NEW YEAR ( Naujieji Metai, January 1st)
New Year – conditional start of the Calendar year. Ancient Lithuanian, national holidays calendar, shows that the beginning of the New Year during ancient times had no fixed date. According to ethnographers’ thinking, the abundant agrarian rites with sun and fire elements of worship, winter’s burial, preparation for spring works traditions could signify the New Year start. Later the new Year was identified with Easter, which is bound with plant vegetation and start of outdoor work.
During laast centuries, the year’s start was celebrated between December 24th and January 6th . December 24th – Kūčios, Christmas Eve, an important moment of the calendar year, when it meets with the shortest day and longest night of the year. Christmas marked the end of the old year and the start of the new. S.Daukantas wrote, “lads dragged a log through villages, later set it on fire, so that the new year would be easier, with less work.
January 1st , as New Year’s daay, arrived in Lithuania from the Christian West, not earlier than 19th century. Etnographer L.Jucevičius described New Year’s holiday among country and city folk, as a day of greetings and wishes. People believed that greetings issued at the beginning of th
New Year’s Eve was also time of casting and drawing lots, mostly associated with weddings:
• a girl alone in her room, pours a pi
• girls ready for marriage, pull a tree branch out of a pile. If the branch has many ramifications, it means she’ll marry a rich man.
• some girls, at midnight light twelve candles in the dark pantry, place a mirror among them. Stare in the mirror until they see a male face, which means marriage this coming year. If no face appears, they will spend another year working in the grain fields.
• girls lie on their backs on the floor, head towards the outside door, raises her foot and throws her shoe over her head. If the shoe lands facing the door, she will be leaving home in the new year, will marry.
• the girls pick up a handful of nuts, if there is an even number of nuts, there will be a wedding.
• girls prepare delicious foods, lock their room and ask their future man to come in and share the food with her. She marries him, who enters.
• during the night, two tow bunches are set on fire together, one is called by the gi
• the girl would have several of her lover’s hair. She would place his and her hair together on the table and set it on fire. If her lover’s hair twists and turns while burning – they’ll marry. If not – no wedding.
• the girl scatters oats outside. He who comes, in a dream to harvest the oats, will be her husband.
• the girl, meeting a man on the eve, asks his name and he asks her name.
• take a thin glass container, fill with water, place it on cigarette paper, drop a wedding ring into it and look for figures formed at the bottom, which will foretell the future.
• at midnight, a glass filled with water is placed near a mirror. A dead person’s wedding ring is dropped into the glass and stirred with stork feathers. While stirring, a face of the new husband may appear in the center of the ring.
• nine days before New Year, every evening count nine stars, on the ninth night, place a towel on the head, stand in front of the dark window and expect to see your future husband.
• upon first seeing the new moon, a girl should not move. She should look what is under her feet, a stone or a sliver of wood. Pick it up, keep it until the last day of the year. Place it under her pillow. In her dream, on New Year’s Eve, she will see her future.
• she should make twelve cards with names on them, mix the cards, place them under her pillow, when awakened pull out a card from under the pillow. He, whose name is on the card, will be her husband.
There are many witchings of ones fate which take place also at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
• crumble a piece of paper and set it on fire. Look at it to see what its shadow portrays. First imagination is fatal. If the burned paper looks like a wagon – means a trip; if like a house, you’ll have another home; if like a casket, death.
• pour water into a bowl, place cards with various words on them, into the water. Place a candle on a box and place it into the bowl. The card near which the candle will stop, her words will determine your fate.
• on the Eve, several people will set dry tree branches in the snow. If in the morning someone’s branch has fallen over, he will die before the next New Year.
• if during New Year there are bubbles in a spoonful of sweetened water, it means that person has a long life.
• going to sleep before New Year, pour salt on the corner of the table nearest the bed. If the salt is wet in the morning, you will die that New Year, if the salt is dry, you will continue living.
• pour liquid lead or wax into water and check what shapes have formed. A wheel means a trip, cradle a child, gun an army, cross or coffin means death.
• place several items on the table, cover with plates. Each item has its meaning, ring -weddding, knife – accident, pencil – studies, candle – death, wreath – honor, mirror – splendor, bread – satiety, bird – peace and love, toy – newborn. Each family member turns over three plates, found objects foretell the future.
On New Year’s day these are characteristic conjectures:
• should a woman be a first visitor, it will be an unlucky year. If it’s a man, a lucky year. If a Jew, a very lucky year.
• if there are many magpies in the garden, there will be many visitors during the year.
• if in the morning, the garden is covered with frost, it will be a good year, but if there is fog, there will be many deaths.
• if the sun rises and shines brightly, it will be a good year, if not bright, a bad year.
• snow and blizzard means a bumper crop year.
• if it snows in huge snowflakes, cows will give much milk.
• if it is very cold on New Year’s day, It will be very warm on Easter.
All these New Year’s witchings and conjectures are most often borrowed from the longest night – Kūčios, Christmas Eve.
EPIPHANY (Trys Karaliai, January 6th)
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, during King Herod’s reign, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking “Where is this eminent Jewish King? We saw his star rising and came to honor him”. These words spread throughout most Catholic, Protestant nations and on January 6th there were annual processions representing the Eastern Wise Men – Kings. In Lithuania, this day of the Three Kings – Epiphany, crowns the twelve day period after the Winter Solstice – Christmas. Lithuanians called this period between Christmas, time between holidays and evenings, holy evenings. Throughout Lithuania, during this period, women did not spin, mend and men did not chop wood. In some regions it was even forbidden to handle a knife. All these restrictions were related to animals. After the long period of Advent, which lasted from the feast of St. Andrew, November 3rd until Christmas, when young people were not allowed to conduct any entertainments – therefore this period of twelve evenings was truly a revival for them. The young people gathered each evening for dancing, singing, games and other amusements. All gatherings and amusements came to an end on January 6th , during the Three Kings processional walks. In Lithuania this holiday preserved numerous pagan elements. Participants in the processions dressed as supernatural beings, angels, devils, death. However, the main walkers were three men, dressed as the Three Kings. One of them with a black face, wearing royal clothing, a hat decorated with glitter and a linen beard. The Kings’ guide, an angel, carried a moving candle in his hand The Kings did visit all village homesteads, wrote their initials, K M B ( Kasparas, Merkelis, Baltazaras ), on the door post upon entering. Often farmers themselves inscribed these initials, not only on the door post but also above windows, above barn, stable, granary doors, on chests, grain bins, on the stove near the damper, using consecrated chalk. Crosses were drawn between the letters, and sometimes only crosses were drawn – “the placing of the sign of Baptism”. It was believed that the crosses were miraculous symbols, able to protect from evil spirits, natural calamities, robbers. To keep bees from swarming, a circle was drawn around the beehive with consecrated chalk.
Etnographer B.Buračas wrote about the Three Kings’ procession in Samogitia’s regions of Šiauliai and Radviliškis. He tells how three men dressed in ancient homespun overcoats, tied them with sashes or towels, with a gilded sash over their shoulders and crowns or hats on their heads. Hats were made of straw, stuck with colored papers, cloth and spangles, carried crooked staffs in their hands. Their Angel guide, usually a boy or girl, dressed all in white, carried a huge star shape to which are attached glittering bells. The Three Kings’ walking from village to village, singing Christmas hymns, checked to see if their initials were on the door posts. If they found none, they then inscribed their initials. They were compensated for their behavior with food and drinks and they in turn treated children with candy and cakes.
The Highlanders’(aukštaičiai) Kings dressed in sheepskin coats, one in long, another in short, the third in one turned inside out. A Devil, dressed all in black, with a long red tongue and a switching tail, walked together with the Three Kings. His aim was to steal and beg for extra gifts. In the region of Kaišiadorys, a prophet dressed in white, was at the head of the procession, ringing a bell announcing the Three Kings’ arrival and asked for permission to enter houses. Soldiers, carrying huge swords also accompanied the Three Kings, carrying gifts received from all the households.
In Dzūkija the Three Kings’ procession rode around with horses. Some Kings carried a „mobile Bethlehem”, a small creche made of bast bark with Infant Jesus, figures of Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men. These figures were made either of wax or whittled out of wood.
One of the most interesting Three Kings’ tradition was “horse dancing”, in Suvalkia, it went on from New Year through Epiphany. The most lithe man was covered with a coverlet and held a wooden horse’s head in his hand. Some young men dressed as gypsies, others as soldiers with wooden swords by their side, visited their village and neighboring villages. Every village had their “horse”, which was led by a female gypsy with her child. Sometimes several “horses” met and attempted to remove each others camouflage and soldiers would fight with swords. The stronger groups took away from the weaker group, gifts donated by villagers. Some twelve homesteads were visited in the evening. This horse dancing ended with cutting off of the horses head. All this took place during the evening of Epiphany day.
In Vilnija, at the beginning of this century, a Queen took part in the Three Kings’ procession, sometimes the head pagan priest joined in the procession. The Kings were dressed in white, black and in many colored clothes. The pagan priest wore a long, gray beard and national clothing. One king walked taping a hollow metal cane, filled with pebbles. Other persons in the procession were Mother of God, St .Joseph, a devil, death and a goat. Two Kings walked, while the third King rode a donkey which he created by wearing a donkey’s head, hoofs and tail.
On the eve of Epiphany, in the Highlands a cornucopia of food was eaten at supper, called Kūčia. Because most dishes were made with meat, this supper was called “Fat Kūčia”.
Ethnographer J.Kudirka has written that in the thirties, during Kûèia on Epiphany, that family father walked around stables and barns carrying a pail filled with wheat, oats, peas and beans. Upon returning to the house, greeted everyone with “Honor to Jesus”, and announced that the Three Kings had come. He placed the pail, full of grain, on the table. Children surrounded father and ate peas and beans out of the pail. Then father wrote the Three Kings’ initials above the door and sat down with the family to the third Kūčia meal.
P.Dundulis has written about very interesting rites when meeting the Three Kings. In regions of Eastern Lithuania, after feeding the animals, father took a container filled with various grains, baptized all the buildings by writing three crosses on each building. When father entered the house, all work stopped, everyone hurried to sit around the table. Father scattered the grain, the children gathered them in their laps. The grain which was gathered in greatest quantity was the one to be sowed in the spring, with the expectation of a good harvest. Others when writing the Three Kings’ initials, carried bread and peas. Bread was eaten by everyone, peas were scattered on the children.
Only two beliefs remain of the Three kings’ Feast Day, they were written down by etnographer J.Balys:
• On midnight of Epiphany, stare at the moon for an hour, then wash for an hour and go to bed. When in bed, a white ghost will appear and awaken the sleeper. Begin questioning the ghost and so you will find out about your future.
• On the night of Epiphany, find a spot where no one has walked there. Take the Three Kings’ chalk, draw a circle around you, standing in that spot, as wide as your arms can reach. Then call the Devil to request for money, give me 9000, 900,90,9! The Devil will give, but do not take it from his hands, let him drop the money into the circle, ask him “do I owe you”? If he says “No”, then pick up the money and go home.
The Three Kings’ processions, carvings and writings of their initials on doors are still carried on today.
SHROVE TUESDAY (Užgavėnės)
Shrove Tuesday – not a holiday but is singled out as the day which puts to end meat eating and the time of merrymaking – Tuesday before Lent. At the beginning of this century, in Eastern and South Eastern regions, people celebrated three meat eating days, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Visitors to Vilnius’ Academy mentioned that at the beginning of 17th century, Shrove Tuesday carnival walks lasted three days, they were similar to carnivals taking place in other parts of Europe.
Information about Shrove Tuesday happenings in the country side shows that in the first part of 19th century, carnivalers dressed up to imitate different nationalities and trades.
Shrove Tuesday is a folk celebration not connected with any church rites and only its time is defined by the church calendar, for it depends on the time of Easter. Easter is a moveable feast, from ancient times it is connected to the moon calendar. Shrove Tuesday usually occurs between February 5th and March 8th . The earliest Shrove Tuesday date is celebrating the end of winter. During this celebration attention is concentrated on chasing away winter with all her evils.
