15 annual public holdays 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 primarilly Christian, have surviving pagan infuences. 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 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 seccular 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 corronation)
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).
The Lithuanian year is framed by the Christian holidays. The pinnacle of the year is Christmas. 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.
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.
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.
Easter is another popular holiday, its seccular traditions associated with pushing Easter eggs to see which one will go furthest. Easter bunny is not part of the Lithuanian tradition. 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.
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.
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 older ones and ones outside the main cities, still observe them vigorously.
The late Christianisation of Lithuania failed to completely erradicate traces of paganism. Some holidays still have two alternative names - one Christian and one Pagan. These are the Joninės/Rasos (Saint John's Eve, coinciding with the year's longest day in June 23rd) and Virgin Assumption Day/Žolinė (August 15th).
The traditions for Joninės (Rasos) include bonfire burning and a search for mythological blooming fern in a forest. In the pagan religion this "search" had a deeper meaning, but now it is used as an euphemism for spending the night with one's girlfriend or boyfriend away from the others. Joninės was made a day off the work by an impressive publicity stunt of TV3 channel which included massive lobbying campaign "Freedom for Joninės!". The campaign was also supported by Utenos alus beer factory as Joninės is now associated with increased consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Žolinė is less popular than Joninės. Traditionally it was a holiday of the harvest completion. In the Christian tradtion plants and flowers are used in church rituals.
Lithuania has as many as three state holidays. July 6th, the State Day, commemorates the corronation of the country's first and only king Mindaugas in 1253 (the true date of the event is based on a modern calculation however). February 16th, the State Restoration Day, reminds of the declaration of Lithuania's independence in 1918 and is typically considered the most important. March 11th, the Independence Restoration Day, recalls the 1990, when the first post-WW2 democratically elected Lithuanian parliament declared the end to the 46 year old second Soviet occupation, triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In addition to these glorious dates, every single of them non-working, several sad dates are observed. These are the June 14th (Day of Grief and Hope), when in 1941 the Soviet genocide commenced by exiling tens of thousands Lithuanians to Siberia in cattle carriages, later joined by several times that number, many of whom died en route or after arrival. Occupation and Genocide day on June 15th recalls the 1940, the year when Soviets occupied Lithuania for the first time, later followed by Nazi German occupation and another Soviet occupation. January 13th, 1991 was the day when the Soviet troops unsuccesfully attempted to squash the Lithuanian freedom aspirations by force (14 armless civilians died, hundreds were injured). It is now celebrated as the Day of Freedom Defenders. Black Ribbon and Baltic Way day reminds the August 23rd of 1939 when Soviets and Nazi Germany partitioned Europe by signing Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and August 23rd of 1991 when Baltic peoples shown an unmatched solidarity in creating a live chain from Vilnius, Lithuania to Tallinn, Estonia in condemnation of the 1939 pact. Flags are downed by one third or coupled with a black banner during these days.
January 1st is the National Flag day, marked by the choreographed replacement of the "country's most important flag" on the Gediminas Hill castle tower in Vilnius (in reality this flag is replaced several times a year due to wear, but other replacements go unpublicised).
It is frequently claimed that such a large number of commemorations and indpendence dates tells of a sad history of Lithuania, full of upheavals. Despite of the number of national days, their celebration is minuscule compared to the similar days in America. Typically there are only officially sponsored, state or municipal funded events (public speeches, holy mass, military parades), while for many people these days are simply a time they can rest from working. Under the Soviet occupation all Lithuanian national holidays used to be banned with police (militia) presence increased to prevent spontaneous commemorations.
In some 2000s a grassroots movement to organize street parades on the national holidays commenced - with flags and patriotic chants on the happy anniversaries and with candles on the sad ones. The parades have met opposition from groups such as the far left and non-Lithuanian nationalists who regularly attempt to disrupt them. The anarchists regard the patriotism itself to be dated, while certain foreign nationalists and communists dislike any reminder of the Soviet crimes. In attempt to smear the parades their opponents label them "neo-nazi", although this has little basis as the absolute majority of participants are moderates. Foreigners who support the Lithuanian freedom also regularly participate. The only side failing to abide the laws during the 2012 parades were the parade opponents.
