LITHUANIAN

Christmas Eve

Preparations for Christmas Eve take all day. The house is cleaned, food prepared not only for the special supper (Kucios) but also for the first day of Christmas. People fast and abstain from meat. Lithuanians still adhere to this custom though the Church has abolished abstinence: food may be eaten as often as desired, even meat. It used to be said that only a handful of boiled peas and water may be taken on Christmas Eve. Only small children, the infirm or very old persons were allowed to eat a bit more.

Although official fasting no longer exists, we should refrain from meat on Christmas Eve so as to preserve Lithuanian tradition. It is vitally important that the Christmas Eve dinner (or supper) include no meat dishes because it could then no longer be called Kucios but an ordinary meal prepared for any other evening.

On Christmas Eve the house must be thoroughly cleaned, all the bed linens changed and all family members must bathe and don clean clothes before the evening meal. For the Christmas Eve dinner, the table is prepared as follows: a handfull of fine hay is spread evenly on the table. This is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger on hay. The table is then covered with a pure white tablecloth, set with plates and decorated with candles and fir boughs. Live flowers are inappropriate for the table, in particular red or white poinsettias which are so popular in some countries at Christmastime. A small plate with as many Christmas wafers as there are persons present is placed in the center of the table. In some Lithuanian regions these wafers were called God's cakes (Dievo pyragai) for they were obtained from the parish and were imprinted with Biblical scenes of Jesus' birth. Although plotkele was the popular and better known term, the word is borrowed from the Slavic. It is better to say paplotelis, plokstainelis or even Dievo pyragas.

All family members make an effort to come home for the Christmas Eve supper, even from a distance. Perhaps not so much for the meal as for the sacred family ritual which draws the family members closer, banding everyone and strengthening warm family ties. If a family member has died that year or cannot attend the meal (only for very serious reasons) an empty place is left at the table.

A plate is still placed on the table and a chair is drawn up, but no spoons, knives or forks are set. A small candle is placed on the plate and lit during the meal. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased family member participates in the Kucios along with everyone.

Long ago, the principal dish was a mixture of various cooked grains: wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans. This mixture was called kucia. It was eaten with honey diluted with warm boiled water. The word kucia itself comes from the Beylorussian and means a porridge of dried grain.

Twelve different dishes are served on the table because Jesus had twelve apostles. All the dishes are strictly meatless: fish, herring,slizikai with poppy seed milk, kisielius (cranberry pudding), a dried fruit soup or compote, a salad of winter and dried vegetables, mushrooms, boiled or baked potatoes, sauerkraut (cooked, of course, without meat) and bread. In keeping with Lithuanian Christmas tradition, only the dishes as they were prepared in Lithuania for this meal should be eaten and fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, exotic seafood should be left for another meal. It must not be forgotten that Lithuania is a northern European country where cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, etc., do not grow in winter. The people whose lifestyle produced the Kucios traditions made do with foodstuffs prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter.

Children whining that they do not like and are unaccustomed to such food should also be ignored. An explanation of the meal's significance and a calm statement that everyone will eat only what is served on the table should forestall or at least lessen this problem.

In certain Lithuanian regions apples were placed on the table because December 24th is the feast day of Adam and Eve. The apples recalled our first parents through whose sin mankind fell and that the world was saved through the submissiveness of the New Eve - Mary, the Mother of God - to God's will.

Everyone gathers at the dinner table as soon as the first star appears in the sky. If the night is cloudy, the meal begins when the father or grandfather announces it is time to eat. When everyone is assembled at the table, a prayer is said. The father then takes a wafer and offers it to the mother wishing her a Happy Christmas. "God grant that we are all together again next year", the mother responds and breaks off a piece of wafer. She offers the father her wafer in return. The father then offers his wafer to every family member or guest at the table. The mother does likewise. After them, all the diners exchange greetings and morsels of wafer. Care is taken not to skip anyone for that means terrible misfortune or even death the following year. In breaking a piece of wafer, each tries to get a piece larger than that remaining in the other's hand for it means his year will be better. The person holding the wafer tries to prevent a large piece being taken for this will "break his luck".

If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes an apple after the wafers have been shared, cuts it into as many pieces as there are diners and gives the father the first piece. This symbolized the fall of the first parents when Eve gave Adam the apple which he took and ate. Then, the apple pieces are distributed to those at table.

The order of eating the other dishes is not established, everyone eats what he wishes, but it is essential to at least taste every food. Whoever skips a Kucios dish will not survive until the next Christmas Eve. The meal is eaten solemnly, there is little conversation or joking and alcoholic beverages are not served. If anyone needs to drink, water, homemade cider or fruit juice is served. After the meal is consumed, no one hurries to leave the table: the first to rise while another is still eating will die first. The family remains seated, the mood lightens, predictions and forecasts are done about next year, health, happiness, love and etc. Christmas Eve is rich in prognostications.

After finishing the augury, the family gathers around the Christmas tree. A beautiful tradition is singing Christmas carols in unison (some Christmas carols are provided in this book) and reading Bible excerpts about Christ's birth. The reading is usually done by the oldest family member. If you still have grandparents (or parents) who were born and lived in Lithuania, ask them to relate how they celebrated Christmas when they were little. It would be good to tape the entire family program, later include the date and put it away. It will become very precious when the children are grown and the grandparents no longer living.

Evan when Christmas trees were decorated and gifts expected in Lithuania, the children had to "earn" those gifts. When he arrived, Santa Claus required the children to perform. Every child did what he could: some recited poems, others sang, danced or played an instrument. If Santa Claus did not come in person, the children still had to perform, because Santa "sees all" and will see them also. After presents were exchanged, the children usually went to bed while the adults went to Midnight Mass (which is still called Berneliu - Shepherds' Mass).

It should be mentioned here that at Christmastime Lithuania is already in the grip of winter. The fields are covered with sparkling snow, streams, rivers and lakes are under ice. Country roads were also snowcovered and the people usually travelled in sleighs. On Christmas Eve night bells were attached to the horses' harnesses: sometimes one or two or an entire string of bells. Sometimes small, high-pitched handbells or a good-sized bell. From all sides on Christmas Eve night resounded with the chiming and tinkling of bells: near and far, soft and loud. . . The mysterious, quiet night air of Christ's Birth resonated with endless ringing, the murmur of sliding sleighs and Christmas joy.


(Danute Brazyte Bindokiene. Lithuanian Customs and Traditions)

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