The culture of Lithuania is standing on six pillars:
The ethnicity. The old Lithuanian nation was joined by multiple minorities over the centuries, and to many their ethnicity is the prime self-identification and the main source of cherished traditions.
The holidays. From local to universal, from meaningful to forgotten, from straightforward to controversial: every week has festivities in Lithuania, each of them dating to a different historical period or group of people.
The architecture. Formed by ethnicities and religions, foreign influences and occupations, a multitude of architectural styles define the contemporary Lithuanian villages, towns and cites.
The arts, crafts and literature. Mostly created during periods that already seem exotic in a rapidly-changing Lithuania the art, crafts, and literature are still respected as something that best conveys the development of Lithuanian culture to the present-day people.
The majority ethnicity in Lithuania is Lithuanians, who make up 85,08% of the population and are the country's original inhabitants.
Fourth largest ethnicity in Lithuania are the Belarusians (1,2%), the fifth are the Ukrainians (0,55%). Together with the other ethnicities of former Soviet Union these two are sometimes labeled Russophones and are also concentrated primarily in the cities.
Inter-ethnic relations are generally good in Lithuania. Unlike in many European nations, the Lithuania’s largest ethnic minorities enjoy public schools where the language of instruction is their native one rather than the official Lithuanian language. However, other points of language policy raised discussions recently, such as the legality of Polish street names in the Polish-dominated municipalities.
Inter-ethnic marriages used to be shunned by peers while under the Soviet occupation (as the offspring were then likely to assimilate into Russophone culture, threatening the long-term existence of Lithuanian nation) but are now generally a non-issue if both spouses belong to the traditional communities.
Like elsewhere in the Eastern Europe the concept of nation is more associated with ethnicity than citizenship, therefore using the term "Lithuanian" for ethnic minorities may be controversial (both among the minority in question and the rest of population). Conversations about one's ethnicity are generally welcome.
All the traditional communities (well over 99% of the population) are White. Races are thus seen as an external issue used to describe the global (rather than local) diversity.
In the globalized world of 21st century, few would be surprised by multi-religious cities. However, in Lithuania, the multi-religious atmosphere is centuries old. The 19th century Vilnius had temples of over 10 different religions, many of them non-Christian. Lithuania is a unique crossroad of the East and the West in that here you can see the centuries-old heritage of many different faiths.
Today most (some 85,9%) Lithuanians are Roman Catholic and the interwar Lithuania was a very religious society. However the long Soviet occupation (1940-1941 and 1944-1990) with its anti-religious policy brought in a flavor of sometimes radical atheism (6,8% irreligious). It also triggered a decline in religious services attendances and a more clandestine role of religion, which is still largely invisible in public places.
Second largest faith is the Russian Orthodoxy, followed by 4,6%, mostly ethnic Russians. 0,9% of the population are Old Believers, whose Russian ancestors received refuge in Lithuania when they were persecuted in Russia for refusing to adhere to the Nikon’s religious reform. Lutherans, 4th largest religion (0,7%), enjoy a centuries-old stronghold in Klaipėda Region, while the Lithuanian center of the Reformed Christianity (0,2%) is the Biržai district in the northeast.
Four other faiths are considered traditional by the Lithuanian law, and they are:
*Sunni Islam, adhered by Tatars whose ancestors were brought as soldiers to these areas by Vytautas the Great.
*Judaism, the religion of the Jewish community, severely weakened by the Nazi Germany's Holocaust, Soviet atheism and the emigration to Israel.
*Karaism, an old offshoot of Judaism practiced mostly in Vilnius and Trakai.
*Uniate Christianity (Eastern Catholicism), a form of Christianity whose devotees recognize the Pope as an authority but follow the Eastern orthodox liturgy.
Each of these faiths is now followed by 0,1% or less population but their centuries-old communities are important for Lithuania’s history and culture.
Lithuania recognizes religious freedom. Traditional religious institutions are treated like any cultural institutions. The state could support them (but such support should be proportional to the number of their followers).
The sole official language in Lithuania as well as the language you will hear the most is Lithuanian (native to some 85% of the population and spoken by 96%). With millennia-old history and struggles for its survival, Lithuanian language is very much a part of national identity.
Minority languages in Lithuania
The largest minority languages are Russian and Polish, spoken natively by 8,2% and 5,8% of the population respectively.