Less controversial attempts to forge new traditions for national days were sponsored by media. One such event, commenced in 2009, suggests every Lithuanian, whether home or abroad, to sing his homeland's national anthem on a certain time on July 6th. The anthem is also played on some TV and radio channels at this time.
The situation of the celebration (or lack thereof) of the Lithuania's national holidays correlates with the general situation of patriotism. In the Soviet Union Russian nationalism was condoned, but any notion of minority (including Lithuanian) nationalism was seen as dangerous and labelled fascism. This idea stuck somewhat, with some people, primarilly the Russophone minorities, still finding Lithuanian patriotism to be suspicious, especially when it comes from a non-state-sponsored source. To this day "nacionalizmas" ("nationalism") holds a deeply negative meaning in Lithuanian language, similar to "fascism". The relative poverty of Lithuania, compared to the Western Europe, also induces some people to publically denounce their homeland and nationality. On the other hand, the state symbols, such as the flag and anthem, are more or less respected by Lithuanians, but a deeper glorification of Lithuania may evoke controversy in what is a self-concious nation.
New Year Day (January 1st) is marked in Lithuania by massive fireworks. The vast majority of these are neither state nor municipality funded. There is a tradition for most Lithuanians to spend money (sometimes vast amounts of it) on fireworks in seasonal pyrotechnics stalls that are set up in every shopping mall and marketplace a month in advance. The government condones this - unlike at any other time no permit is needed to use fireworks between 11 PM December 31th and 1 AM January 1st. To see the most of it one should find himself a high place in a major city (it is worth to stay at a taller hotel if you spend the New Year day in Lithuania).
While the fireworks may lack the choreographed display qualities of proffesional pyrotechnician's work it is the sheer number of them which impress the most as they are fired seemingly from every street and courtyard and this drags on for several hours (peaking at the midnight). Fireworks are followed by apocalyptical flocks of scared birds and fog-like smoke that engulfs Lithuanian cities.
Lithuanians typically celebrate New Year with friends and do it hedonistically (in contrast with Christian holidays which are family events). Any restaurant should be ordered in advance for that time.
Lithuania lacks significant ethnic communities that celebrate New Year at any other date. However many people follow horoscopes - including the Chinese horoscopes which associate every year with some animal and element. This leads to a strange combination of Western and East Asian cultures where the Lithuanian media declares on January 1st which Chinese year had supposedly just began (even though the real Chinese New Year is two months later).
Certain holidays in Lithuania are dedicated to specific groups of people. Mother's day on the first sunday of May typically includes children giving presents to their mothers. Fathers are similarly honored in the Father's day one month later (first Sunday of June), but the traditions for celebrating this holiday are not as strong.
Day of science and knowledge (September 1st) is the universal start of schoolyear in Lithuania, also followed by most universities. Kids bring flowers to their teachers and there are no lessons but a short introduction. Alcohol sales are banned all over Lithuania that day to discourage teenagers from getting drunk in post-holiday meetings with classmates.
Labour day (May 1st) used to be a major affair marked by massive state-organized parades during the Soviet occupation, participation in which had been mandatory for many people. After independence it was briefly not a public holiday at all. Reinstated as such by the Socialdemocrats it failed to generate public attention and you will not see labour rallies of the southern European scale in Lithuania. Many people regard the Labour day to be primarilly a Soviet holiday.
Women day (March 8th) celebration traditions also date to the Soviet Union, but this holiday is more popular than the Labour day. During it males typically congratulate their female co-workers and bring them flowers.
In 1990s the Saint Valentine day (February 14th), a holiday for lovers, gained popularity that sometimes exceeded that of the independence day two days later (February 16th). Not native to Lithuania the Valentine day celebrations were completely imported from the West.
Traditional city and town holidays have been celebrated at the time of the day of the patron-saint of the local church. This is a religious event but also brings in traders who sell traditional long sugar sweets, among other things, and is a pretext for family reunions. In larger towns concerts and other events also takes place during these holidays.
