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Christmastime in Lithuania

By Michael Durnan

Snow is falling, jingle bells are ringing, and the holiday season is making its presence ever so felt in the Baltics. Nowhere in Vilnius is the holiday spirit more alive than along Pilles Gatve, filled with bundled-up strollers window shopping and taking in the spectacle of the Lithuanian capital's two gargantuan Christmas trees. The first lighting up Cathedral Square, the second a few hundred meters away overlooking the Old Town Hall, linked together by the cobblestone stretch of Pilles. Every year, a few weekends before Christmas, the lighting of the Cathedral Square tree is accompanied by a holiday concert, filling the plaza with onlookers and revelers braving the chilly December air to mark the start of the holiday celebrations.

As far as Christmas shopping goes, the Old Town is teeming with life when an open-air holiday market springs up outside the Vilnius Town Hall in the third week of December. Vendors determinedly hawk artsy decorations, glasses of piping hot wine, souvenirs and other holiday memorabilia. Additionally, an internationally themed Bazaar is held on the first Saturday of December (to be held December 6th), coordinated by the wives of the Ambassadors working in Vilnius's embassies. Set in the Old Town Hall, every country represented in Lithuania hosts its own stall, offering traditional food or drink from their respective countries.  

Primarily a family-centered holiday, Christmas Eve in Lithuania is also considered to be "a day of miracles" as the surreal fusion of Christianity and ancient Pagan traditions lives on vibrantly in households throughout the country. Generations ago, people once believed that animals would magically begin talking on December 24th, while curious children would therefore go running to the barn and listen attentively for signs and wonders.

Nowadays, it is an important day of spiritual cleansing and fasting, as Lithuanians clean their homes from top to bottom and refrain from eating meat or drinking alcohol. Families celebrate with a traditional evening meal (known as Kucios) consisting of 12 different dishes (one dish per each of the 12 Biblical Apostles) including beetroot salad, herring, cranberry pudding, pickled vegetables, other fish dishes, and a dessert of poppy seed milk consumed with small clumps of bread. Additionally, a thin wafer-like bread is sometimes eaten as an appetizer, known as God's Cake (Dievo Pyragai). In remembrance of recently deceased relatives, empty plates are somberly left at the dinner table. After dark, an evening Christmas mass is generally broadcast from the Vilnius Cathedral into the homes of the faithful. 

One of the more interesting traditions practiced in some homes is the laying of hay underneath a clean white tablecloth (to remember the humble setting of Jesus Christ's birthplace). Family members take turns drawing out sticks, with a long piece signifying good luck and the promise of a long, happy life; alternatively for girls the shortest straw means they are soon to be married! The celebration continues the following day, when presents are exchanged, all food and drink are permitted. A Christmas Day feast traditionally consists of roast goose or duck. And so the holiday season passes, a time of contemplation and merriment, of family togetherness and giving homage to ages past, present, and future.