These rituals took place in ancient times:
• eating enormous amounts of food;
• ridding through fields and constant visiting;
• carting around male and female idols and murdering them;
• masqueraders’ shams;
• the struggle between winter and spring, wrestling between Fatso (Lašininis) and Hemper (Kanapinis);
• pouring water over everyone;
• casting and drawing lots.
On Shrove Tuesday attention is paid to the weather in order to be able to foretell the weather for spring and the rest of the year. It was most important to determine the right time for spring planting, especially for flax.
Since Shrove Tuesday is the last day of meat eating period, it obliges people to gorge themselves, they eat as many as twelve times that day, so that they are sated all throughout the year.
The ancient food of that day is hodgepodge (Šiupinys), made of peas, beans, grits, potatoes with pig’s feet, tail or head. Pig’s tail was very special in this dish. It was said that if he while eating this hodgepodge, was first to find the tail, he would be the first to marry. Others gave the tail to the shepherds so that the pigs would be well herded.
Pancakes are the other ritual food. Starting with Thursday, every day till Shrove Tuesday was called a fat day, people ate much meat. No food remained on the table after the meal.
The most common Shrove Tuesday tradition was to ride in fields, villages and go visiting neighbors and family. One did not sit at home if a good flax harvest was expected. It was best to ride standing up in the sleigh, to fall overboard and roll in the snow. In the region of Marijampolė, three lads rode around with nut tree whips in their hands, prepared to whip those who poured water on them. Driving through villages they demanded : “ Water, water, water! Oi people, water, water!” if no one poured water, they cried: “ we traveled throughout the village and did not receive even a pail of water”.
Another Shrove Tuesday tradition was to give rides to bees. Children palyed bees, sat in a tub and made buzzing noises like bees. People poured water on them. Due to this, bees collected copious amounts of honey.
In the region of Vilnius, it was tradition on this day for newlyweds to visit family, where they ate pancakes, sausages and meat. This again was to assure a good grain harvest.
Youngsters rode sleds down hillsides. Large youth groups collected on higher hilltops. Girls were asked to climb to the top of the highest hill, for this would assure very tall flax growth. In some regions of Dzūkija, youngsters slid downhill on spindles and daughter-in-laws took mother-in-laws for rides on spindles. This once again was done to assure abundant flax crops.
Swinging to all heights was another happening with flax growth. Swingers sang, “ he who built swings will have silken flax, however he who built none will have woody flax”.
In many regions of Lithuania it was common to soak and wash clothes on Shrove Tuesday. Again, this was done so that linen would be whiter than ever. In order to weave very thin linen fabric, girls made sure that there were no cobwebs in the house, they also spun for a while to assure that there will be soon a visit from the matchmaker.
Another traditional Shrove Tuesday event was masqueraders’ strolling about, which had the task of awakening spring and plants. Old writings show that masqueraders wore terifying masks, made from tree barks, sheep skins or animal skulls, all showing brutal hatred. The masks were of strange colors, their beards, eyebrows and hair of horse, dog and even bear hair, mostly brown, black or white. The masks represented elders, beggars, people of different nationalities, birds and animals. They also dresed as devils, angels and symbols of death.
At the beginning of 19th an 20th centuries, the struggles between Fatso (Lašininis) and Hemper (Kanapinis) , were acted outthroughout Lithuania. Fatso symbolizes meat eating and overeating. He was dressed as a fat man. Hemper symbolizes modesty, diligence and fasting. He was slim, raggedy with hemp filament around his hat with a hemp rope and whip in his hands. They push each other, threaten each other until Hemper wins. This struggle took place in streets, yards, even indoors so as to be seen by all.
All masqueraders ended Shrove Tuesday strollings taking part in joyful evening games, jokings and dances which continued on till midnight or until roosters’ crowings.
Etnographer L.Jucevičius writes that in Samogitia masqueraders cart about a woman’s idol with huge breasts, called Boba, “ Woman”, “ Morė”, “ Kotrė”. Different regions had different women’s idols, even today on Shrove Tuesday they are carted about all the villages and are burned in the evening in the far end of the village.
In the region of Šiauliai, the Woman (Boba), was a live woman and was dragged about in a wooden trough, giving nuts to children. In the middle of Lithuania, there was a young, live, male idol called “Gavėnas”. They tied his hands and legs with straw and adorned his head with ribbons. He was ridden about in many villages, then taken to a barn where he was hung and burned. This was done by removing the straw and ribbons, hanging them on the beams and sometimes setting them on fire.
Other regions made this idol entirely of straw and at the end burned or drowned him.
On Shrove Tuesday, future conjectures, casting lots were bound with wedding and work successes. On that day young women did the following: took three plates, filled one with soil, placed a ring in another and a wreath of rue in the third one. With covered eyes the young woman selects a plate. If she picks the one with the ring, she will be married soon after Easter. Picking the plate with the wreath of rue, she will remain an old maid and picking the plate with soil means death soon after Easter.
Certain works were forbidden on Shrove Tuesday: mending, sewing, hair combing, rope twisting and grindstone milling. Disobeying these bans will bring about summer storms, winds will rip off roofs, chicken will scratch in gardens, meat will have worms and fingers will swell.
ASH WEDNESDAY (Pelenų diena)
Ashes from last year’s burned Palms are sprinkled on peoples’ heads in church. This is a reminder that being made of dust, we will become dust very soon. Those returning from church bring aches home and sprinkle heads of those who remained at home.
This is a day of “black fast”. Women boil water, wash all utensils, scrub tables and benches so that there would be no remains of dairy or meat. Together with Christian traditions, Lithuanians continued ancient agrarian beliefs. The tradition of dressing up as an old man or Uncle Ash (Pelenius), still remains. He would dress in rags, add a long nose and a humpback, carried a bag of ashes, a long cane and walked through villages. He sprinkled ashes on passers by and entered each home where he received food or money. If some households did not receive Uncle Ash, he spread ashes on windows and doors of that house.
Widely practiced traditions of bringing a stone or a wood stump into the house on this day, assured good summer crops of flax. In Samogitia this act was called “carting herring”. Some twelve masked persons rolled these upon arrival at the house. In other areas, women tied a herring head to a string and dragged it across neighbor’s doorstep calling “Here, here, here”.
On this day men searched for an old maid, tied a wooden stump to her waist and drove her from one house to another, hitting her with ashen bags. This went on until another old maid was found, then the first one was released, while the second inherited the first one’s fate.
Young men drove around in sleighs or dragged a bundle of dry branches. When they found old men, they took the bundle of dry branches into their houses, insisting that they chew on them. To those over fifty years old, a piece of wood was left to chew on. If one of the old men had agreed to wed after Easter, he would place a liter of whiskey so that the piece of chewing wood would be removed.
After overeating of fat foods on Shrove Tuesday, many became ill. Numerous homesteads were visited by masqueraders dressed as Hungarians – doctors, wearing black or blue trousers, tall hats and painted faces. They carried canes with an axe butt, also carried a bag filled with clattering medicine boxes. They knew how to palm read the future. They also took payment for supposed cures and were treated to strong drinks.
There are many beliefs connected to this day and to ashes. One should sleep in on this day, rise with the sun so that all household work would be good. Women took naps at noon, to prevent their waists from hurting.
Blessed ashes were sprinkled into wells to make water clean and tasty, also sprinkled on top of the head to prevent headaches. On this day, before sunrise ashes were sprinkled over gardens to keep out worms from them. Ashes were placed in glasses to stop those from drinking who abused alcohol.
In the morning the master of the house took a pail of water and poured it into four directions from the well, so that there would be no water shortage in the summer.
Last century, girls collected hemp and flax fibers, from which they wove ropes to be used for Easter swings. People said that potatoes will rot, if it rains, is foggy and damp on Ash Wednesday.
THE FEAST OF ST.AGNES ( Šv. Agota, March 3rd)
Among other month of February church holidays, the feast day of St. Agnes, a 3rd century martyr, is especially popular among Lithuanians. A year after her death, the Etno volcano erupted, most people held that to be a punishment for Agnes’ killing. For this reason, Agnes was made guardian and protectress of fires which escaped from Etno volcano and all other fires.
St. Agnes took the place of Gabija, pagan goddess of fire. During the first days of February, Lithuanians offered bread to goddess Gabija, kept a piece of it at home as a safeguard against conflagrations. At the beginning of this century, elder Lithuanians found it difficult to distinguish St. Agnes from goddess Gabija, referred to both when praying. Women when praying to goddess Gabija also prayed to St. Agnes, saying “holy Gabija, holy Agnes, protect us from fires”. Even today older women remember how their mothers, every evening covered the hot fire coals with ashes, said prayers to goddess Gabija, ending the prayer with “sleep fire, Gabija come close to the fire”. Younger people state that now, when using the same prayer, in place of Gabija they say “St. Agnes”.
St. Agnes is always represented holding a bread roll in her hand. On February 5th , bread together with water and salt is consecrated in all Lithuanian churches. Pieces of this bread were divided among family members, any left over pieces were placed in honorable spots, most often behind pictures of Saints and on beams in the house.
In Southeastern Lithuania, fire is laid on the stove or under the stove, to keep the fire from leaving the house but to protect the house from conflagration. In Northern Lithuania, to honor St. Agnes on her feast day, fires were sprinkled with consecrated salt.
The use of consecrated bread on St. Agnes’ feast day had a wide and varied use : mothers gave pieces of this bread to sons going off to war, so that they would be protected from bullets. This bread was placed in luggage when preparing to go on a long trip. Near the region of Dieveniðkës, the plowman, going out for the first annual plowing, tied a piece of this bread to the plow shaft to prevent the sun from burning the crops. In Eastern and Southeastern Lithuania when sowing flax seed, it was tradition to tie St. Agnes’ bread to the seeder, so that the new flax fibers would grow to be very white. Pieces of consecrated bread were placed in beehives, to keep bees from dying and stimulate honey production.
Going berry picking in the woods, to chase away snakes, women tied a piece of this bread
into the corner of their kerchief. This bread was also a protector of cows from illness and
bewitchings. Pieces of this bread and salt were rolled up in a small cloth and tied to cows’ horns when they were herded out for the first time in the spring. The same was done on the feast day of St. John to prevent removal of milk from cows by witches. When taking a cow to market, a piece of this bread was also tied to the cow’s horn, with the words “be healthy and be good to your new owner”. Consecrated bread was also used in folk medicine, to heal all kinds of sores and eye diseases. Water in which this bread was soaked, was used to moisten linen cloths, which were used as compresses on sores and eyes. In Dzūkija, a small piece of St.Agnes’ bread was placed in the mouth of the dead person. It was said that this was done to keep his face from changing form, color and the body becoming smelly. The Highlanders placed St. Agnes’ bread on the chest of the dead person , to keep him from blowing up. In some other regions, during storms, pieces of this bread were placed on window sills, tables and even under roof tops. It was said that keeping a piece of this holy, St. Agnes’ bread close by, thunder would not strike. Pieces of this bread were placed in the foundations of newly built houses, to protect them from fires. To keep fires from spreading, one ran three times around the fire holding the holy bread and then throwing it into the middle of the flames. In the regions of Klaipėda, along the seacoast, in 1908, while her house was on fire, the wife stood near the door, holding high a piece of St. Agnes’ bread, repeating three times the following prayer: ” Holy Gabija, smoulder in your place, come holy Agnes, visit holy Gabija”.
Honoring holy Agnes and goddess Gabija, same fires were used. Almost until the Second World War, fire was crossed when burning every evening, children were not allowed to play with fire. Fires were put out using clean water. It was thought that fire started by a thunder bolt , could be put out only with sour or goat’s milk.
And now, many save a piece of St. Agnes’ holy bread, place it in cars, sew pieces of it in clothing when leaving on lengthy trips.