Russian native speakers live primarily in cities. They include not only ethnic Russians but also many Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews and other ethnicities common in the former Soviet Union, collectively referred to as Russophones. Some "Russophones" speak another language natively but still speak better Russian than Lithuanian or don't speak Lithuanian at all. Not speaking Lithuanian is common among the elder generation of Russophones. That's because during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990) knowledge of Lithuanian was not required and Russian was the lingua franca (unlike Latvia or Estonia, Lithuania gave its citizenship to every person who resided in Lithuania at the time of the collapse of the USSR, regardless of their knowledge of the official language).
Polish is spoken mostly by the ethnic Polish minority in the southeast Lithuania (including Vilnius). In some towns there Polish is actually the majority language.
While there are other minorities in Lithuania it is very rare to hear any other language than Lithuanian, Russian or Polish spoken in Lithuania by locals in their own conversations (rather than when talking to foreigners).
Minority languages are used extensively by the minorities in question and this is promoted by the government. For instance, there are many public schools where either Russian or Polish are used as the medium of instruction. However, any official government texts (e.g. laws or street names) are Lithuanian-only.
Foreign languages in Lithuania
Spoken by some 70% of the population, Russian is still the most popular second language in Lithuania, although this is declining. The Russian language was both mandatory and ubiquitous during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990), making virtually everybody in the older generations (i.e. those born ~1980 and before) fluent in it. Nowadays, however, many ethnic Lithuanians regard the Russian language as a "colonial leftover". Only some 40% of the kids learn it. Likewise, Russian public inscriptions have been gradually removed or replaced by English ones (although the Russian language may still be seen on an occasional old plaque or in unrenovated museums). On the other hand, private hotels and restaurants have Russian menus and employ Russian-speakers to cater for numerous Russian tourists. While to some ethnic Lithuanians any use of Russian is a reminder of the tragic history, some others enjoy Russian music and media, claiming that "culture and politics should not be mixed".
English is the most popular foreign language to learn today. It is spoken by 30% of total population and 80% of the youth. Older generations are unlikely to speak English however as very few schools taught it seriously under the Soviet occupation. Today English is the language Lithuanians expect foreigners to know, so it is widely used in modern museums, hotels, tourist signs and city/resort restaurant menus. As the "top language" of the "prestigious West", it also became fashionable for some key local trademarks and popular songs.
It is relatively rare for non-Poles to learn Polish as a foreign language. It is not taught as such in schools. However, non-Polish people from areas with strong Polish presence may have some knowledge of Polish acquired in day-to-day life, making 14% of Lithuania's citizens fluent in Polish. Polish signs for tourists are available in the areas most visited by the Polish tourists, namely the Vilnius region and the borderland. Polish-inhabited areas have Polish cultural events and media, although they are mostly aimed at the local Poles.
German (spoken by 8% of the population) held popularity as a 2nd foreign language (after Russian, instead of English) under the Soviet occupation as the Soviet Union had close ties to East Germany (but no close ties to any English-speaking country). Today German usually competes with Russian for the place of second foreign language in school (after English). In the formerly German-ruled Klaipėda region restaurant menus and other information in German is more common due to catering for numerous German tourists there. In terms of cultural impact, German is far behind English, Russian and Polish, however: there is no local German media, few cultural events, few books for sale and so on.
Fifth and sixth foreign languages by the number of speakers in Lithuania are French and Spanish, but they are spoken only by some 2% and 1% of the population respectively.
For centuries Lithuania was known as a land of endless lush forests, interrupted only by rivers. As such the traditional architecture in Lithuania is wooden. In most smaller towns almost every building that had been constructed before the 20th century is built of wood. Wooden churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) are common in villages, there are even wooden mosques and synagogues. Some of the wooden buildings are very elaborate and with intricate details.
In the downtowns of the main cities, however, the brick started to displace the wood as early as in the 14th century. Romanesque architecture was the first international style to reach Lithuania but few examples of it survive. Some of the most famous architectural gems date to the gothic period (such as the Saint Anne’s church in Vilnius) and subsequent Renaissance. This period was followed by the Baroque that is the best represented in the church architecture of Vilnius. Only a few cities have brick pre-19th-century districts, however: Vilnius, Kaunas and Kėdainiai are the best-known examples.
In the late 18th century, the Neo-Classical architecture came to Lithuania. In the mid 19th century, it was displaced by historicism that copied various earlier styles and sometimes a combination of thereof. This period gave many large buildings to the cities (apartments and public buildings) while many smaller towns received their neo-gothic church spires that now dominate the Lithuanian landscape (Roman Catholic faith became free to practice and expand in the Russian-controlled Lithuania only after the 1904). Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Renaissance, and eclectic historicism styles were less common for these churches.
