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Christian Holidays in Lithuania

The Lithuanian year is framed by the Christian holidays. The pinnacle of the year is Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Somewhat commercialized akin to the west, with Christmas shopping having augmented Christmas prayers for many, the holiday still has its deeper, traditional meaning. More uniquely to Lithuania the Christmas Eve (Kūčios, December 24th) is even more celebrated than the Christmas itself and it is also a day off the work. That evening whole family reunites to eat a special vegetarian (fish permitted) supper that must include at least 12 meals, and every participant should taste each meal. A prayer is said before that supper. The first meal is always the flatbread wafers (Lithuanian: Kalėdaitis). They are identical in recipe to the Holy Communion and inscribed with Christian imagery. Everyone starts with a separate wafer but is expected to break it down and give every other participant its piece. Only after all the pieces are consumed the other meals may be tasted.

A modest Kūčios table for 4 people. Kalėdaičiai are in separate plates. Bread dishes are on another table (not shown). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Just like elsewhere the children receive their presents during Christmas. The Santa Claus, known in Lithuanian as Kalėdų senelis (The Christmas grandfather), visits at night between 24th and 25th and leaves the presents under the Christmas tree of the home. Grown ups exchange the presents on Christmas Eve with their family and on another specified date with their friends and co-workers.

Every period between Christmas Eve and January 6th Vilnius TV tower is decorated by countless lights to become the World's tallest Christmas tree.

Vilnius TV Tower as the World's tallest Christmas tree (326,4 m tall with observation deck at 160 m). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the First day of Christmas (December 25th) family meets for a dinner while the Second day of Christmas (December 26th) is also a public holiday. The Christmas period ends in a less popular Epiphany holiday (January 6th) which commemorates the three kings (magi) who visited baby Jesus. Effigies of the kings parade city streets and some people write their traditional initials ("+K+M+B") in chalk on their front doors (Kasparas, Merkelis, Baltazaras).

Easter is another popular holiday, its secular traditions associated with pushing Easter eggs to see which one will go furthest. Easter Grandmother (Velykų bobutė) is more or less a female version of Santa Claus albeit not as popular. Easter sunday and Easter monday are both public holidays.

Another popular religious holiday is the Day of the Souls (Vėlinės) on November the 2nd and All Saints Day, November 1st. Less flashy than its Mexican counterpart this day involves visiting the graves of one's relatives and lighting candles there (and additional candles on the uncared graves). A visit to any cemetary is spectacular that evening, with most graves alight with candles. Traditionally it was believed that souls come to visit the earth at this day and a special meal used to be left for them. Like every religious holiday Vėlinės used to be persecuted by the Soviets who especially tried to forbid people from lighting candles on the graves of non-Soviet historical figures.

People bring enough Vėlinės candles to spread them among the graves of their relatives, famous people they admire and some random old graves that no longer have anyone to visit them. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After independence there were attempts to introduce Halloween to Lithuania. While initially moderately successful the celebration of Halloween subsided since, partly because Lithuanians already have a very similar holiday named Užgavėnės. Užgavėnės, coinciding with the carnival (46 days prior to Easter), involves people dressing up in self-made scary masks, dancing in public with strangers and children going door-to-door asking for candies. The twin pinnacles of this holiday are the burning of Morė (an effigy of winter) and the fight between Lašininis and Kanapinis. Lašininis, who represents meat-eaters, is always defeated by the vegetarian Kanapinis, marking the begginng of Lent. Public (main street) celebrations typically takes place the weekend before and the largest festivities are held in Rumšiškės museum.

A band of persirengėliai (the costumed) performs in Gedimino Avenue of Vilnius during Užgavėnės. Typically folk songs of low quality are purposefully performed. Masked persirengėliai represent mythological creatures while unmasked ones are dressed up as different persons (e.g. different ethnicity, social class, job). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pentecost (7th weekend after Easter) is considered to be the 3rd most important Christian holiday as it celebrates the Holy Spirit. However its popularity is now largely limited to villages where there are traditions related to farm animals.

Lent and Advent, traditional Christian periods of non-celebration and fasting that precede Easter and Christmas respecitively, are less observed today, but some people, especially the elderly and rural dwellers, still observe them vigorously.

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