The LORD’S REVELATION TO VIRGIN MARY (Viešpaties Apreiškimas Švč. Mergelei Marijai, March 25th )
This feast day is dedicated to remembrance of Angel Gabriel’s announcement that heaven chose Mary to be the Mother of Jesus. In ancient writings and folk language, this holiday was called “Blovieščiai”, Stork Day. M.Mažvydas, in his 16th century writings, refers to continuing pagan traditions of Lithuanian holidays as impudent behavior during Christmas, New Year, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost and others. Now the Lord’s Revelation to Virgin Mary is among important annual calendar feast days, people believe seriously that due to this special feast day even birds do not build nests on this day. In the last century, Samogitians prepared special foods for this feast day, pastries made of hemp and Krupninkas, sweet vodka with herbal seasonings. This regaling ritual was connected with expectations of good crop harvests throughout Lithuania. Special bread buns were baked from a mixture of many grains, to assure an abundant grain harvest. Some time ago, on this day, young people ignoring the fact that this feast day is during Lent, visited each other, lifting legs high, imitating storks. In the evening they set fires of burning straw and booked small bread rolls on that fire. On this day, much attention was paid to various seeds, grain and vegetable. Seeds were sifted, moved about by hands, their differences were discussed with neighbors. That day’s weather determined the harvest; sunny and clear day meant poor quality grain. Wind from the north heralded good crops.
This day is special because Lithuanian farmers’ most favorite bird and personal success predeterminer, the stork, returns on this day. It was said, that if one saw a stork flying towards you, await a good year. The stork was regarded as a holy bird and it was believed that the stork can remove human illness to impassable swamps. Upon seeing a stork, a sick person spoke to him, saying, “take my illness, carry it away to bogs, into deep marshes, place it onto dry trees in places where neither people nor animals go to”. People thought if a stork built a nest on a harrow which they placed on the barn roof, there will be a good harvest. To have good trips, an old cart wheel was set on a tree top or on the house roof top. To have success with farm animals, a wheel was set on the barn roof. In some regions, on this day stork pastries, rolls and bread were baked in connection with upcoming harvest. They were baked without children’s knowledge and were given to them as gifts from arriving storks. Other gifts like fruits, chocolates, pencils and dyed eggs wre attributed to the arriving storks, were hung on tree branches and fences.
This day is linked with growth of all snakes. In Suvalkija, it was said that snakes roll around a gold wreath on this day. That wreath was supposedly a miraculous crown of the Snake King, affecting humans in the same way as the fern blossom. Whoever finds this crown, becomes all knowing, rich and lucky. The possibility exists of finding this snake’s crown on the night of the feast day of St. John, because then it shines most brightly.
In Dzūkija until now, it is believed that on this day one should not pick anything in the woods, for in doing so, they will be bringing home a snake.
This day is rich in beliefs and behaviors, which are characteristic of other feast days :
• snakes were caught on this day, killed and buried under the doorstep, this was done so that snakes do not bite farm animals.
• from March 25th to April 9th, no lending or borrowing takes place.
• no sieves were loaned, so that wolves do not kill sheep. If someone requested a sieve, it was taken under lock and key, so as to lock wolves’ jaws.
• women tried not to move eggs, so that healthy chicks, goslings and ducklings would hatch.
• eggs were not set for hatching, for the hatchlings would be unhealthy. Those eggs were eaten by the person seeding crops for the first time.
• women did not set up their looms for weaving, so that the warp would not become twisted.
• houses were not swept, so that chicken would not scratch in the garden.
• an old wagon wheel was set on the barn roof to protect chicken from hawks, keep kites from removing grain from grain bins’
• women were advised to rise early, so that during harvest they would not injure their waist.
• make a nest from straw collected from a neighbor, so that hens from all the neighbors would lay their eggs in this nest.
• throw slivers of wood, stones and pieces of rope with the wind. This will prevent the wind from tearing down roofs.
• if you want fewer beggars to come that year, do not touch or eat bacon on this day.
This day’s, Blovieščiai , Stork day, traditions of ancient times are not connected to the Lord’s Revelation to Mary, feast day. Obviously it was a very meaningful day among other spring feast days.
PALM SUNDAY (Verbos)
The Christian world celebrates Jesus’ noble entry into Jerusalem on the last Sunday befor Easter. In Lithuania this day is called Verbų Sekmadienis – Palm Sunday. When Christianity came to Lithuania, plants which sprouted earliest were honored during spring feasts. Even now, willows, osiers and weeping willows are consecrated on Palm Sunday. Mythological folklore relates that one of the willows, called Blindė, had been a very fertile woman, bearing numerous children. Earth, the most fertile mother was jealous of her. When Blindė walked through a wetfield, her feet sank into the mud. Blindë turned into a willow tree out of great sadness.
The osier, with male spores was regarded as an unusual tree. Folklore tells that the osier grew out of a secretly murdered man. A fife made of osier wood, speaks in a man’s voice. Evil spirits avoid it because of its red color.
Most palm bunches have a branch of juniper in them. Juniper is green year round, with late ripening berries and with a peculiar odor. All these plants are principal components of palms, however cranberry, mistletoe, filbert and oak branches together with dried baby’s breath and ferns are among the odd numbered pieces in the palm. Pussy willows, hepaticas and some indoor plants are added to give color to the palms. When Christianity was established in Lithuania, palms were consecrated in church. The ancient tradition of whipping each other with palms, still exists, takes place on Palm Sunday or on Easter Sunday. Having returned home with consecrated palms, one whips the head, back shoulders of those who stayed home, repeating all the time, “Illness out, health return”. The following words were spoken or sung, when striking with the palm: „I am not the one striking, the Palm is striking, you are not in pain, the Palm is in pain, soon it will be Easter!“
The first lines of these charm words are the same throughout Lithuania, the rest changes. Ancient writings of 1573 say that to protect from devils and thunder, crosses were made from the consecrated palms and were thrust behind doors, windows and gated. Most often the palms were placed behind pictures of saints until the junipers dried and began shedding. The juniper branches are burned and together with juniper sheddings are placed in attics to protect roofs from storms. As thunder knocks, a palm is placed on the windowsill, on the side of the storm. The smoke of a burning palm, scents all corners of the house and protects from thunder. Palms were nailed to beehives so that bees would swarm in great numbers. Palms were tied with colored, wooly yarns. This yarn was used to bind women’s wrists, to keep away pain. That was the most popular healing method during harvest work.
Before animals were let out of barns in the spring, they were incensed with a burning palm. It was also said that if a palm was planted near water and it began to sprout, there would be no water shortage.
Here are several interesting beliefs:
• he who goes to church on Palm Sunday without a palm in his hands, the devil will shove his tail into the hands.
• collecting branches to make palms, select those with many buds. The more buds, the longer will be your life.
• if you plant consecrated palms on both river banks, when it is the end of the world and all waters vanish, there will be drinking water where the palms are growing.
• one should not comb hair on Palm Sunday, because fleas will grow to the size of the palm, or buds on the branches.
• if the palm lasts three years, then when black clouds cover the skies, take the palm and cross the clouds with it.
• old palms should be burned and their ashes sprinkled over cabbages, to protect them from worms.
Easter is the greatest annual church and national calendar, spring holiday.
This date is set according to the moon cycle after March 21st , first Sunday of the full moon. The sowing of spring crops starts after Easter.
On this holiday the Christian elements [ resurrection of Jesus Christ ] merge with ancient national traditions, the rebirth of nature when the goddess Žemyna was honored. Easter rituals start one week before Easter, on Palm Sunday [ a.k.a. Verbos ]. That week is called the Great Week (Didžioji Savaitė) , it is full of prohibitions, beliefs and archaic traditions. At the end of 19th century, in the region of Lyda, on Holy Wednesday, Lithuanians heated the bathhouses so that men could bathe from midnight to dawn and women on the morning of Holy Thursday. Until the end of 19th century, Holy Wednesday was a dry day of fasting, with no milk, meat, butter and on this day no one left the house while chewing on something so that rats would not enter the house. On Holy Wednesday, in villages of Samogitija, there was the tradition of dragging a herring around the church. Children drew a picture of a herring on a flat board and dragged it around the church, in the churchyard. The draggers were followed by a crowd, all whipping the fish.
On the last Thursday before Easter, women cleaned houses, washed windows, whitened walls and stoves, washed clothes. Spinners hid spinning wheels and spindles because should they be seen by anyone, the spinner would have great difficulty with her work during the coming year.
L.Jucevièius writes that when wishing to avoid meeting with evil souls, the head of the household lights a candle on Holy Thursday, extinguishes it and throws it into a corner saying, ” as this candle extinguished, let our eyes close and disappear from our enemies forever”.
Those with skin diseases and other illnesses, bathed before sunrise in rivers, lakes and springs with the hope that they would be cured. Water was believed to be miraculous on that day, healing, protecting from evil eyes and evil spirits.
Here are several examples of behavior and work on Holy Thursday:
• on this day, one ran, not looking sideways, to wash before sunrise in swiftly flowing river water. This will make a healthy body, and wearing shirts inside out will make the body function well.
• in the morning, away from anyone’s eyes, one washed with snow so as to be clean all year.
• comb hair thoroughly so that there would be no fleas all year.
• cobwebs are removed from barns, this cleans piglets, so they heal easier.
• rise early, sweep the house and pour the sweepings on the boundary with the nearest neighbor. Having done that, return home without looking back, this will assure a year with no fleas.
• on this day one must go to the forest, make an alder broom and sweep the house with it. Someone should ask, ” what are you up to ?” You answer, “I’m chasing away the fleas, why are you asking me?” A spot is shown and the fleas all gather there.
• rise early but quietly, so that no one hears you. Fill your apron with wood chips and place in all corners of the house, then a duck, sitting on eggs will be found.
• go to your neighbor and steal a handful of firewood, this will assure that you will find many birds’ nests in summer.
• place a handful of salt on a piece of cloth, tie it and hide it so that no one sees it or touches it during the year. This helps protect children and animals from evil eyes.
Holy Friday was also held to be an unusual day. People cast spells, chased witches and other evils. To make insects disappear from houses, stoves were heated with the herb artemisia and all house bugs and insects were thrown into the fire. Ashes were removed, taken far away from the house and dug under.
This day’s unusualness is evident in wide beliefs throughout Lithuania:
• the house has to be clean by Holy Friday, for if on this day chimney is swept or cobwebs are removed, Christ’s eyes will be bewitched and the flax harvest will be poor.
• if from midnight to noon you do not speak with anyone, you can expect fulfillment of all your desires.
• no laundry is done on this day so that ice does not destroy the grain fields.
• one should not grind with millstones, so that thunder would not knock.
• on this day one should wash up outside, so that in the spring the water would warm up fast.
In the region of Kėdainiai, on Holy Friday, eyes were covered and pots were smashed. An immediately smashed pot brought good fortune. People from this region took porridge and buried it in the fields expecting a good harvest. Women endeavored to bake good bread, so that family members would be healthy and strong.
Holy Saturday. On this day, no lending took place, so that the borrower would not take away the good harvest or other successes. So that witches would not spoil cows’ milk on this day, cows were milked with milk going through a branch of the rowen tree. It was thought that the rowen tree leaves and red berries will frighten away all evil spirits.
On this day, a bonfire built of old crosses was set in the church yard. The fire was lit striking a piece of flint and blowing the sparks into a dry wood fungus. Everyone rushed to snatch the fire and hurry home with it. To carry the live fire some brought a dried birch fungus, others a tow rope, a metal can or rag. To keep the fire burning while going home, it had to be continuously twisted about.
In the eastern regions of the Highlands (Aukštaitija) carriers of the holy flame, would start a small fire outside their property borders, so that the ills of the year would burn away. Hurrying home with the flame, they rode around, smoking the fields, to assure a good harvest. Arriving home, the old fire was put out in the stove and new fire was started with the Easter flame. Some homemakers, following ancient traditions, kept the Easter fire burning in the stove till next Easter, Pentecost or at least till the Sunday after Easter. It was believed that thunder did not hit the home where the annual Easter flame burned in the stove, for it brought luck and harmony to the family. Desiring to protect their homes from disasters, ashes were strewn in the house so that there would be no fires and in the garden, so that vegetables would grow well. When building a house, coal from the Easter fires was placed in corners. In the Tverečius region tree branches were placed on the burning, holy flame so that snakes would run away. Ashes were rubbed onto the scalp, to chase away pain.