In the cities the 20th century brought in a flavour of seccular holidays.
In Vilnius, the traditional religious holiday is the St. Casimir's day (March 4th). What attracts more people to it than the churches is the Kaziukas (diminutive of Casimir) fair, typically held the weekend before. Covering several streets and squares in the Vilnius Old Town the stalls sell people's art, candies and other things, traditional and modern alike. St. Casimir day is so successful that Kaunas now attempts to emulate it.
Klaipėda has the Sea Festival (Jūros šventė), marked by concerts, other events and a procession of Neptune, attract many people to the seaside. First Sea Festival took palce in 1934 and it is celebrated the final weekend of July. Many events are related to the sea and the concerts typically take place close to the sea or the Curonian lagoon.
Some international initiatives came to Lithuania, including the Museum night (May 19th) when museums are free of charge and open longer. One intiative originated in Vilnius and has since become international: it is the Day of Street Music, held in May, when proffessionals and amateurs alike are encouraged to go to the streets and play whatever instrument they can, or sing. The level of performances varies greatly, but when you dislike a musician you may always walk some 300 additional meters to the next one. The day of Street Music takes place in the Old Town and New Town of Vilnius.
Traditionally wedding and funeral are the most important lifetime events as they mark the beginning of a new life (family and afterlife).
Both events were traditionally seen as reasons for weeping. Relatives used to perform the weeps (improvised laments accompanied by crying). Not that surprising when you know that "ašarų pakalnė" (Valley of tears) is used as a poetic synonym for "The world" in Lithuanian language.
Funerals are almost always celebrated traditionally (according to the wishes of usually elderly deceased). They take up to several days with the first day(s) dedicated to presentation of the dead body. All the people who knew the deceased then come for a final look and a few minutes (hours in case of the closest friends) of contemplation. They also bring laurels and flowers and tell their condolences. In villages this used to be done at home with vigils at night but now a funeral house is typically rented out (which are closed at nights). Christian carols by professional singers now have largely replaced the weeps.
The final day of funeral includes a priest visit and the final goodbye (touching/kissing of the deceased by closest relatives) followed by the funeral procession to cemetary (in villages the hearse is followed on foot). Amidst prayers and final words the casket is lowered and the hole then filled. Numerous flowers and laurels brought in throughout visiting days are put on grave together with a wooden cross (to be replaced by a tombstone a year later). Dinner of grief follows where friends and relatives are invited and Christian carols also performed. Such dinner is repeated after a year and holy mass for the deceased is celebrated at every anniversary of death.
Cremations are rare (the first crematory was constructed in Lithuania in 2011) and when they are done the traditional rites may still be followed where possible with casket replaced by urn.
The lenght of funeral and a cultural emphasis on care of graves (which are covered by elaborate tombstones and flower gardens) make some say that there is a cult of death in Lithuania somewhat reminiscent to that in Mexico.
The high-point of wedding is usually the sacramental celebration in church (long form with holy mass which takes ~1 hour or short form without one). Some people opt for non-religious wedding performed at Soviet-established "wedding palaces" (although now possible to be done anywhere). A decreasing number of others do both (this was a must for religious families in the Soviet Union when church weddings were not recognised by law but today is more of a mean to make that special day last longer).
A restaurant or farmstead is typically hired for wedding party. Some old traditions are still quite common, such as a supposed "hanging" of matchmaker (who is saved by bride) or the matchmaker buying the right to sit at a table. In the countryside wedding cars may be blocked by other people asking for candies.
Rue laurels traditionally symbolised virginity and were made for the bride during her bachelorette party. Today bachelor(ette) parties are usually celebrated the Western way. Matchmaking parties once celebrated some 20 days before wedding are also gone.
Until 1990s it was common to marry after ~1 year of friendship (this was influenced as much by Christian traditions as by the Soviet system which forbade unmarried couples from even sharing a hotel room). Today 3, 5 or even 10 years of cohabitation pass until a couple agrees to marry (that's why there are fewer rue laurels...). Some people prefer to spend vast money on wedding (dress, photographer, musicians, good restaurant, rings, limousines and honeymoon) facilitating the need for career before wedding (it all used to be much cheaper when celebrated at home).
