Christmas Traditions and Customs in Lithuania - Global Storybook

Christmas Traditions and Customs in Lithuania

Danguolė Veličkaitė

Danguolė Veličkaitė

Danguolė Veličkaitė is the Local Contributing Writer at Global Storybook (Lithuania).

Danguolė Veličkaitė was born and raised in Lithuania. She loves to travel and learn about new cultures. She also admires art and cats.

Danguolė is warmly welcoming you to learn more about her beautiful homeland, Lithuania and consider it to be your next travel destination! You can read more about Danguolė here.
Danguolė Veličkaitė

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Christmas traditions in Lithuania are very similar to some other countries, especially the Baltic nations and Poland.  The traditional Christmas celebration is a combination of Christian and pagan customs.  Pagan Lithuanians used to celebrate the Winter solstice around the Christmas time.  Therefore numerous customs were passed down to the celebration of Christmas, as we know them today.  These old customs were given a new meaning by Roman Catholics, who later became the main religious group in Lithuania.

In Lithuania, the Christmas Day (“Kalėdos”) is less important than the Christmas Eve, which has a much bigger meaning.  The Christmas Eve is called “Kūčios”.  It also shares the name with a ‘big family dinner’, which Lithuanians host on that day.  “Kūčios” is also the last day of the Advent season, which makes it even more important and special.

Christmas Tree on the Cathedral Square with Tower, Vilnius, Lithuania - Global Storybook

A gorgeous Christmas Tree located on the Cathedral Square in Vilnius

Setting up the Christmas Tree

Before the big celebrations and the meal tastings can even begin, a lot of preparations would have to be made.  The whole house would have to be cleaned, the linens changed and a big Christmas tree or a branch would be set up and decorated.   Also, according to an old ethnic tradition, the Christmas tree has to be decorated on the Christmas Eve’s morning (December 24th) and not any day sooner.  It should bring you joy for 12 days, until the Epiphany.

Despite the old tradition, the Christmas tree would usually be decorated sometime earlier in December.  It would commonly be adorned with traditional Christmas toys, made of white paper straws.  The toys would have the shapes of snowflakes, stars, snowmen, geometric figures and other forms.

Christmas market in Vilnius, Lithuania - Global StorybookThe Bathing Ritual

After the Christmas tree, a big table would be arranged with numerous dishes, plus some traditional ornaments.  The food would normally be cooked to last for several days.  After that, everyone would take a bath and put on some clean festive clothes before they sit down for the big meal.  It’s widely believed that a clean body on the Christmas Eve would help people stay healthy throughout the next year.

It would also protect them from the evil, hence many Lithuanians would normally go to a traditional bathhouse at this time as well.  On the Christmas Eve nobody is permitted to work and family members who were away, would make every effort to come home.

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Christmas sauna - Global StorybookDecorating the Christmas Table

The central element of any traditional Christmas table is usually an oat straw.  It’s normally placed between a clean, white tablecloth and the table’s top.  Some candles and a few small fir tree branches or twigs would be placed on top of the table.  The straw represent a manger where the baby Jesus was born.

There is an old superstition which says that if a person pulls a long straw from under the table’s cloth, he or she will live a long life.  However, the reverse is also true if the straw is short.  Also, the thicker the straw is – the richer and happier you will be!

At the center of the table a plate of sanctified Christmas wafers would usually be put.  The number of wafers must equal the number of people attending the Christmas dinner.  The wafers would usually be decorated with a symbolic nativity scene.

Many prefer not to eat anything until the Christmas Eve, to commemorate the days of deprivation and food shortages, which were common in the past.  Additionally, none of the traditional “Kūčios” dishes would contain any meat.  Some Lithuanians won’t even use any milk or eggs for that matter.

Christmas table, Lithuania - Global StorybookCommemorating the Dead

It’s also common to leave an extra plate for a family member who could not attend the Christmas Eve’s dinner.  Or for a newly departed relative, who had passed away during the past year.  A candle would also be lit for any loved one who had recently died.  Some believe that the deceased relatives can come back to Earth and join the family on this day.  In addition, friends who don’t have any place to go on the Christmas Eve, would be invited for the dinner.  No one should feel lonely during this special time!

The Christmas Eve’s dinner has to start once the first stars can be seen in the night sky.  If the sky is cloudy, the oldest person in the family would decide when the meal should start.  Traditionally, the wafers would be offered first to each person at the table, while the Christmas greetings would be exchanged.

Linksmų šventų Kalėdų!” (or “Merry Christmas” in Lithuanian) would be wished to everyone.  Sometimes an apple would also be cut into as many pieces, as there are people present at the table.  It serves as a symbolic fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The Christmas Meal

The traditional “Kūčios” dinner consists of 12 dishes – one for each of Jesus’s followers.  The most popular dishes include various kinds of fish (herring, salmon, baked pike or other) served with a garnish.  No Christmas table can ever exist without “kūčiukai” – small sweet pastries, soaked in poppy milk.  A dried fruit soup, beet soup with mushrooms and dumplings, a vegetable salad, boiled or baked potatoes, cooked sauerkraut, cranberry pudding and wheat porridge with honey and bread – would also be commonly served on the Christmas Eve in Lithuania.

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Food would be washed down with a homemade cider, water or “kisielius” – a traditional, very dense Lithuanian drink, made of cranberries and starch.  Some sweets and fruits would also be offered during the meal.  The dinner itself would be eaten leisurely and solemnly.

Everyone is expected to take a bite from every main dish, otherwise it will bring misfortune.  Also, no one can leave the table before everyone has finished eating, as it would be considered unlucky.

Sakotis or sekacz - a traditional tree cake in Lithuanian cuisine, Christmas - Global Storybook

Sakotis or sekacz – a traditional tree cake in Lithuania

After the Meal

Once the dinner is finished, family members would start telling each other old legends and prophecies about the upcoming year.  “Kūčios” is a very special night.  Children are told that on this night extraordinary things are possible.  One of the oldest proverbs says that, once the clock strikes midnight, the water in a well can transform into wine and animals can speak like humans.

It’s also said that marriageable daughters should go outside to pick up a few branches of kindling wood.  They have to count them and if they get an even number – a marriage proposal should be coming their way, in the next year.

Numerous Christmas games would commonly be played after the dinner.  There might also be a visit from “Senis Šaltis” (Santa Claus) who might bring in some presents!  Relatives would also exchange presents among themselves.  After the gift exchange, children would usually go to bed, while adults might attend a Midnight Mass (Bernelių Mišios, or the “Shepherd’s Mass” in Lithuanian).

The Christmas Morning – December 25th

Any unnecessary work should be avoided during the first day of Christmas, since it’s considered to be a sacred time.  Due to that reason, the only food served that day would be the one prepared in advance.  The Christmas morning is usually spent at home with the family exchanging gifts, playing joyful games and singing Christmas carols.

During the day, people would also visit their neighbors and exchange some Christmas greetings.  Once the night falls, local musicians would appear at the front door of the most prosperous house and start singing.  They would signal the end of Advent season.

Christmas lantern pictured in front of a Christmas tree, Vilnius, Lithuania - Global StorybookThe End of the Holiday Season

The Christmas period officially ends with the less popular Epiphany holiday (on January 6th), which commemorates the three Kings, who visited the baby Jesus.  During this time the Christmas tree and all the other decorations would normally be removed.

Usually the village clerics would visit and bless the local houses, then write the three initials: “K+M+B” in chalk on the front doors.  The initials stand for the three Kings: Kasparas, Merkelis and Baltazaras.  After January 6th, the Christmas is officially over.  Hence, people would get on with their daily lives, waiting for the next holiday.

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