Blessing of water takes place on Holy Saturday. It was tradition to bring back holy water in a hurry, so that farm chores would be done faster that year. On Easter, morning the house, fields, orchards and barns were all sprinkled with holy water. Some holy water was poured into wells, lakes and ponds. Old people washed their eyes and skin with holy water.
Homemakers wet cows’ udders, vegetable seeds and seedlings. The sick and dying were also sprinkled with holy water. People in the regions of Kėdainiai and Pasvalys, kept a clay container in the center of the house, filled with holy water, where fingers were dipped before crossing themselves, at the beginning and end of the day. Even today holy water is taken home and widely used and is kept till Pentecost.
The last days of Holy Week were linked with the souls of the dead, for it was thought that they were loitering about the homes. In some regions of Lithuania, on Holy Saturday, tables were not cleared away after meals, churches were not locked to allow the souls to congregate inside. In the region of Veisiejai, during breakfast on Easter, three teaspoonfuls of food were poured under the table for the souls. It was thought that on Holy Friday and Holy Saturday the souls were unconstrained and it was not proper to speak ill of dead family members.
Traditions of the night of Easter are very interesting, church rituals are intertwined with early beliefs. In 1933 newspapers wrote how people went to church Easter night, but did not pray. They dressed up as scarecrows and jested about. The guards at Christ’s tomb were dressed as soldiers, holding guns and swords. In Samogitia and in other regions, people blew horns, dressed as devils. The principal disguiser had sooth on his face, cow horns on his head, with cow’s tail hanging from his back, biting a huge pipe and holding a bottle of vodka in his hands. A masked woman would stick dead crows under noses of women, asleep in church.
Another type of disguisers wore masks with needles in the nose, dressed in rags, carrying whips. If they found anyone outside during the night, they chased them into church.
Before the First World War, throughout Lithuania , food was blessed on Easter morning. This tradition has remained in the region of Dzūkija. Easter eggs, salt, bread, cakes, ham, bacon, sausage, butter and cheese were foods to be blessed. Blessing eggs and bread would assure plenty of food all year. Butter and cheese were blessed to make sure that cows would give much milk.
The folks from Kuršėnai placed three eggs, red, yellow and black into a basket, decorated with willow branches, filled with hay or moss and took the basket to church to be blessed.
In Dzūkija, foods to be blessed were placed in straw baskets with removable covers. In other regions foods were carried to church in specially woven kerchiefs. It was believed that if it was a cloudy day, this kerchief should be taken outside and spread in the middle of the yard – then the clouds would disperse.
After the mass on Easter, some placed foods near Virgin Mary’s altar, while others placed food in the churchyard. After the blessing of the food, everyone hurried home with the belief that those who got home first, they will be first in all their endeavors and that their bees will swarm faster.
Having returned with the blessed foods, everyone sat at the table, laden with traditional foods: eggs, pig’s head or roast piglet, cheese, butter and baked lamb. If there was no baked lamb, there was a lamb made of butter or sugar placed on top of sprouted oat greens. This was a symbol of Easter. Before eating began, the family stood around the table, saying three prayers and wishing peace to the home. Eating began with eggs. If your egg shell is stronger, you are destined to live longer. The Easter egg shells were collected and half of them were fed to the hens, so that they would be good layers. The other half was burned in the stove, to make sure that trees will bud earlier. Meat bones and remaining egg shells were dug in the fields, so that mice would not eat the grain and hail would not be destructive to the grain fields.
In some regions, a tree made from nine or twelve fir branches, with woven nests to hold Easter eggs, was placed on the Easter table. It was also decorated with dough birds and colored papers.
It was said that on the first day of Easter, no visiting should take place till noon. If anyone came before noon, it was said that he brought flees from his home.
Children visited godparents and relatives to collect Easter eggs. A child upon entering the house, says nothing, just puts one finger into his mouth and receives an egg. If he places two fingers, two eggs are placed in his basket. Giving eggs to the children means that hens will be prolific layers.
The tradition of egg gathering still exists. In all of Lithuania, the act of hitting Easter eggs is known and practiced, especially by men and teenagers. The egg is placed in the palm of the hand with thumb and forefinger holding the pointed end of the egg, which is the hitting area. The cracked egg is taken by the person whose egg did not crack in the process of hitting.
Egg rolling is also popular throughout Lithuania. A thick tree bark with a smooth inside is placed at an angle and eggs are rolled down through it. When the egg hits another egg, which had rolled down earlier, the egg’s owner takes possession of both eggs.
Easter eggs were taken to children by the imaginary Easter woman, who was not to be seen by the children. Children usually found two Easter eggs, in places like wooden shoes, baskets and even in bed. These eggs were very different from those that were dyed at home. Most often mothers exchanged eggs with neighbors or secretly used different dyes. Children began to wait for the Easter Woman on Holy Saturday afternoon, prepared egg nests and placed them in flower gardens, bushes, between wall logs and even on doorsteps. Each child tried to make most beautiful and colorful nests.
Groups of young men on the night of the First Day of Easter, visit villages, extend greetings and for that are given numerous gifts. The night was filled with men’s compelling voices, travelling from village to village. This tradition still continues in many villages even today.
These groups are made up of musicians, singers and a bag carrier, who will carry all the gifts. Their greetings began with the following words: ” dear auntie and uncle, may we entertain your household”, followed by: „Happy Easter Greetings”. After this, they sang songs meant for unmarried girls: A pear tree stands in the center of the manor,/ Under which grows a garden filled with rue, / Young maiden, Anne walked there,/ Made paths and picked rue.
When gifts were received, they thanked the owners saying, ” may God give you as many piglets to equal the number of nibbles you gave us”. It also happened that the owners gave nothing, then a spell was put on them: ” may your chicken swell under the stove, like the stove, so that you could not pull them out using even horse’s strength”. Girls who refused to receive these strollers – singers, were wished to remain single and to spend the rest of their lives sitting on the stove. When their bag was filled with eggs and other goodies, the strollers – singers would stop at someone’s home to party. They would then select the most beautiful Easter egg, calling its creator
” Queen of Eggs”. If this woman was married, they crowned her with a crown that they carried, she in turn would place the crown on her unmarried daughter’s head. This second Easter Day’s festivity of strollers – singers, soon became the time of selecting daughters-in-law. Soon after matchmakers would do the rounds. For this reason young women tried to give their best Easter eggs to the stroller-singers.
The fourth day of Easter and later the third day, in the first part of 18th century, according to ancient pagan traditions, was called Ice Day, or Day of Hail. No work was done on that day, to keep hail from destroying grain fields. Even on any Wednesday until Pentecost no work was done. This behavior was honoring the memory of the Goddess Lyda. In ancient times, seed oats and other grains were taken to church to be blessed on this day.
The egg being the symbol of life and rebirth of nature is given special meaning in Easter traditions. The tradition of egg dyeing and exchanging is much older than Christianity. In Lithuania, eggs were dyed not only before Easter but also before St.George’s day and Pentecost.
There were two methods of egg decorating: drawing designs with wax or scratching designs on dyed eggs. Numerous designs consisted of blossoms, snakes, wheel and cog, stars, branches of rue, snowflakes and many others. Most common dye used was onion skins. A pot was filled with dry onion skins and water and allowed to soak for several hours, then brought to a boil, then raw eggs were placed for seven or ten minutes, later the pot was removed from the heat, but eggs were left in the dye for some time, to intensify the reddish brown color. Nettles were used to obtain green color. Nettles were covered with cold water, then boiled for twenty minutes. Eggs were placed in the strained nettle dye and boiled. If the solution was nor strained, the eggs would be spotted Adding alum to the nettle solution intensifies the green color. Red color was obtained by slicing raw beets, covering with cold water and bringing to a boil. The red solution was strained and eggs boiled in it. A reddish yellow color was obtained from a solution made from a mixture of chopped birch lichen, fir and black alder trees. Very popular black and dark brown colors were obtained by soaking black alder bark with rusty metal pieces in boiling water and adding fermented juices of beets or sauerkraut. This mixture was left to ferment two to three weeks and boiled eggs would be soaked in it until good color was obtained. The tradition of swinging on Easter was practiced throughout Lithuania. Ethnographers believe that swinging had magical powers to awaken the plant kingdom, which helped grain to sprout and grow faster. Swings were built in the village outskirts or near forests. The swing seat could accommodate several people at a time. People swung so high that some even fell off and were killed instantly. Girls on swings were swung by boys and for this the boys received many Easter eggs. On the Second and Third Day of Easter, it was tradition to pour water on each other. Sometimes young men would throw young women into water. Once again, this watering forecasted a goodgrain harvest and a washing away of evils accumulated during winter.
THE FEAST DAY of ST.GEORGE (Šv. Jurgis, April 23rd)
According to legend of the Catholic Church, St. George was a martyred knight. He is Lithuania’s second guardian. The name George spread throughout Lithuania from the Eastern regions of Greater Lithuanian territories, before official Lithuanian baptism. In the 16th – 18th centuries , Lithuanian St. George’s feast day customs found a rich, local heritage.
Ethnographically, it is possible to select this Feast’s two complexes, put into fewer words agrarian labors and widely written cattle rearing. Writer J.Lasickis, in his work, published in 1615, „About Samogitian false Christian gods and other disgraces”, discusses the agrarian half of this holiday. He writes, „On St. George’s day they made offerings to Pergrubis, who was believed to be the God of all plants. The ecclesiast , whom he referred to as the chief of the rural district, holds in his right hand a wide bottomed goblet, full of beer and having called by name a God, sings the following in his honor,” You chase away winter, you return the pleasantness of Spring, fields and forests turn green”.
Having finished the song, he drinks the beer, holding the goblet with his teeth and throws the empty goblet over his head. The goblet is picked up, filled again with beer, and is sent around those present, who continue singing, honoring God Pergrubis. The rites of spring holidays are carried on in like fashion in Lithuania Minor, Ragainė, Kurša, written about in 1278, by M.Strijovskis in, „Polish, Lithuanian, Samogitian and Russian Chronicle”. Example, ” In spring, when snow melts, grass appears, several villages prepare a quarter or a whole barrel of rye malt to brew beer..As everyone gathers in one house, the ecclesiast picks up a container of beer, raises it, saying, “our Almighty God Pergrubis! You chased away winter, doubled greenery on all the land, we are now imploring you to increase the growth of our grain, to destroy all weeds”. He then picks up the goblet with his teeth, drinks it empty, throws it over his head, not touching it with his hands. Another official of the rural district, standing behind, catches the goblet, quickly fills it with beer and sets it in front of the ecclesiast. He picks up the goblet in his hand, requests Perkûnas, God of Thunder, to curb hail, lightning, rain, storms and destructive clouds. Everyone present starts drinking after this, the third request to Almighty God of Light – Žvaiždiklė, to supply plenty of light for fields of grain, hay fields, flowers and animals. Then prayers continue to the fourth God, Pilvičius, so that the harvest would be gathered properly and barns are filled. These rituals continue until offerings are made to fifteen Gods”.
At the start of 19th – 20th centuries, there are numerous writings about ritual bread baking, offerings and ritual eating. This is again connected to agrarian traditions, assuring a better harvest. In the morning of St. George’s day, it was tradition to take one or two loaves of bread, in which five eggs were baked, carry them around the fields three to twelve times. Then one loaf was dug in the field, requesting a good harvest. The remaining loaf was broken into the same number of pieces as there were family members, and eaten. In the region of Dieveniškės, Eastern Lithuania, at the end of last century, on the Eve of St. George’s day, the owner plowed the first furrow in the field, he had a sash tied around his waist with a linen bag filled with bread and salt. Upon return from plowing, distributed the bread with salt, so that in next plowing the plow would not break and family would not run short of bread. Again, in the same region, on St. George’s day, the owner took the ritual bread roll to the rye field, put it on the ground and bent his ear towards the earth to listen to what the rye was talking about. If he expected the rye harvest to be good, while listening he heard a voice from the earth, “move away, I will sow here”. If that year’s gain harvest was to be a poor one, there was no sound from the rye field. Then the owner carried the ritual bread around the field, later carried it to church and placed it on St. George’s altar. Orchard growth and its harvest had to be awakened on this day, by a boy born at sunrise on this day and named George. Near Raseiniai, in Samogitia, at the end of 19th century, as orchards were in bud, such child was treated to delicious foods and at sundown was undressed naked and walked about the orchard, making all kinds of promises.
