Coming Home for Christmas
This is going to be a long read on Christmas traditions in Lithuania, yet an interesting one and very important to us, since these are our roots and some of the oldest traditions coming from the pagan times, when we lived in total unity with Nature and Earth.
Ever heard of Kucios [ˈkuːtɕɔs]? Kucios is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Lithaunia, held on the 24th of December. The meal is a family occasion which includes many traditions of both pagan and Christian origin. Some traditions are no longer widespread and usually we just enjoy dinner with relatives and friends while the main events and festivities are left for Christmas Day.
Everyone in a family makes a special effort to come home for the Christmas Eve supper, even from great distances. We make the journey not so much for the meal as for the sacred ritual of Kucios. Kucios draws the family members closer, bringing everyone together and strengthening the family ties. In this spirit, 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 else.
Preparing for Kucios is an all day event, though the preparations can begin up to a week in advance in some communities. On Christmas Eve, the entire house must be thoroughly cleaned and all of the bed linens must be changed. Everyone attending Kucios must bathe and dress in clean clothes before the evening meal. Before gathering at the ritual table, everybody makes up with their neighbors and forgives their enemies. The twelve dishes for the evening meal are prepared as is the meal for the first day of Christmas during the day.
Traditionally, people fast and abstain from meat for the entire day. While the Catholic Church has decreed that food may be eaten as often as desired on Christmas Eve, most Lithuanians still adhere to the original custom of abstinence. Regardless of what is consumed during the day, it is vitally important that the Christmas Eve dinner include no meat dishes because it would then no longer be called Kucios but an ordinary meal prepared for any other evening.
For the Christmas Eve dinner, the table is prepared in a special way. A handful of fine hay is spread evenly on the table which 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 symbols of the life force, which sustains the human world according to pagan beliefs. These include fir boughs, candles, and a bundle of unthreshed rye, which pagan families would traditionally bind around their apple trees the next day.
Dinner starts when the first star appears in the sky (this tradition is no longer common). Waiting for the star to appear in the sky symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem leading the shepherds to Bethlehem. Instead of a town, the star leads the members of the family to the table for dinner. If it is a cloudy night, the evening meal begins when the head of the house announces it is time to eat. Either way it is determined, the meal usually begins between six and seven o’clock.
In certain Lithuanian regions apples were placed on the table because December 24 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.
If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes an apple, cuts it into as many pieces as there are diners and gives the father the first piece. This symbolizes the fall of the first parents when Eve gave Adam the apple which he took and ate. Then the remaining apple pieces are distributed to those at table.
It’s very important to have no more and no less than 12 dishes on the table on Kucios. The reason for there being twelve separate dishes varies between pagan and Christian beliefs. The pagans practiced Kucios traditionally with nine different foods, because there were nine months in the year according to the ancient calendar. According to the alternative tradition, the thirteen different dishes represented the thirteen lunar months of the year. However, under the influence of the solar calendar, the number changed to twelve. Christians have different beliefs but it is not hard to see how the pagan beliefs could have been adapted by missionaries or monks. For Christians, the twelve different dishes served on the table represent Jesus’ twelve apostles.
The evening meal consists of very specific dishes. There can be no meat, dairy, or hot food. Typical dishes include fish, vegetables, and bread. Silke is a name for herring, a type of fish, dish which is served with different sauces. The sauces can be tomato, mushroom, or onion based. Ungurys, or smoked European eel, is also a common dish. Other common dishes include boiled or baked potatoes, cranberry kissel, cooked sauerkraut (prepared without meat), mushrooms, kuciukai or slizikai (bite-sized hard biscuits) with a poppy seed milk, cranberry pudding, and multigrain breads with honey & margarine because butter is not allowed being a dairy product.
According to the ethnologists, kuciukai is the archaic form of ritual bread, that is meant for the souls. They are so tiny because souls have no material bodies; the plentifulness of them is due to the fact that there exists a great number of souls.
Everything served at the meal should be made from ingredients available in Lithuania during the winter. This is because the people whose lifestyle produced the Kucios traditions made do with food prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter. The meal is traditionally served with water, homemade cider, or fruit juice. Everyone is expected to eat some of each dish served; whoever skips a Kucios dish will not survive to see the next Christmas Eve. Leaving the table before everyone has finished eating is also considered unlucky; the first to rise while another is still eating will be the first to die. The meal is eaten leisurely but solemnly, there is little conversation or joking.
In the past rituals used to be widespread and now are not as common. The rituals used to predict the future and welfare of family members such as pulling a stem of hay from under the tablecloth. It cannot be picked; the first one the fingers encounter must be drawn. The person with the longest of the drawn straws will live the longest life, while the person with the fattest straw will have the most fulfilling life. A bent straw indicates the holder will have a turn in their life, while a straw with fork in it indicates many decisions to come in the following year.
After the meal, everyone leaves the table to go to sleep or the midnight mass, known as the Shepherd's Mass. The food is left to stand overnight. It is believed that the spirits of deceased relatives or loved ones will visit the home during the night and the table set with food would make them feel welcome. It was believed that the baby Jesus allows the souls of all the departed to return to earth to visit their families.
Oh and we cannot forget to say, that at midnight on the 24th of December, humans start understanding what animals are saying, thus many kids still today are anxious to stay awake till midnight and hear their pets talking!