Ancient Lithuanian celebrations, work customs and ceremonies often corresponded with the most significant days of the year: solstices, equinoxes and others. Many of these traditions dated back to pagan times. Lithuania was an agricultural nation, therefore it is not surprising that farming and husbandry left their mark on calendar celebrations.
After Lithuania was converted to Christianity, the church began determining when holidays would occur. However elements of ancient pagan beliefs still existed alongside Christian ones in many holiday rituals. Often the dates of Christian holidays coincided with older pagan ones as agricultural cycles never changed. Holiday and work customs were not uniform throughout Lithuania. For example, Shrove Tuesday was most popular in Žemaitija, whereas rye cutting customs were observed mainly in Dzūkija, and St. John’s day celebrations were mostly found in northern Lithuania.
Christmas Eve (December 24 TH)
Christmas Eve in Lithuania was an occasion full of mysticism and secrecy. It was far richer more meaningful in terms of custom and ritual than Christmas day. More so than other holidays, Christmas Eve’s rituals still retained many pre – Christmas elements. It was thought that on Christmas Eve spirits returned to their homes. Because of this, no one went very far from home on the 24th for fear of meeting hostile spirits.
At sunset, a ceremonial dinner was served. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner everyone had to make sure that they were clean, without angry thoughts, at peace with their neighbors and without any debts. The table was covered with hay and usually set with twelve meatless dishes, among them kūčiukai (small, hard biscuits with poppies), oatmeal, cranberry pudding and so forth. Places were set at the table for recently deceased family members. Having eaten, the seated people pulled hay stalks from under the tablecloth to forecast their fortunes. A long stem meant a long life, whereas a short one meant that person might not live until next Christmas. After dinner, the table was not cleared off so that the souls of dead family members could gather around it during the night.
Christmas (December 25 Th)
In contrast to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day in Lithuania was always a public celebration involving entire communities. The high point of the festivities occurred when costumed revelers visited all of the farmsteads wishing everyone a good harvest. These visitors were always showered with gifts. The main figure in this group was Kalėdų senis (Father Christmas), a man dressed in an inside-out fur coat and flaxen beard with a bag and a stick. Father Christmas scattered grains from his bag onto each household’s krikštasuolis (the corner of honor behind the table) and gave nuts to the children and young people.
New Year’s Day (January 1st)
New Year’s Day was a part of the Christmas holiday cycle. Many of its traditions were similar to those of Christmas Eve.
Three Kings’ Day (January 6th)
On the of January 6 Th, the letters KMB were written over the door of each household. These letters honored the three kings who came to greet the newly-born Jesus. On this day, costumed kings with retinues visited all of the farmsteads. Their clothes were seldom actually regal; they consisted of long furs, hats woven from thick sheaves of straw decorated with berry branches and so forth. The kings visited each house to greet its inhabitants with the news of Christ’s birth, to herald the new year and to wish them a good harvest. In order to guarantee that the king’s blessing would be fulfilled, farmers showered them with gifts.
(Seven weeks before Easter)
Shrove Tuesday signaled the weakening of winter and the end of feasting and merriment during the time period between the Advent and Lenten fasts. Driving behind horses, sledding down a hill on a distaff board, doing the wash or dragging a chopping block on a rope on this day ensured a good flax harvest that year. Being sated during Shrove Tuesday meant being sated throughout the whole year. Thus, people tried to eat as often as possible on this day, even twelve times if they could.