Another wider known St. George’s day ritual complex is attributed to animals’ first driving outside. 17th and 18th centuries’ joint M.Pretorius’ writings, “Prussian interests or Prussian theater”, animals’ first drive outdoors is described, “when people take animals outside for the first time, they behave this way, the owner alone does that from barns near gardens, he walks three times around the animals, praying to God to protect the herd. He also thanks for the herd’s life till now and requests St .George to keep dogs, bears, foxes and wolves away from the herd”.
That day, no one eats, fasting continues until the herd is brought back.
When the cattle are herded into barns, food is set out. The owner is first to have a drink, then sends the drink around to those present, then everyone sings and starts eating.
After eating, everyone prays again. Then frolicking and fooling around, the happier they become, the better it is. This is done so that the animals will be always in good spirits and health. M.Pretorijus relates that Lithuanians during horse blessing rituals sacrificed a rooster to Goddess Žemyna. While eating the cooked rooster meat, beer was poured on the ground, the following words were spoken to the Goddess, “Žemyna, be happy riding our horses”. At the rituals’ end, the owner dug the roosters feet in the barn saying, I will have good mares from these feet and bones”.
Until middle 20th century, in some Lithuanian regions remained the tradition of herding animals outdoors on April 23rd. The entire family gathered to do so. The owner walked at the head of the herd carrying a plate, covered with a linen towel, the dish contained a pair of eggs and a candle on the edge. His wife followed him, carrying incense, behind her walked a shepherd with branches of juniper and willow in his hands. All three of them walked around the herd, the wife incensing , the shepherd swinging the branches three times. After that, the wife took the lighted candle off the plate, using it rubbed the animals’ necks, loins, stomachs and cows’ udders, so that they would not be attacked by wild animals and witches would not take away the cows’ milk. The ritual eggs were given to the shepherd, one ritual branch was stuck into the barn roof, near the door so that the God of the Forest, Miškinis, protects the animals from getting lost in the woods. The unlit candle was placed on the barnyard gate and remained there until the animals were herded back into the barn, after that was taken into the house.
Animals herded outdoors for the first time were stroked on their backs with a willow branch, covered with pussy willows. This was done in the hope that the animals will remain healthy, fat and safe from wolves. On the first day of herding, even shepherds tended animals with willow branches and upon return from the pastures, placed the willows under the barn roof, to assure the animals’ safe return. In the region of Akmenė, before herding animals outdoors, a candle was picked up and carried three times around the herd. Shepherds also sprinkled holy water or just plain water, while herding the animals, washed horses in lakes and rivers.
At the beginning of 20th century, in regions of Švenčionys, Ignalina, Tverečius, special bread was baked, called “for animals”. A small roll was baked for each animal or one huge loaf of bread with as many groves in it as there were animals. Pieces of this loaf, were taken to beggars, sitting near churches, so that they pray for the animals.
Eggs played an important role in the ritual of first outdoor herding. A pair of eggs was placed, one on the inside, the other on the outside of the barn doorstep. In other regions, an egg was placed in each corner of the bar.
After a while, one egg was given to the shepherd and another was taken to church. Sometimes both eggs were given to the shepherd, so that sheep would bear twin lambs. In the region of Ukmergė, the shepherd received a bag with two white and two motley eggs, was instructed to eat the white eggs and to return the motley eggs, unbroken. If the shepherd did as was told, the owner knew it would be a good year with animals. In the region of Tilžė, the elder herdsman walked several times around the herd, throwing an egg at it. The animal, which was touched by the egg, was allotted to wolves, he would not be protected and when wolves took it away, the entire village reimbursed its owner. In other regions, scissors and an egg were dug under the barn doorsill.
Upon the shepherd’s return, he was sprinkled with cold water by the owner’s wife, so that cows would be good milkers, grass would grow abundantly, summer would not be too rainy. The wife then invited all shepherds to sit at table, eat butter, cheese, cottage cheese and eggs. In Dzûkija, south eastern region of Lithuania, on the eve of St. George’s day, young men walked around houses greeting and wishing all the best, also requesting eggs of many colors (eggs were dyed for St. George’s day), sang and danced. Men, whose name was George, decorated their hats with ears of grain.
Here are most interesting, characteristic Lithuanian beliefs and witchings, connected to St. George’s day :
• as cows are herded out for the first time, a piece of turf should be placed at the gate, with two eggs placed at the turf’s end. If the eggs do not get broken, animals will not die that year. Having walked across the turf, they will be fat like the piece of turf.
• when sheep are herded back from the fields, a sash should be hung in the gate and sheep enter through it, then sheep will always return home, in line, like the sash.
• Herding animals outside the first time, place two eggs and a pair of trousers in the middle, then evil eyes will not stare at the cows.
• when horses were taken outside for the first time, an axe was hewed into the barn doorsill from the inside, a saw was placed, with teeth up and horses and horses were led across it. This was done to prevent robbery of horses.
• to keep animals from bewitchings, mercury was poured into a horn, through a small hole, which then was sealed.
• to keep the devil from carrying lambs, the lambs were smoked with wolves’ dung as they were led out for the first time.
• shepherds took flour and cooked porridge into which they added butter. The porridge was eaten with thin pieces of wood, constantly mentioning the name George. This was a way of feeding wolves, so that they do not bother animals.
• shepherds were not allowed to sit on the stove when putting on shoes, to take knives into their hands, so that wolves do not carry away the sheep.
• to make shepherds rise early and not nap when herding, they were told to wash with water from oxen foot prints or water from animals’ drinking through.
• do not loan a sieve on this day, if you do, carry it under lock and key.
• between new and ancient ritual styles of this day, it was not good to throw out linen, because the animals will not feed, will die.
• so that the linden tree blossoms profusely, this day hang a white linen cloth on its branches.
• to assure an abundant apple crop, make sure that apple trees are planted on this day.
• in the morning of this day, pour the tree sap onto the ground, because witches usually bathe in it.
• it was said that in the evening of this day, comb your hair and go to bed, your loved one will come in a dream and will kiss you.
• grassy wreaths were dropped into water. Your lover will come from the direction to which the wreath floats.
• on the evening of this day, sow poppy seeds under your pillow, you’ll marry whom you dream of.
• if the morning of St. George’s day is very starry, it will be a good year for animals.
• if the day is cold, it will be a good year overall.
• if snows and freezes, there will be tons of hay.
THE FEAST OF ST. MARK (Šv. Morkus )
St. Mark, one of the evangelists, friend of Peter, the apostle, is held to be the guardian of earth and harvests. His name is closely bound with love, peace and harmony.
St. Mark’s repentance procession is carried out in all the Catholic world. In 1525, in Vilnius it was decided to organize a procession from the Cathedral to the Church of St. George. In Lithuania this St.Mark is regarded as guardian of earth’s harvest, because of that processions in his honor take place not only in churches but throughout villages.
The feast day of St. Mark is the time of greatest entreaties. On the morning of the day, set to honor this Saint, in many Lithuanian villages, peasants gathered near the farthest village Cross, singing the All Saints’ Litany and praying. All the village Crosses were visited, with stops near them with special prayers. Requests were made to God to protect fields from storms, hail, draught and thunder. A Mass was held in cemeteries, ending the procession, which walked around all the cemetery crosses, stopped in its center to pray for community dead, sing again the Litany of All Saints’, ask for a good harvest.
This was a chance for men of the community to discuss common village works, cow herdings, fence building and other chores. It is most important that even today in some villages of Dzūkija, this tradition is still carried on.
Attention had been paid to the ban of eating meat in order to have a good harvest. Some, even today pay attention to the ban of “not touching the earth”, no plowing, no digging, otherwise hail would destroy crops. Other agrarian works, sowing, fertilizing, watering were not avoided. Ancient beliefs show that this was a very holy day, when only household chores were carried out, delicious foods were eaten and there was much praying. People remember that to properly observe St. Mark’s feast day, one should dress up, do no heavy work. If one does not pay attention to this observance, ice will destroy the grain fields. In the morning of St. Mark’s day, one man dug open two potato holes, this caused rains to flatten all the grain fields in the summer. This shows that earth, man’s nourisher, attains special meaning. People avoided touching the earth as if giving her the right to rest before the upcoming hard work during harvest time. There are several exceptions. Women sow carrots on this day, so that they grow larger and be tastier. It was also thought, that it was good to sow peas on this day. Young women sowed rue on this day, sprinkled the seed with sooth, to keep chicken away from scratching in the garden. Young women used the power of St. Mark’s feast day for other goals, cast lots to find out about their future. At the beginning of the 20th century, on this day, young women wove three wreaths, one for themselves, the other two were given male names. All three wreaths were dropped into the well and sprinkled with hemp seed. At dusk they looked intensely into the well to be able to see their man. All this was done secretly. It was also said, that on this day, girls should eat only carrots. Going to bed, should write male names on twelve pieces of paper, tie three pieces into each corner of their kerchief and place it under their pillow. Upon arising next morning they should grab a corner of the kerchief, untie it and pick one piece of paper. It was believed that she would marry that young man, whose name she selected.
In villages in Dzūkija, in the morning of April 25th , people still gather near the village Crosses, singing, praying and asking for a good harvest. All the walkings end in cemeteries.
PENTECOST, or WHITSUNDAY (Sekminės – Seventh Sunday after Easter )
In Lithuania and in neighboring countries, traditions of Pentecost are related with the end of sowing and the start of summer labors. This is a spring gathering and shepherds’ holiday. The most distinctive feature of Pentecost is nature worship. The power of nature was attributed to young, green birch trees. It was believed that the birch tree can pass her vitality to the soil, to animals, protect from illness and all evils. On the eve of Pentecost, village girls dispersed in fields and woods in search of flowers and greenery that were used to make wreaths. Young men picked branches off birch trees, which they placed around doors, gates, inside porches and in living rooms. Wreaths and bunches of flowers decorated the entire house. Tables were covered with linen tablecloths, garden paths were sprinkled with sand and greens. It was believed that the souls of the dead, while visiting homes on Pentecost, rested on birch tree branches.
Shepherds decorated cows with birch wreaths, to keep them calm and together, be good milkers and to please the mistress of the house so she would be kind and generous throughout the year.
The etnographer, B.Buračas described this tradition of decorating the herds in his writings, saying that on the night before Pentecost, shepherds returning home with the herd dressed the animals with birch and marsh marigold wreaths. They even tied birch branches to cattle horns.
In some regions women placed a piece of bread in a white linen kerchief, tied it with three double birch branches and tied this kerchief to their apron sash believing this to be a protection from snake bites. Whipping with bathing birch- rods in bathhouses was believed to chase all ailments out of the body. On Pentecost morning, the master of the house whipped his cows to make them more active while grazing in the fields. When Christianity came to Lithuania, churches began blessing grasses. Then on this holiday, churches were decorated with birch trees and other greenery. People arrived in church carrying bunches of greenery , which were blessed. These blessed greens were set on fire and their smoke was used to incense dying persons, new buildings and storm clouds. It was believed that smoke from Pentecost greens had the power to chase away evil spirits, protect buildings and send storm clouds away. Wayside crosses and ritual tables were also decorated with Pentecost greenery.
J.Balys wrote in ” Lithuanian Calendar Holidays” how plants are used in charmings. First of all, many wreaths were twined and each one was given a man’s name. The largest wreath was given the name of the girl who wanted to know the name chosen name. The wreaths are thrown into the well or into the pond in the evening, so as not to be seen by anyone. Early in the morning the girl went to see if her wreath was beside the largest wreath. If it was, she would marry him.
Before Pentecost one must twine a large wreath of cornflowers with three branches of rue in it. Before evening this wreath is placed on the girl’s head and fastened to the hair so it would not fall off. He, who in a dream removes this wreath, will be the one too take away her virginity.
