Christmas traditions in Lithuania and Poland

In Lithuania, Christmas is still a privileged time for living traditions. The influence of neighboring Poland and the Christianization of ancient customs are key to many of these customs that, every year, Lithuanian families revive around the Nativity of Our Lord.

Marija Meilutyte-December 24, 2022-Reading time: 9 minutes
kalėdaičiai christmas lithuania

Photo: The kalėdaičiai or Oplatek of Polish origin. ©Wikimedia Commons

Poland and Lithuania share some of the most widespread Christmas traditions. The vigil of December 24th and 25th are marked by various manifestations of affection, faith and devotion, so deeply rooted in both peoples that, centuries later and after multiple historical vicissitudes, they are still present in Polish and Lithuanian families.

Lithuania: From kalėdaičiai to the 12 courses of Christmas Eve.

To understand Lithuanian customs around Christmas Eve and Christmas, two things must be understood. On the one hand, that Christianity came to Lithuania from two directions: from the East, i.e. Byzantium through the Eastern Slavs, and from the West, i.e. Rome through the Germanic and Western Slavs, especially the Poles. On the other hand, Lithuania was one of the last nations to become Christianized in Europe, in the 14th century, so that in many of these traditions paganism and Christianity are intermingled.

The word used to denote Christmas, Kalėdoshas its origin in East Slavic коляда, derived from Ecclesiastical Slavic kolędawhich in turn comes from the Latin kalendae through the Byzantine Greeks. Kalendae refers to the first day of each month in ancient Roman and ecclesiastical reckoning. Even today, the text of the "Roman Martyrology" that summarizes the history of humanity and the hopes of salvation, which find their fulfillment in Christ, is still called "calenda" or Christmas proclamation.

The word used to refer to Christmas Eve, Kūčioshas its origin in East Slavic kuтя (Ukrainian: кутя, Old Russian: кутья). Its birthplace is Byzantium, not Rome, and it is related to. Kūčiaa dish made with cereals (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) mixed with water sweetened with honey. This dish is also traditional in Belarus and Ukraine.

In pre-Christian times around the winter solstice, the dead were commemorated and some harvest-related rites were also celebrated. For example, the Kūčia dish served to nourish the spirits of the ancestors. From this ancestor worship still remains the tradition of leaving the Christmas Eve table untouched during the night so that the souls of the departed could feast or pray for the departed in the table blessing prayer, especially for those who died in that year.

Another pagan custom later Christianized is to put hay or straw under the tablecloth: originally it was for the dead to rest, today it is placed in memory of the manger where the Child Jesus was placed after his birth.

Christmas Eve dinner

Many of the proper Christian traditions came through Poland, so today Lithuanians and Poles share many of these customs.

Christmas Eve dinner begins with a prayer, usually led by the head of the household. After the prayer, the kalėdaičiaiThe kalėdaitis: elongated wafers decorated with images of the Nativity of Jesus. Each of the people offers his kalėdaitis to another of those present while blessing him and wishing him something for the coming year; when all the diners have exchanged a piece of the wafer, the dinner begins. Normally, these wafers are sold in churches from the beginning of Advent, after being blessed by the priests. If a person is not going to celebrate Christmas Eve in Lithuania, his relatives are responsible for sending him the kalėdaičiai so that they will not be missing from his table.

The wafers symbolize the body of Jesus Christ, as the Christmas Eve celebration brings together the table of Christ's Last Supper and the manger of Bethlehem.

The kalėdaičiai are a reminder of this, they speak to us of the Living Bread made flesh; breaking and exchanging a piece of the wafer symbolizes the communion of Christians with and in Jesus Christ.

On the Christmas Eve table there must be twelve dishes (understood as twelve different kinds of food), according to the Christian interpretation, in honor of the twelve apostles who sat at the table of the Last Supper.

In both Poland and Lithuania the Advent season is a time of abstinence and, in the strictest tradition, December 24 is a day of "dry abstinence", i.e. not only no meat, but also no dairy products or eggs. For this reason, most of the dishes are based on fish, especially herring, mushrooms and vegetables.

Typical beverages include aguonpienas (poppy seed milk), made from water, sugar and crushed poppy seeds and the kisielius (kisel) drink made from berries or fruits to which potato or corn starch is added, so that the drink has a very thick consistency.

On the Christmas Eve table, you can't miss the kūčiukaiThese small balls made of flour, yeast and poppy seeds became especially popular after the restoration of Independence, when they began to be celebrated again freely during the Christmas holidays.

A curious legacy of the Soviet era is the popularization of the Russian salad, which in Lithuania is known as the "Russian salad". white salad or ensaladilla casera, as a Christmas Day dish. The reason was that it was made with canned peas and mayonnaise which were hard to find foods and therefore considered luxury items.

Even today, these traditions are still observed in most families and Christmas is a time of strong Christian experience in the country.

Poland. The shepherds' Mass and the breaking of bread

Text: Ignacy Soler

It used to be and still is an expression used today, that all feasts are known by their vespers. In Poland Christmas Eve is known by the name of Vigil and has deep-rooted customs in any family, believer or not.

