are primarily concocted from mushrooms and fish. Traditions allow no alcohol to be consumed on kucios day. But supper would not be the same without the "kuciukai," the Christmas biscuits, which are the main ritual dish.

The celebration has elements of Christianity to it, too. The feast begins with the passing around of a Christmas wafer, called a "plotkele," along with the wishes of good tidings for the coming year for each member.

"Saying the prayer before starting to eat, eating the divided wafer and wishing our family well for the following year are some of the traditions that we keep at the kucios supper," explains Saltis.

But back to the less-Christian ritual. The feast is also concerned with the upcoming grain harvest. Unsurprisingly, urban Lithuanian society tends to place less importance on this aspect of the celebration.

The tradition of pulling a piece of hay from under the tablecloth at the end of the meal is still widely followed. The lucky one pulling the longest piece will live the longest.

After supper, the ritual refocuses on the Christian holiday. Churches open up for midnight mass, and many Lithuanians go to honor the birth of Christ.

Conflicting with midnight mass, however, is another pagan aspect of the holiday. On this day at midnight, it is believed that animals speak. It's difficult to resist the temptation of venturing out to the barn to listen in: What farmer worth his weight in grain wouldn't want to know what his cows think? But since most often the animals are believed to speak about their owner's funeral, it's probably wisest to let the animals gossip undisturbed.

Another fun tradition - for unmarried maidens only - is to amble outdoors at midnight and listen for the sound of barking dogs. Follow that howl - that direction is where your future groom is.

Whether you are out in the barn awaiting a word from the chickens, or enjoying a midnight mass in an ornately decorated church, you have opening presents to look forward to. Christmas gifts are exchanged after supper, or on the following morning, and are referred to as being brought by Santa Claus.

Another Vilnius student, 19-year-old Aurimas, said he believed the religious aspect of the Christmas traditions have largely been lost.

"Honestly, I think the real Christmas spirit is lost. Perhaps it's only young people who start accepting traditional values and kind old ladies who maintain many Christmas traditions. The middle generation was, so to speak, lost during the Soviet occupation period," he said.

Estonia eats

In Estonia, the holiday is largely based around eating, eating and more eating. The celebration of Christmas has changed little over the past 100 years. The holiday is a family time, with gifts and an excessive and fairly unhealthy menu - nothing in common with the Lithuanians and their big feast.

Piret Ounapuu, a folklore scientist from the Estonian National Museum, says that Christmas for the common Estonian traditionally means setting a great table covered with the best food available.

These food orgies also hold ritual significance. Any food placed on the table has to be put out in its entirety. This is a sign of prosperity for the coming year. Any food put out in half-portions will bring bad luck.

Ounapuu explained that excessive eating at Christmas also has its benefits in the countryside.

"(If they did not eat much food,) people would fail to regain the energy they had to spend before Christmas working hard in the fields," she said.

Estonia is no longer plagued by food shortages, so today the only problem with massive overeating is the digestion dilemma that follows. Local newspapers this year are full of suggestions on how to trim the fat and excess from the meal.

Mulled wine, which has enjoyed renewed popularity in Estonia in the past several years, has an ancient Estonian predecessor.

"Its name was the bishop's drink, and it was roughly the same stuff - warmed red wine with spices, oranges and punch," she said.

Latvia's living dead

By the looks of things, Latvia is like any European nation gathering up for a traditional and largely commercialized Christmas. Riga's Old Town is seeing its first Christmas market - at least in recent memory, nearly every store is advertising a traditional "Christmas sale!" and strings of lights, wrapped packages and glass ornaments decorate the city. One store on Caka St. has even adorned its facade with life-sized Santa Clauses scaling the building.

Traditional Latvian culture, however, has little to do with the Western version of Christmas. The main celebration at the end of December is the winter solstice - the rebirth of the sun maiden.

In ancient times the solstice celebration was a welcome break from the intense field work.

The best known Christmas tradition is mumming. The mummers, called "kekatas" and any number of other names in different parts of the country, dress in wild costumes and travel from homestead to homestead or village to village.

Among the most common masks the kekatas don are bear, horse, wolf, goat, gypsy and the living dead. Not something you would necessarily look forward to seeing, but the procession is thought to bring blessings to the home, encourage fertility and frighten away evil spirits.

Dragging the yule log is another ancient Latvian tradition. The burning log is accompanied by songs, singing games and the music of traditional instruments. Hauling around the flaming log represents deleting last year's problems and sorrows.

The banquet makes an appearance in Latvian traditions as well. Among the most traditional foods is boiled pig's head. Other important foods included in this celebration are gray peas, beans, and barley sausage, used because its round shape signifies the sun.

And of course, whether you choose to believe the legend or not, there is reason to believe that Latvia is home to the world's first decorated Christmas tree. Decorating trees was a custom in Soviet times around New Year's but is now done to mark Christmas as well.