N.Gimbutas in ” Baltic Mythology” , wrote that there was tradition to go to the woods on Pentecost. A birch tree was picked out, decorated and taken into the village. About hundred years ago this was an important ritual which involved the entire community.
On this holiday there are fire and water glorification rituals. The church on Pentecost blessed fire and water. In many regions holy water was sprinkled on grain seeds, so that they would sprout fast and that birds would not peck at the grain. Sprinkling with holy water was meant to keep insects away from the crops and keep ponds and rivers safe from drownings. To keep horses well and give them shinny coats, their food was also sprinkled with holy water.
After Pentecost, according to the folk calendar, it was safe to swim in rivers and lakes, especially if these bodies of water were close to churches, they were blessed by the priests to protect the swimmers from drownings. Country folk poured holy water into their wells and ponds for this reason.
Pentecost is one bright day in the shepherds’ year. This day was begun by the blare of the herdsman’s trumpet before sunrise, awakening the shepherds. That day, every shepherd planned to take his herd out at the earliest and play his small horn. Each shepherd made his own small horn for Pentecost from osier or alder wood and added a hollow cow’s horn to give it a better sound.
As the animals were leaving the barn, they were incensed with burning, dried herbs by the mistress of the house. The herd grazed until noon, then the shepherds decorated the entire herd and themselves and returned to the village singing and playing their horns. Then the feasting began, hosted by the head herdsman.
Shepherds’ outings were organized on Pentecost, called shepherds’ omelet (pautienė). In some regions shepherds stopped at homesteads in the morning to pick up prepared foods, while in others they asked for eggs, flour, butter, milk and salt so that they could bake their own omelet.
In Dzûkija the following greeting was voiced, ” happy Pentecost, spent happily and peacefully with horses neighing and cows mooing. I was sent to you by the oxen for bread, for milk by the cows, by sheep for flour, by hogs for bacon and fat, by the motley hens for eggs, by the rooster for pancakes and by the shepherds for money”. If some households gave nothing, the returning herd was decorated with nettle wreaths and brooms tied to the cows’ horns, so that everyone would know about the stinginess of that household.. However, most homeowners were generous because they knew that by not giving the cows’ milk would be decreased.
After collecting all he goodies, the shepherds went to feast, picnic in the woods. After the omelet was baked, the shepherds went into the forest, climbed a tree and called out to wolves and bears to come and have breakfast with them, saying, ” if you do not come out now, you will never come out during the coming year”. This is an ancient prayer, an incantation.
In some regions of the Highlands, shepherds were allowed to sleep in while the herding in the morning was carried out by girls. They herded out very early, before the larks awakened. Hearing the larks, village lads came out playing reed and pan pipes. They also brought food, lit bonfires. The important ritual was made up of a game called “Arrange a Wedding”. The prettiest girl was chosen to play the bride and a lad was chosen to play the groom, while other girls dressed as bridesmaids. After the wedding rites, the newlyweds were taken to bed in a granary, a tent made of tree branches. After that came their awakening and the end of the wedding ritual games.
Entire families visited the rye fields. Checked both theirs’ and neighbors’ fields and shared farming advice. In some regions, hired hands brewed beer before Pentecost so that they could treat the owners after their walks in the grain fields. Everyone gathers to eat and drink , while the young people sing and dance.
Girls had separate amusements. They sat in a nice spot on a hill, twined wreaths, cast lots, told tales, sang and walked around grain fields.
When Christianity spread throughout Lithuania, priests turned these ancient walkings around grain fields into blessings of the grain fields. People gathered in one farmstead upon the priests’ arrival and went together to bless the grain fields. Feasting took place after the blessing.
This tradition disappeared at the beginning of 20th century, when villages broke up into individual farms.
FEAST of ST.JOHN (Joninės, June 24th)
From ancient times people marked the time of the return of the sun, the shortest and longest night. In olden times it was called the Feast of the Dews (Rasos).
When Christianity was established in Lithuania, the name was changed to Feast of St. John, according to agrarian folk calendar, the start of haying.
The rituals of the longest day were closely related to agrarian ideas and notions. The main aim was to protect the harvest from natural calamities, evil souls, witches and mid summer visitors like draught, hail, downpours of rain and thunder. The ancients worshipped the great Goddess Lada and God of Thunder, the ruler of thunder and lightning. From May 25th till June 25th men visited taverns while women and girls danced in the fields holding hands, sang and sacrificed white hens.
N.Vėlius, Lithuanian writer, wrote that the feast of the “Dews” binds with the feast of God of Thunder honoring the embodiments of all kinds of powers. Men’s wrestling, a demonstration of their strength can be linked to the feast of God of Thunder. On the longest day of summer, bread must be baked and eaten before sunrise, saying the following words, ” in the name of the sun and thunder, I order you, fever, and chase you away from people”.
N.Vëlius wrote that the feast of the “Dews” binds with the feast of God of Thunder honoring the embodiments of all kinds of powers. Men’s wrestling, a demonstration of their strength can be linked to the feast of God of Thunder. On the longest day of summer, bread must be baked and eaten before sunrise, saying the following words, ” in the name of the sun and thunder, I order you, fever, and chase you away from people”.
The sun is the first to be addressed, because at this time of year she is most active and most rites are carried out in her honor. This is a holiday allotted to the Gods of Heaven.
In the 15th century, visitors to Lithuania wrote that in Vilnius, the celebrations took place in the eastern section of the city, the place of the present day “Rasos” cemetery. Fires were lit on hills and in dales. People danced, sang, ate and drank. On the Feast of St John a special role was granted to the sun. The sun is constantly mentioned in songs sung on the longest day of the year.
On this ritual day, farmers paid special attention to water’s special powers in reviving soil and making it productive. Witchings on this day were carried out near and with water, people washed themselves and their animals. Special attention was paid to the dew because it revives plants at night. At sunrise farmers made their way around the fields, pulling a branch which brushed the dew to fall into the soil and cause a good harvest. Maidens tried to get up before sunrise, collect the dew and wash their faces with it to make them bright and beautiful. They would also get up at night, go outside to wet their faces in the dew and returned to bed without wiping their faces dry. If that night they dreamt of a young man bringing them a towel, they hoped that he would be the one they would marry. Country sorceresses, during that night dragged a towel over dewy grasses, collected the dew, and watered the cows with it in order to increase their milk production.
Flourishing plants were worshipped because it was believed that plants collected on the eve of the Feast of St. John posses magic powers to heal, bring luck and foretell the future. This is an ancient ritual practiced mainly by women. Roses, common daisies, especially the herb St. John’s worth and numerous grasses were some of the main plants collected at this time.
Famous etnographer P.Dundulienė asserts that nine plants with healing powers were called “Kupolės”, plants of the Feast of St. John. A festival pole, decorated with flowers and greenery was also called “Kupolė”. Folklore shows that “Kupolė” was the Goddess of plants, living in aromatic plants, blossoms or in buds in summer and in snowdrifts in winter.
In Lithuania Minor, even in winter before the Feast of St. John, women made haste to collect medicinal herbs, with the belief that after June 24th all herbs lose their healing powers.
Girls returned to the village after picking flowers and singing, wreathed the festival post, “Kupolė”, added colorful fluttering ribbons to it. This festival post was set at the far end of the village, near the grain fields. It had to be defended during two days and nights from young men who tried to steel it. After saving the post, the girls removed the decorative herbs and grasses and divided them amongst themselves because these herbs had special protective powers against evil spirits and illnesses.
In some regions bunches containing nine plants were gathered by women on the eve of the Feast of St. John . Some of the plants were fed to animals before midnight, so they would be protected from evil eyes. Bunches of St. John’s worth were placed behind pictures of saints. If this bunch did not wilt fast, it was believed that it will be a lucky year. Other herb bunches were kept till Christmas, the winter return of the sun, then fed to cows so that they would be healthy and good milkers. Cows’ udders were washed with a decoction made with St. John’s worth. Bunches of nine herbs were kept in barns through Christmas. Other bunches of dried herbs were used to smoke sick people and animals.
It was believed that wreaths concentrate perpetual life’s forces and are symbols of immortality and life. There were many rites and witchings associated with wreaths during this longest summer’s night.
Walk around three fields and gather bunches of nine flowers, twine a wreath and place it under your pillow. You will marry the man, who in your dream comes to take away the wreath. At midnight, twelve wreaths were dropped into a river and observed if they were pairing off. If no pairing off occurred, there was to be no marriage that year. Near the river Nemunas, wreaths were dropped in the water, only when the river was calm and observed to which direction they drifted. Matchmakers would come from that direction. Releasing the wreath with the current, it will be caught by a young man, the maiden will be his. Should the wreath float away without being caught, the maiden will keep that wreath all year in her dowry chest, as a symbol of luck and health.
In the seacoast region, all during the night, young men and women twined wreaths from ferns, placed candles and set them in streams. Should both their wreaths swim together, they believed that they would marry that year.
In some regions wreaths twined during the night of the Feast of St. John were placed at crossroads with the belief that ones future will be seen in a dream. Seacoast fishermen did not go out to fish on the day of the Feast of St. John or even several days after it. According to them, the sea lurks for sacrificial lambs on these days.
The rites of this day continued till sunrise around bonfires. The site selected for ritual bonfires was always in the most beautiful area, on hills, on river shores and near lakes. In some regions bonfires were lit on future grain fields and under linden trees.
Those who are not fond of socializing on the eve, hurry and gather along lake shores, light bonfires, place burning poles, covered with tar into trees, so that there would be light all night long until sunrise. Special decorated wheels were lit and were rolled down hillsides, this symbolized the sun’s moving away from the earth and at the same time a request for her return.
In ancient times, the ritual fires were lit by senior priests, ” vaidilos”. That fire was started with sparks coming from rubbing dried roots of medicinal herbs or from flying sparks when striking flint stones. Such fires would protect from epidemics, illnesses, poor harvests, hail and lightning.
Eggs were thrown into the fires and animals sacrificed. Later straw dolls were sacrificed in place of animals. The ritual fires were built up to throw their light over a large area of fields, to assure a big autumn harvest. On the eve of this feast day, home fires were put out and new fires were lit using glowing coals from the ritual fires of that day. It was believed that these ritual fires had special powers, which would protect from misfortunes, bring health and harmony to the family. It was important for newlyweds to light the fire in their hearth with the coals of the miraculous ritual fire. Such a family would be blessed, live well and in total harmony.
P. Dundulienë in her book ” Fire in Lithuanian Folk Culture”, writes that jumping over fires or around it had magic meaning. Ritual bonfires cleansed both physically and psychologically. Sick adults and children were brought to the ritual fires and were pulled through the fire, with the belief that they would be healed. Jumping over the fire was carried out with the belief of making better health, increasing body strength for hard summer labors and assuring better growth of grain and flax. Ritual fires’ ashes, smoldering coals had special powers to increase the harvest and protect it from natural calamities. The coals were dug under in fields, ashes were sprinkled on crops to assure good crop yields. To keep weeds from growing in grain fields, ritual fires’ wood splinter remains , were tied to the plough share when ploughing the fields. In East Prussia, the common tradition was to throw herbs and flower wreaths into the ritual fires. Weeds were also thrown into the ritual fires with the belief that there would be fewer of them next year.
The most archaic tradition of this day is tall poles with wheels at their top, set on fire. The wheel symbolized the primitive farmers’ attitudes to the sun or her travel cart. This tradition is related to myths about the sun’s travels by cart or by boat. The tradition of boating on lakes and rivers in flower and wreath decorated boats, in which a fire was lit, symbolized the floating sun and was widespread throughout Lithuania.
The feast of St. John is connected with summer weddings and their rituals which were bound to affect family living and population increases. Should a pair become friends this night, there will definitely be a wedding.
The night of June 24th is the shortest night of the year, filled with bird sounds and luxuriant vegetation. Darkness substitutes light unnoticeably, night is full of miracles due to fire reflections and shadows. It was believed that activity during this night of supernatural creatures or female witches was ill disposed towards men, animals and plants. To keep animals from their malevolent actions, animals were put in barns before sunset and were fed bread with salt for protection. Mountain ash branches and wheat sprays were hung on door posts for protection against evil spirits
In some regions clogs were placed in front of a mirror. Witches would step into the clogs and run away upset by their frightful image in the mirror.
