This month at Austin Catholic New Media, the contributors are taking turns sharing some of their family Christmas traditions. While I have some very special ones from my own family of origin, today I’d like to share just a few of the beautiful customs I have experienced in the lovely Lithuanian family to whom I belong today.
I did not know much about Lithuania when I first met my husband, but have learned more over the years. Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states, located in Northern Europe, bordered by Poland, Latvia and Belarus. While it began as an independent nation, it has been occupied by different countries many times, through many wars. In 1991 it returned to being an independent nation. Lithuania was the last pagan nation in Europe, and was Christianized in 1387 by the King of Poland. Pagan traditions were deeply woven into the fabric of the country, which many of the Catholic traditions have now replaced.
One example of this is the customary Christmas Eve meal called Kūčios. This is truly one of my favorite aspects of being part of a Lithuanian family which treasures their heritage.
Traditionally, Christmas Eve is spent fasting, cleaning and making peace amongst family and friends. Dinner begins when the first star appears in the evening sky, symbolizing the star of Bethlehem. In my husband’s family, the entire home is dark until the Advent and Christmas candles are lit, and the family sings “Joy to the World” to welcome the light into the darkness. The youngest child of the family is then given the privilege to light the Christmas tree for the very first time and place the baby Jesus in the manger of the nativity scene.
Each member of the family then takes one of these beautifully designed wafers made of unleavened bread, and greets one another by breaking off and eating a piece of each person’s wafer, while exchanging blessings and well wishes for the new year.
After this ceremony, it is time for the meal to begin. The table is set with straw, both to represent the agrarian history of Lithuania as well as the straw placed in the manger for baby Jesus. Traditionally 12 dishes are served, and in pagan times this symbolized the 12 solar months of the year. As Lithuania was Christianized, these 12 dishes came to represent the 12 Apostles. There is no meat, dairy or hot food in the celebration. Everything served at the meal should be made from ingredients available in Lithuania during the winter. This is because the people whose lifestyle produced the Kūčios traditions made do with food prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter. (www.wikipedia.org). To begin, there is Vinegretas, an essential dish made of cold beets and beans. One of the most common main course dishes is Silkė, or herring dressed in various ways with tomato, mushroom, onion and sour cream. Boiled potatoes and sauerkraut, as well as a special type of rye bread are also included in the feast. For dessert, there is šližikai with aguonpienis (biscuits with a poppy seed milk) and spanguolių kisielius (cranberry pudding). Kompotas is a special drink made of dried fruits, cinnamon, lemon juice, fruit brandy and water.
After the meal and the opening of presents with dessert, the children will usually perform for their family with instruments, songs, skits or poems. And the crowning finish of the celebration is attending midnight Mass together.
Wishing you and your families a very happy and holy Christmas, blessed by your own special traditions!
*Wikipedia.org was used as a source for this feature.