Birthdays and name days
Birthdays are celebrated the Western way with parties and presents. Co-workers greet the person during the workday closest to his birthday.
Name days exist for every Lithuanian name but they are typically not celebrated save for a few particular Christian names (e.g. Jonas - John).
Childhood, teenage and youth celebrations
Christian ceremonies celebrated by children (and their parents) are the sacraments of Christianing, First Communion and Confirmation (at ~1 year, ~12 years and ~14 years respectively). In Christianing a baby is given a name and accepted into Christian community. Before receiving his/her First Communion one learns prayers and makes the first confession. Confirmation is granted by bishop and requires person's further determination to be Christian.
Most secular "initiation rites" are related to educational milestones. The person's first (~7 years old) and final (~18 years old) schoolyear begginings (September 1st) are held as important (parents also participate).
The final schoolyear includes a bunch of other celebrations: Šimtadienis (celebrated in March, 100 days before the final lesson), Final bell (final day at school named so after electric bells used in Lithuanian schools to invite students to lessons; June) and prom night (June or July).
Undergraduate studies are completed by the majority of young Lithuanians followed by graduation.
Generally various personal holidays have been associated with alcohol consumption but today many people celebrate without getting drunk.
As Lithuania's capital Vilnius is the heart of most national celebrations (at least their official events). It also hosts so many local events that even if you are at some random weekend there is likely something to be going on.
Vilnus Cathedral is the heart of many Christian celebrations while secular ones take place in the Old Town and New Town (especially the Gedimino Avenue, Rotušės Square, Katedros Square and Pilies Street).
Here are described the celebrations and events which are unique to Vilnius and may interest foreigners:
Flag raising is a daily event at Daukanto square in front of President's office. Three flags are lowered and raised by a group of soldiers dressed in medieval armour.
Winter celebrations and events
|Christmas period||December 25th to January 6th||Religious mass holiday||Period between Christmas and the Epiphany is uniquelly marked in Vilnius by transforming its 326 m tall TV tower into the world's tallest Christmas tree. Conceived for celebrating the new millenium in 2000 this became a yearly event.|
|January 13th||January 12th-13th||Commemorative ceremony||Commemoration of the sad events of January 1991 (Vilnius massacre) when Russian troops invaded the city leading to the deaths of 14 civilians (hundreds were injured). Prior to this hundreds of thousands armless people had guarded key locations in a non-violent struggle for freedom. Some spent months away from home and passed days at bonfires. Hence bonfires are now lit yearly at the locations guarded so eagerly in those days (Vilnius TV Tower, Radio and Teleivision headquarters, Parliament).|
Spring celebrations and events
|Kaziuko mugė (St. Casimir Fair)||Weekend before March 4th||Fair||The traditional local holiday of Vilnius. A major fair takes place the weekend before in multiple central streets, selling tradiditional candies, artwork and crafts (among other things). Its beginnings likely lie in 1636 when the remains of Lithuania's patron saint Casimir were brought to be interred in Vilnius Cathedral. Like most traditional Lithuanian celebrations the fair was banned by the Soviets but nevertheless used to take place in marketplaces.|
|Kino pavasaris (Cinema Spring)||2 weeks in March||Film festival||The largest cinema festival in Lithuania. Aimed at non-Hollywood movies it has its movies presented in original language with Lithuanian subtitles (some non-English films also have English subtitles). The prize is awarded for the best new Eastern European movie and this region is best represented.|
|Spring solstice||March 20th||Ceremony||Pagan-inspired show of fire and water at Neris river near Cathedral square (a 2000s tradition).|
|Užupis Republic Independence day||April 1st||Ceremony||Commemoration of the 1998 April fools day when Užupis neighborhood (part of Old Town) "declared" its independence to effectively become a micronation. This district of artists with its own constitution and president celebrates its freedom with parades, flag raising ceremony and temporary customs control at the "frontiers".|