In Samogitija, “Šatrija” was the most famous witches’ hill, where during the night of the Feast of St. John, witches party and rage all night and invent all kinds of enchantings. This is why one could not do without ” witches burnings”. Young people tied a barrel filled with tar and sawdust to
a high pole, sprinkled it with salt so that the witches would crackle. The barrel was set on fire while the young people sang and danced merrily. Next morning the cow herd was driven through the remaining ashes , with the belief that witchings will no longer be harmful.
During the night of the Feast of St. John, the miraculous fern bursts into bloom. It is difficult to catch sight of this bloom, however this difficulty can be overcome by going to the forest the day before, cutting down a mountain ash, pruning the branches and cutting off the top. Then pulling the tree backwards, walk about one hundred steps without looking back, toward the side to which the cut tree fell. Look back after the hundred steps and then you will see the devil sitting stuck in the ash tree. The devil will ask for your help to get off the tree and for your help will tell you where to find the blooming fern. When you locate the blooming fern, ghosts will attack with butting horns whirlwinds will howl and cats will cry. Then take a cane made of mountain ash, draw a circle around you with it, spread a linen cloth and stop being afraid. The fern blossom will fall on the cloth. Some say that the fern bloom is like birch dust, others describe it as round and white like carp’s scale.
HERBAL HOLYDAY , Meadow grass celebration, Feast of the Assumption (Žolinė, June 25th)
This is one of the most esteemed Virgin Mary’s holy days, going to heaven. Lithuanian names for this holy day are “Žolinė”, Herbal Holy Day, and “Kopūstinė”, Cabbage Day. The names show that this day is associated with traditions of the Christian periods, marking the juncture of summer, autumn and winter, the completion of most important agricultural labors.
This day, everyone who goes to church carries herbs, blooming garden flowers, to be blessed. The herbal bouquets also contained ears of rye, barley, oats, sweet peas, cabbages, carrots and apples.
It was said that if on this day one did not hold herbs in church, the devil will give his tail to hold.
In the spring, the blessed ears of grain were pulverized and mixed with seed grain, to assure an abundant harvest. Vegetables from the blessed bouquets were divided among all family members and some were fed to animals. Dried herbs were kept in the house, behind pictures of the saints. When thunder roared, the house was smoked with the dried herbs and sick people drank herbal teas.
Peasant women believed and some even now believe that thistles can be removed from fields. Uproot the thistles, place them in a bouquet with herbs and take them to be blessed on the Herbal Holy Day. Return the blessed thistles to the field, dig them under, with roots sticking out.
One more belief, if there are many children’s deaths in a family, place a garden green with other herbs and after the blessing plant the blessed garden green on the grave of the last dead child. It was hoped that there would be no more children’s deaths in the family. Houses were decorated with the blessed herbal bouquets to prevent lightning strikes. In the region of Dzūkija, tradition exists to stuff blessed herbal bouquets into pillows of the dead These blessed herbs were also used to smoke coffins
Grain, vegetable and herb blessing is linked with sacrifice and gratitude for the new harvest. It is more difficult to explain the belief known throughout Lithuania, women who have dead children should not eat apples until the apples are blessed. Older women are observing this imposed ban even today. It is said if a woman has eaten just one apple before the Herbal Holy Day, her child will not receive an apple in heaven. For example, on this day Virgin Mary distributes apples among dead children, those children whose mothers do not observe this ban receive no apples. Virgin Mary says, ” your mother ate your apple”. In some Lithuanian villages such women do not eat pears and plums.
The ancient tradition on Herbal Holy Day is for relatives to get together for a short visit.. It is said, he who does not attend the get together, will remain poor. 14th century writers wrote that this folk belief of ancient traditions reflects autumnal gatherings. In his chronicles Polish historian M.Strijkovski alleges that several joint parties are organized in villages. Grain is set aside early, for beer making. There is a ritual sacrifice of cattle, their meat is cooked and eaten. Bread is baked following a ritual bread baking on that day. Flat breads made from new harvest flour are thrown back and forth over the fire, until they are baked.
Ancient agrarian and cults of the dead traditions are intertwined with traditions of Herbal Holy Day. In southern Lithuania, the tradition of celebrating the dead ancestors continues even on this day. Dead ancestors are offered foods prepared from the new harvest. Beggars are also treated to the new harvest foods, because they pray for the dead. In the morning , after all food has been prepared, the table is set and everyone sits around it.
Then the master of the house lights a candle and sends it around the table, to be held by each person. When the candle has come the full round, the master of the house picks up the candle and walks 3 times around the foods, dedicated to the dead ancestors. Eating begins after that. Any leftover foods are taken to beggars or to old peoples’ homes.
THE DAY FOR CELEBRATING THE DEAD (Vėlinės, November 1st)
In Lithuania, remembrance of the dead took place during all annual feast days. Come autumn, when all work was done, Lithuanians carried out special rituals honoring the souls of their dead ancestors.
J.Dlugosh (15th century) and M.Strijkovski (16th century) wrote that this ritual took place in the month of October and continued from St.Michael’s, September 29th through St.Martin’s, November 11th .Other sources state that the time for honoring the dead was end of October and beginning of November. In ancient writings this ritual is called ” Ilgës”, pangs of love or longings. The name comes from the fact that this ritual went on for a long time, long ritual. In Eastern Lithuania , this ritual was called ” Dziedu” days, old men’s days. This name was related to beggars, who are asked to pray for the souls of the dead.
The ritual traditions of the dead were directly related to peoples’ belief that on that day the souls of the dead return to earth, to their homes. Therefore the souls of the dead were graciously received and treated according to rituals of the ancestors. All 16th and 19th century writings single out hospitality shown to the souls of the dead. According to M.Strijkovski, during this feast people gathered in cemeteries, where women sobbed and lamented over their men, remembering their valor, honesty and good habits.
Afterwards the women prepared plentiful suppers. The Kuronians, Ziemgals, Prussians, remembering their dead would go straight from church to a tavern, where they brewed beer, women brought baskets filled with cold, cooked and baked fish, which was eaten without knives. Portions of food and drink were poured under the table.
M.Pretorius writing about traditions of Westernmost Lithuania said: „The soul of the dead cannot rest if the table is not set”. Historian T.Narbutas, writes in the 19th century that on the eve of the Day of the Dead, father gathered the family around the table and recited this prayer: ” dear souls of the dead, you are still remembered by the members of my family, you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance, especially you, my grandparents, my parents, also our relatives, children and everyone whom death took away from our home. I invite you to this annual feast. We wish that this feast is agreeable to you, just like memory of all of you, is to us ”. After a short silence, father asks everyone to sit at the table and eat. Food was eaten in silence.
At the beginning of the 19th century, in the district of Noèia, county of Lyda, Lithuanians prepared twelve different dark foods. People gathered around the table quietly. It was believed that the souls of the dead partook of the meal together with the living members. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, in some parts of Lithuania, an assortment of foods was brought to cemeteries at the beginning of November and left there. Upon returning home from the cemetery, all family members went to wash in the bathhouse. Supper of seven different foods of meat, grains and eggs was prepared and the table was set in a room with windows and doors open wide. The oldest person picked up a candle, circled it around his head and three times around the food then lit it and set it on the table. Everyone spilled a portion of his drink, where no one sat at the corner of the table, saying, ” this is for you, dear souls”. An assortment of foods was also placed on that corner of the table and then everyone began to eat.
In the Dieveniškës region, still at the beginning of the 20th century, on October’s first Saturday evening, the souls of the dead were feted. Everyone washed up in the evening, started a fire in the cook stove and cooked traditional foods, beet soup, buckwheat porridge, meat, also baked a buckwheat cake. These foods were eaten after midnight, after everyone had taken a nap. The eldest family member poured three tablespoons of beet soup under the table for the souls of the dead. Family eating was begun after this pouring. A portion of each food was placed in a basket and was taken to the beggars. The buckwheat porridge, baked in sheep’s stomach and hen’s or rooster’s right leg or left wing were taken to church as an offering.
In 1998, Mrs.M.Dvynelienë, born in 1900 in this region, told about the autumn of her youth, when all work was completed then celebrations took place. Nine bowls with different foods were set on the table, while a tenth bowl was set at the head of the table, into which three spoonfuls from each of the nine bowls were poured. Then the contents of the tenth bowl were mixed with buckwheat flour and using the mixture, rolls were baked for the dead souls. The number of rolls equaled the number of dead family members. The rolls were given to the beggars, so that they would pray for the dead family members. It was found out from D.Poðka, that in 1823 food allotted to the dead souls is given away to the beggars.
At the beginning of this century, on All Souls’ Day [ a.k.a. Vëlinës ], special bread rolls were baked for the beggars. Giving the rolls to the beggars, each roll was assigned a name of a dead family member, with a request of prayers for the dead. Others would dispense the bread rolls to the dead souls, before putting the rolls into the oven. The first roll went to mother’s soul, second to grandfather’s and so on. A special roll was baked for a soul which no one remembered. In other regions a cross was scratched on the top of the roll.
In northern Lithuania, in the forties a Feast of the Graves (Kapšventis) was celebrated, an autumn holiday by the entire village. A part of donated money was given to the parish priest, and with the remaining money, ritual food was prepared for the priest. Everyone prepared for this feast, invited family and friends. A table covered with a white tablecloth, topped with a burning candle was set in the cemetery.
In Lithuania, the belief that souls of the dead came for a visit during All Souls’ Day, lasted a long time. Some said that the souls visited their family homes, others said that they came to cemeteries and even others that the souls congregated in churches.
The Samogitians had a long standing belief that on the Eve of All souls Day, all souls of the dead were released from Purgatory and away from suffering. Thus all roads to churches are traveled by the souls, to pray there, or the souls return home to visit their families. Seeing flickering candles, the souls gathered and prayed near wayside crosses.
Souls of dead children, those buried in diapers and unable to walk, roll on the church floor.
Traditions of honoring the dead took shape in the middle of 19th century: joint visits to cemeteries, decorating of graves, lighting of candles, prayers and support of beggars. In the region of Varëna, it is known that candles were burning in churchyards around 1880 – a symbolic grave was laid and covered with burning candles. After the parish priest blessed all the candles, people carried them away, placing a candle on their family grave. It was thought that those souls who did not ascend to heaven, roam about in perpetual darkness and for this reason lighted candles were placed on grave sites to light the way for them.
In the forties, in several Lithuanian churches celebrations of the dead took place during eight days. From 1966, after publication of the traditions, the eight day practice became a national commemoration octave in all the Lithuanian dioceses.
In the village of Margonys, region of Varëna, today on all eight nights bonfires are lit in cemeteries and all country folk pray for the dead buried in that cemetery. On All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, year after year, Lithuanian gravesites are decorated with most beautiful flowers and burning candles.
The beliefs of All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days are:
• on the day of All Souls, the souls of the dead come to visit the living, asking that the living pray for them.
• one time before All Saints’ Day, a homemaker swept the house and sprinkled with sand. In the morning sees the floor covered with small footprints, but there are no small children in the house. Therefore she understood that souls of dead children had come into the house.
• if mother went to the cemetery at midnight on All Souls’ Day, she would see her dead children.
• on All Souls’ Day, churches are filled with souls of the dead. That day, the souls are not burning in hell. They are happy. However some, whose mothers are wailing, these souls arrive wet, soaked by earthly tears. No need to cry for the dead.
• on the Eve of All Saints’ Day, one does not go visiting or walking through villages because all roads and the country side are filled with souls of the dead. There can also be some mean souls.
• on All Souls’ Day and in the evening no ashes or garbage should be taken out, because the souls can be witched by these items.
• if it rained on the night of All Souls’ Day, there will be numerous deaths the following year.
• if the sun did not shine on All Saints’ Day, the following year will be filled with misfortunes.
• if on All Saints’ Day, trees are still fully covered with leaves, it will be a year of black death.
• if a child is born on the eve of All Souls’ Day, when in life he attends a funeral meal, he will see evil souls.