Another major part of architectural heritage of pre-20th century Lithuania are the manors in the countryside as well as in the cities and towns (where they are typically surrounded by well-crafted parks) that used to be owned by the noble families like counts Tiškevičiai or dukes Oginskiai. Their architecture follows the popular styles of the period, with the manors of poorer families built of wood. In the case of many towns, the manors were not only their part but actually their heart, because the towns were considered to be a property of the local nobles.
After the World War 1, Kaunas became the temporary capital of Lithuania, therefore, it expanded rapidly and received many fine art deco buildings, most famous being the Church of Christ Ressurection on the Žaliakalnis hill. However, the main period of urbanization came under the Soviet occupation (in 1939 70% of Lithuanian people lived in villages; in 1989 70% of Lithuanian people lived in cities). Initially this meant construction of buildings in a style known as Soviet historicism, but as early as 1954 all “unnecessary architectural details” were cancelled and every new building had to be built in a blunt functionalism style, making all the new districts that surrounded every city very faceless and hard to distinguish from any other city in the Soviet Union (in a popular Russian comedy “After bath” a drunk man goes to Saint Petersburg instead of Moscow and does not realize this because of similar district names, street names and buildings). In the villages, many old wooden houses were replaced by similar looking prefab “Alytus homes”. Shops, schools, and hospitals also used to be built by similar designs all across the Union.
The post-independence (1990) era brought glass-covered buildings and skyscrapers to the major cities, especially Vilnius and Klaipėda, but the expansion in smaller towns and villages remained more modest. Around the major cities, new suburbs of private homes appeared out of nowhere. The first such houses after the restoration of the private property used to be big, with castle-like features as the families built them for generations to come (unfortunately, changing fortunes or too large wishes meant that some of these buildings are still incomplete). In the 2000s such “manors of the 20th century” gave way to smaller western-style detached homes.
15 annual public holidays puts Lithuania in the top ten of countries that have the most public holidays. Coupled with 28 days of mandatory paid annual leave Lithuanians indeed have time to celebrate. While the centuries-old traditions were hit by various occupations and cultural persecutions of the 19th-20th centuries, many have survived, some others are reintroduced or started anew.
Being a Christian country Lithuania has traditional Roman Catholic holidays as its most widely celebrated annual events. This includes Easter, Christmas and, more uniquely, Christmas Eve. The Day of the Dead lacks the flash of its Mexican version but is nevertheless celebrated in a unique way as the Day of the Souls. The Christain holidays are typically family events and as such are celebrated by religious and non-religious alike.
Being the Europe's area where paganism remained strong for the longest time, some of the traditional Lithuanian holidays, while primarily Christian, have surviving pagan influences. There have been attempts to reinstate some pagan or paganism-inspired events that have already died out. Saint John's Eve (Joninės or Rasos) is among such holidays.
Lithuania has little traditions in celebrating its national (patriotic) holidays, of which it has many. Official events take place, but the days are not observed by the majority of the population. New celebration ideas, sometimes readily accepted, sometimes meeting opposition, arose in the recent years and they include parades and mass singing of the national anthem by Lithuanian communities worldwide.
Lithuanian cities established their own annual events - generally, the larger is the city, the more there are local events. Minor towns have their own holidays coinciding with the days of the saint to whom the local church is dedicated. While religious in nature those days include secular events such as a market, a concert, reunions of families descended from the area and so on.
The public holidays in Lithuania are:
January 1st - New Year (also the National flag day)
February 16th - Day of State Restoration
March 11th - Day of Independence Restoration
Date set by the Roman Catholic tradition - Velykos (Easter Sunday)
Date set by the Roman Catholic tradition - Velykos (Easter Monday)
May 1st - Labour day
First Sunday of May - Mother's day
First Sunday of June - Father's day
June 24th - Joninės / Rasos (St. John's day)
July 6th - State day (Day of King Mindaugas coronation)
August 15th - Žolinė / Virgin Mary Assumption day
November 1st - All Saints day
December 24th - Kūčios (Christmas Eve)
December 25th - Kalėdos (First day of Christmas)
December 26th - Kalėdos (Second day of Christmas)
Traditional holidays that are not public holidays but are nevertheless eagerly celebrated include Užgavėnės (Carnival). Usually, the main public celebrations of such events are done in the weekend.
Most shops and restaurants are open during the holidays although there may be some alterations during the major celebrations (Easter, Christmas and New Year).