In Lithuania, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and “Second Christmas” on December 26th are much celebrated, and the Christmas season officially lasts for over a month, from the beginning of Advent in late November through Epiphany on January 6th.
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As the season gets rolling in early December, cities and towns throughout Lithuania put up large, fully decorated Christmas trees and public nativity scenes. Before long, “Christmas spruces” appear in private homes as well, along with artificial trees in more recent years.
Christmas Eve is called “Kucios” in Lithuania and is time of the main Christmas celebration instead of Christmas Day. During the evening, the Christmas feast, also called “Kucios,” takes place. The whole house will have been thoroughly cleaned before dinner, and everyone will be wearing their best clothes. Sometimes, an empty chair will be left for a family member who cannot be present or who has passed away since last Christmas.
The meal begins with a prayer, and then each person at the table eats a special wafer, called a “Kaledaitis,” which has religious Christmas designs baked into it. Then everyone wishes each other a merry Christmas before beginning to eat. Some fast all day before Christmas Eve dinner, and it is traditional that the meal be meatless and have 12 dishes. The number 12 can symbolise either the 12 disciples of Jesus or the 12 months of the year.
Lithuanian Christmas decorations include straw strewn throughout the house to remind of Jesus’ birth in a manger and a white tablecloth with candles and fir tree branches on it. Straw is also put underneath the tablecloth, and those who are lucky enough to pull a long straw from under the tablecloth believe they will live a long life. Those who pull out a short straw, however, get the opposite. Those who pull out a fat straw are promised a happy life, while the length is not specified.
After Christmas dinner, or sometimes between dinner and dessert, the “Old Man of Christmas,” who looks suspiciously like the Western Santa Claus, often shows up bearing gifts for young children. Adults, however, simply exchanges presents among themselves. After the gift-giving ends, children generally retire for the night, but adults often go to church for a midnight service.
Should you find yourself in Lithuania for Christmas, here are some ideas on what to put on your “to do list:”
- Dine with a local family or at a hotel or restaurant that serves traditional, full-course Lithuanian Christmas meals. Three of the 12 dishes normally include herring, and there is always some herring salad. Other common dishes to look for include: “kissel,” a kind of soup made out of dried fruits, beet and mushroom soup with dumplings, baked potatoes, sauerkraut, wheat porridge, poppy seed milk, which tastes a lot like eggnog, hard, poppy seed cookies called “kuciukai,” and kisielius, a festive cranberry beverage.
- Attend midnight church services to welcome Christmas morning with a focus on the “reason for the season.” Afterwards, you will normally see large nativity scenes set up just outside the church building.
- See the Vilnius TV Tower, which is lit up and decorated each year to resemble a 1,000-foot tall Christmas tree. It is sometimes referred to as “the world’s tallest Christmas tree.”
- If still in Lithuania for the official end of the Christmas season, Epiphany on January 6th, you will see street parades with representations of the Three Kings of the East. You may also see the letters K, M, and B chalked out in front of doorways. The letters stand for the traditional names of the Three Kings: Kasparas, Merkelis, and Baltazaras. Christmas trees will not long be seen, however, for this is the day when Lithuanians take them down.
Lithuania has many unique Christmas traditions that tourists will find interesting to learn of and fun to take part in, and experiencing a Lithuanian Christmas will create memories that will last a lifetime.