CHRISTMAS EVE and CHRISTMAS (Kūčios ir Kalėdos )
Ancient historical sources confirm the main moments of the winter holiday, the return of the sun, which are found in the 20th century Lithuanian beliefs and traditions.
Supper on Christmas Eve ” Kūčios”, the oldest Lithuanian feast, celebrated according to the sun’s calendar. It is a night holiday, whose festivities begin in the evening. This is not only the most archaic, but the best preserved of holidays. Intimate family celebration, in closed micro social environment, protected ” Kūčios” from many 20th century modern innovations. The pagan spirit of Lithuanian “Kûèios” did not confront with Christian humanistic philosophy.
Kūčios” is the ritual supper. The entire December 24th day , Christmas eve is called “Kūčios”. Linguist K.Buga believes that Lithuanian ancestors borrowed the word “Kūčios”, way back in the 12th century through Slavs from the Greeks. This shows up in words with the same meaning – Russian ” kutja”, White Russian ” kucia”, Greek ” kukkia”.
“Kūčia” is a special dish assigned to the souls of dead ancestors. It is made of stewed wheat, peas, beans, sweetened with honey or eaten with poppy seed milk. In the region of Merkinė, “Kūčia” was a special loaf of bread, called the “Kūčia loaf “, it was carried three times around the house by the master of the house, dressed in holiday clothes. He then knocked on the door, when asked who’s knocking, he would answer, “God together with “Kūčia” asks to be in your house”. Upon entering, the master placed the bread on the table. In the region of Kaišiadorys, the master of the house carried a basket filled with “Kūčia” supper foods three times around the house. In other regions, the Christmas wafers were carried in the same manner.
The ritual supper is not eaten until the evening star appears in the sky. Until then, the bathhouse is heated, people bathe and dress up in festive clothes. The floor was strewn with juniper by the mistress and the master placed handfuls of hay on the table, covered it with a white linen tablecloth. In many regions, a basket filled with hay, sheaves of grain and a horse’s collar was placed under the table. Foods were placed on the table and as many tablespoons as there were eaters. If the number of family members was an odd number, a beggar or a lone neighbor was invited. If during that year there had been a death in the family, an upside down spoon was set in that place. This being a family feast, not only live but also dead members participate in it. The eldest family member went outside to invite the souls of the ancestors, the cold, the wind and bees to eat together.
The tradition of feeding the souls of the dead, remain in the 20th century in many parts of Lithuania. In the region of Ukmergė, a glass of beer or kvass was set in the place where the dead member used to sit. Around Kupiškis after the meal the table was cleaned away and set afresh with meat dishes, so that the souls of the dead would eat well. In Eastern Prussia a goose was placed on the table in honor of the souls of the dead. In other regions food remains were placed on windowsills or in vestibules. This food was for the souls who did not die at home.
Most often the “Kūčia” table was not cleared away, for it was believed that when the family is asleep the souls of the dead come in to eat.
Ancient “Kūčia” supper dishes are beet soup with mushrooms, and fish. Twelve different dishes were prepared, this tradition still continues. All dishes are meatless, with no fat, eggs and dairy products. Today’s “Kūčia” supper is begun with the passing around of the Christmas wafer together with wishes for each member.
Lithuanian “Kūčia” traditions have much room for concern about upcoming grain harvest. At the end of the meal it is tradition to pull a piece of hay from under the tablecloth. If one pulls the longest piece, the linen will grow best. Near Punsk, on Christmas Eve night, three piles of grain, rye, barley and oats were set on the floor and a hen was let in. if the hen first picked rye, it meant a good year for bread, if oats, their crop will be abundant and if barley, there will be tasty pancakes. Some people covered the garden with pots to assure growth of large vegetables.
Trying to increase fruit tree production, the fruit trees were wrapped with straw on Christmas Eve. In some regions cooked peas were sprinkled in the orchard to increase the fruit crops.
On Christmas Eve a greater attention was given to animals, their health, fertility and assure cattle breeding success:
• hay from the supper was later fed to the animals
• If one sewed on Christmas Eve, sheep will bear motley lambs
• To assure that animals do not scatter in the summer, the entire family must eat Kûèia, the Christmas Eve supper, together
• To keep the animal herd together in summer, tie up the cutlery after supper with the whip, broom and shepherd
• No need to lock barn doors on this night, place a cross or another sign on the doors so that charmings are ineffective.
• Those who sprinkle a mixture of wheat and peas in the barn, will have good animals
• After supper the mistress of the house should take all milk pots outside and place all around the farmstead so that next year the cows would give much milk.
• After supper the mistress of the house takes the butter churn and walks around the fields churning it, so that there will be an abundance of butter.
• No spinning should be done on this day because it will cause calf abortions and animals will slobber.
• After milking the cow should be poured with milk three times so that the witches do not drain the cow on the feast day of Saint John.
• On this day stroke the cows, so that they will be fat and have no pustules.
• Several Christmas wafers are saved and fed to cows, to keep milk from spoiling.
• If you want your horses to be good looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses.
• So that no one bewitches the horses, the master of the house feeds them ears of rye.
• Sheep should be sheared on this day so that new born lambs have curly fleece.
• To keep wolves from carrying away animals, mention wolves while eating.
• Carry a sieve around the fields to prevent the killing of colts by wolves.
• Wash windows, door handles and all the corners of the house, give this wash water to drink to the animals. This will keep evil eyes away from the animals.
Christmas Eve charmings and magic was done to better beekeeping. The beekeeper would take honey and bees to his poor neighbors. So that bees would not swarm on Christmas Eve night, the beekeeper took the first harvest grain sheaf around the orchard. Also placed a Christmas wafer into beehives. All throughout Lithuania until this day there is belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve day animals speak. Exactly at midnight, animals rise, kneel on front legs and pray in human voices. Their spoken words are not heard by everyone. The animal voices are heard by those who are poverty stricken and who are spending the night in the barn. The animals speak most often about their owner’s funeral.
On Christmas Eve, just like during other calendar feasts, much attention is paid to wedding themes.
There are several rare marriage charms:
• The windows are covered after supper, a rooster and hen are pulled out from under the stove, their tails are tied together. If the rooster pulls the hen to the door, there will be a wedding and if he pulls the hen back under the stove, there will be no wedding.
• Three items are placed on the doorsill, a ring, a piece of chalk and a piece of bread. A hen is brought out. If the hen picks up the ring, the girl will marry. If the hen picks up the piece of chalk, the girl will die. The girl will live poorly if the hen picks up the bread.
• A pot of water is brought to a boil, then two pieces of coal are dropped into the water. If the coals come together, there will be a wedding.
• Every girl in the room lights a candle. All the candles are placed on the table’s edge and blown out. The girl whose candle is not blown out, will remain unmarried.
• A ring is dropped into a half filled glass of water. The number of ripples shows the number of years before her wedding.
• At midnight girls place two sacred candles and between them a glass filled with water, birch ashes and drop a wedding band inside. Looking through the glass they either see their chosen male or a coffin.
• Three whole herring, without bread should be eaten before going to bed. A towel should be placed on two wooden rods, set over a bowl filled with water. They must dream of their future male while sleeping.
• Quietly tie up even knots, putting into each one money, a piece of coal, a lump of earth, a piece of clay from the stove, grain or seeds, a small rag. All these knotted pieces are placed in a tub, next to the girl’s bed, so that they can be touched without leaving the bed. The meanings of the different knots are: ring – wedding, money – richess, coal – fire, earth- death, rag – children, seeds, grain – good harvest.
• That night, two needles are dropped into a plate filled with water. If the needles come together, there will be a wedding.
The mirror, invented in the third millenium before Christ, reached Lithuania in the 13th century. Its mysteriousness is linked with the world of the dead, it became part of Christmas Eve enchantings, guessing the future, especially that of marriage. Young men and women, wishing to find out who will be their mate, when casting lots take two candles, a towel and a mirror to an uninhabited house. The candles are lit and placed near the mirror. Wiping moisture from the mirror with the towel, they would see their future mate. Worthy of attention in magic rituals’ execution is total nudity. After supper, the girl should climb up into the attic, undress and walk three times around the chimney, then in total darkness she will see the young man she will marry. It is said that one should run to the bathhouse, undress and stand totally naked on the doorstep, bend to look into the stove’s opening – there she’ll see her future husband. Total belief belongs to magic spiritual rituals, when the girl takes her hair and burns them while speaking the name of her supposed male. If that man lives near by, then he comes around the same night. If he lives farther away, he comes in the morning, and asks who was calling him.
The future mate can be seen after collecting crumbs from all Christmas Eve supper foods and burning them in the entry way in a fire lit with remaining Advent splinters. A man’s facial features can be seen in the rising smoke.
Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th , according to the civilian Roman calendar. Ethnographers maintain that Christmas is an ancestral holiday. It is sun and nature Gods’ birthday. Lithuanian Christmas rites have much in common with the rites of other Indo European nations.
On Christmas morning, the Christmas Eve supper table was cleared away and checked to see if souls of the dead left any signs of having been at the table.
Pork or wild boar meats were ancient traditional Christmas foods. Later written sources mention ritual pork meat dishes eaten during spring festivals and the start of agrarian labors. Tradition of slaughtering pigs before Christmas was widespread throughout Lithuania. Pig’s head, decorated with greenery, was the main Christmas dish. In Samogitia the traditional ritual food is hodgepodge with pig’s tail sticking out of the serving dish. This was prepared by that member of the family who stayed home to look after the property while other members attended midnight mass.
Christmas merry making usually began on the second day of Christmas or on the eve of the first day of Christmas and continued until Epiphany, the feast of the Three Kings.
Youth groups called alms collectors, darlings, gypsies or by other names, walked through villages under the pretext of wishing good harvests while greeting all homeowners. They received gifts for their greetings. Each group’s leader had the duty to request permission to enter homes only when invited. Before entering houses they would chase evil spirits in the villages and behaved uproariously. When an invitation was given to enter the house, they sang and wished good harvest. In the Highlands, the youth group was collected by Santa Claus, saying to each of them, ” I will lead the lambs”. Each youth clung to Santa’s coat and soon a flock of lambs was collected. Santa was a popular Christmas wanderer, dressed in an inside out fur coat, humpbacked, carrying a crooked cane and a bag to hold gifts. Santa knocked on doors with his cane. When asked who is knocking, he would answer, “this is Santa, I came from the other land, where there are hills of flour, rivers of honey, lakes of beer, rains in candy, snows in bagels. I carry a bag filled with luck, harvest and other goodies. Please open the door and don’t chase me away to the other land”. Once inside the house, Santa gave nuts to the children, sang and danced with them. In the region of Vilnius, on the first day of Christmas, children walked near windows bleating like lambs. The owner of the house, under whose windows they bleated knew immediately that the coming year would be very lucky and was generous in gift giving to those children.
In seacoast villages, Santa was replaced by a night watchman who walked near every house, singing Christmas hymns and wishing success to everyone. He was awarded delicious foods for all his doings.
In the region of Šilalë young people visited to express Christmas greetings to each other. They sang beautifully and once inside were invited to eat potato sausages, potato cakes, drink beer and sing and dance.
On the second day of Christmas, the feast of St.Stephen, the first Catholic martyr, oats were taken to church to be blessed. It was also the last day of work for the hired hands, who were paid in grain, especially oats. They would donate part of their grain to church so that God would bless them and their earnings. In some regions at the beginning of this century, the mistress of the house greeted new hired hands with blessed oats, while the master of the house sprinkled their heads with blessed oats, with the wish that everything would be well.
At the end of 19th century, in villages throughout Lithuania, Christmas celebrations lasted three and four days under the pretext that ice would not destroy the grain fields. During the time between Christmas and Epiphany certain works were allowed while others were not. Almost no work was done after sunset and on holiday evenings: no spinning and no grinding. Only feather tearing could be done.
These traditions continued until Christian times. It was written in the Jesuit Chronicles, “These pagans still celebrate twelve day evenings after Christmas, they do no work but continue their holy rest. They use that rest to ask God for health for their sheep. They believe that without rest the new born lambs will have no head or legs. It is almost impossible to change their behavior and beliefs”.