|FiDi||1st Saturday of April||Ceremony||The most famous traditional student ceremony in Lithuania. Celebrated by Vilnius university physics students since 1969 the day starts at their faculty in Saulėtekis with science demonstrations. The pinnacle of FiDi is its parade when dinosaur-on-wheels (basilisk-inspired symbol of FiDi) leads the predominantly male future scientists to a largely female Faculty of Linguistics in Old Town.|
|Lithuanian Basketball League final series||Around April||Proffesional sports||Since 1998 the right to contest the champion rings of Lithuania's major league is always won by "Lietuvos Rytas" of Vilnius and "Žalgiris" of Kaunas teams (pouring fuel into the eternal Vilnius vs. Kaunas rivalry). "Lietuvos rytas" home games are held in Siemens arena and it takes 4 victories to triumph.|
|Pentecost at the Vilnius Calvary||7th week after Easter||Christian festival||A major Christian procession which follows the recreated Christ's final passage in a 7 km long pristine route.|
|Europe Day||1st or 2nd weekend of May||European cuisines fair||Gedimino Avenue is turned into a giant open air restaurant where stalls offer to taste cuisines of various European countries.|
|Day of Street Music||Some saturday in late May||Amateur and professional music||A mass event where all professional and amateur musicians are encouraged to perform publically. Entire Old Town and parts of New Town becomes a big festival zone that day. Day of Street Music was conceived in Vilnius in 2007 by popular singer Andrius Mamontovas but has since reached other cities and countries.|
|Skamba skamba kankliai||Final week of May||Folk music||A week-long festival of folk music. Its concerts are held in public places of the Old Town|
Summer celebrations and events
|Market of plants||End of June||Folk medicine fair||A folk medicine fair also known as the "Market of witches". The recently reinitiated tradition dates to the 19th century.|
|Tebūnie naktis (Let the night prevail)||June or July||Art festival||A single evening so crammed with cultural, art and other events (largely free of charge) that great numbers of Vilnius inhabittants and guests sacrifice their precious sleep and make the Old Town look as some crowded Asian metropolis. Everything takes place between dusk and some 2AM.|
|Cristopher festival||July-August||Musical festival||A two-month long slow-paced collection of classical music concerts in Vilnius downtown.|
|St. Baltrameaus fair||Final weekend of August||Arts and crafts demonstration||A reconstruction of Rennaisance-period arts and crafts. Various craftsmen establish their stalls in Vilnius Old Town where their work may be freely watched (and bought).|
|Velomarathon||Final weekend of August||Amateur sports||Attracts some 10 thousand cyclists who ride on a pre-defined track across the streets of Vilnius.|
Autumn celebrations and events
|Sostinės dienos (Capital days)||First weekend of September||Culture||The largest cultural event in Lithuania. Its programme annually includes some 1000 local and foreign performers of various arts. The events are free of charge.|
|Vilnius marathon||A sunday in September||Amateur sports||Lithuania's largest 42 km massive street run joined by young and old alike. There are shorter distances for those who prefer it.|
|Spring solstice||September 20th-22nd||Ceremony||Marked by a pagan-inspired show of fire and water at Neris river near Cathedral square (a 2000s tradition).|
|Sirenos theater festival||Late September - early October||Theater||Offers the best Lithuanian plays of that year coupled with visiting foreign theaters.|
|Vilnius Jazz||A weekend in October||Music festival||One of the most important jazz festivals in the Eastern Europe.|
|Tai - aš||Third week of October||Music festival||A sung poetry musical festival (a genre somewhat peculiar to Lithuania). It has no counterparts in Eastern Europe but with the importance of lyrics over music in the genre the mostly Lithuanian songs may be hard to undestand for foreigners.|
|Festival of Our Lady of Mercy of the Gates of Dawn||November 11th-20th||Christian festival||Celebrates the Virgin Mary and the miraculous painting visible for all who pass the historic Gates of Dawn. Many Lithuanian diaspora churches have been dedicated to Our Lady of Gate of Dawn as this is a potent symbol of both Vilnius and Lithuania.|