Christmas is the feast of the birth of a Child in whom we Christians recognize the Son of God, God made man for our salvation. For many, Christmas is no longer a Christian feast, but it is still a time of affirmation of the goodness of human life, especially of the newborn: a gift for the family, the country and the whole world. Each child is unique, unrepeatable, a novelty that makes everything else different. Christmas is also a time to wish each other peace, joy, happiness, a better world, without wars, without sorrows and evils: the utopia of a world unattainable for humans of all times. But what man cannot, God can.

The Christmas Vigil, as the name suggests, invites us to be vigilant and prepared for the celebration. Christmas Eve begins in Polish homes, often covered in those days with cold white snow, with the Vigil supper at the appearance of the first star, at about five o'clock in the evening. Everyone sits at the common table after a day of hard work. From the early hours of the 24th everyone is involved in preparing for the Vigil. A few days before, the Christmas tree has already been put up and dressed with all its lights, ornaments, gifts and the star at the top. If not done before, on the morning of the 24th it is mandatory that the Christmas tree is put up. The traditional nativity scene, especially the figures of the Mystery - Jesus, Mary and Joseph, also have tradition and roots but less than the Christmas tree and not as widespread as in Italy or in Spanish-speaking countries.

After a few hours of preparation, and not only of the food but also of the house, especially of the cleaning of the windows (this is something I don't quite understand, why in Poland the windows are thoroughly cleaned on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday), they gather at the Christmas table with the best of dishes and cutlery. They gather but do not sit down because the Christmas Eve Supper begins - all together and standing - with the reading of the Birth of Jesus according to the Gospel of St. Matthew (1:18-25) or St. Luke (2:1-20). It is usually read by the father of the family or by the youngest.

Break bread: Opłatek

Next comes the so-called Opłatek, in English oblea, which comes from the Latin oblatum - gift offering. The wafer, also called angel bread or blessed bread, and in our case, Christmas host, is a sheet of white bread, baked with white flour and unleavened water, which is shared at the Christmas Eve table. Everyone remains standing and each participant in the Vigil takes a wafer from a tray prepared with them. Each diner holds his wafer with his left hand and with his right hand breaks off a piece of the wafer of another participant, while expressing his best wishes for that person, with improvised words, short or long, emotional or official, according to the wishes of each one. And eats that small piece broken from the other's wafer. The action is mutually responded to by the other person. And at the end they shake hands, logically the right hand, which is the one that is free.

The Christmas host is a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, of friendship and love. Sharing it at the beginning of the Christmas Eve Vigil supper expresses the desire to be together, it has not only a spiritual but also a material significance: the white bread emphasizes the earthly nature of desires, of having and sharing. Each one should be like good and divisible bread, something that can be given. It has, logically, references to the petition in the Lord's Prayer and to the Eucharist.

The tradition of sharing (parting - with), i.e. of mutually breaking part of the wafer or Christmas host has its roots in the first centuries of Christianity. Initially unrelated to Christmas, it was a symbol of the spiritual communion of the members of the community. The custom of blessing the bread was called eulogia (blessed bread). Eventually, the bread was brought to the Christmas Eve Mass, blessed and shared. It was also taken to the homes of the sick, or those who for various reasons were not in church, or sent to family and friends. The practice of celebrating the eulogy, popular in the first centuries of Christianity, began to disappear in the ninth century under the decrees of the Carolingian synods, who wanted to avoid confusion between the consecrated bread (the Eucharist) and the blessed bread (the eulogy).

Christmas Vigil Dinner

The Vigil supper is a joyful, familiar and penitential supper, yes it certainly sounds curious but it is a supper of abstinence from meat. It is customary to offer this mortification of not eating meat on that day in preparation for the great solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. Not eating meat is something that in Poland continues to have its importance, since it is lived every Friday of the year, and the Poles find it difficult, it is not indifferent to them. The dinner of the Vigil consists of twelve different dishes, many of them fish, and all of them very well prepared and of excellent taste. It starts with the soup, which is usually a borscha red beet soup. Then come the pierogiwhose name comes from the ancient Slavic root pir-Festivity, which consists of a kind of pasta, a croquette stuffed with different types and varieties of vegetables, has a certain resemblance to Italian ravioli. Among the fish, the fried carp stands out. As a beverage, it is also obligatory to drink the kompota traditional juice obtained by boiling some fruits such as strawberries, apples, currants or plums in a large amount of water to which sugar or raisins are added. As a dessert, you cannot miss the kutia, is a kind of sweet pudding made with cereal grains, or the makówkia cake made with poppy seeds.

At the dinner table of the Vigil, under the tablecloth is usually placed some straw, reminiscent of the manger of Bethlehem. It is also a tradition to leave a place free and ready for the unexpected guest. It is something very Slavic: the kind welcome to the visitor, who is always invited to sit at the common table. After dinner the whole family gathers around the Christmas tree where the various gifts are scattered under its branches. Someone of the family, usually dressed as Saint Nicholas, is in charge of distributing them reciting poems or jokes in allusion to the honoree. At the end, Christmas carols are sung, kolendaThe songs are old Christmas songs, with a rich theological content, which are also sung in churches. In some kolenda talks about how on this special Christmas night the animals speak with a human voice and understand our vocabulary. Perhaps this is an interpretation of the words of the prophet Isaiah (1:3): The ox knows his master, and the ass his owner's crib; Israel does not know me, my people do not understand me..

The cock's mass, which in Poland is called the PasterskaThe shepherds' mass is always celebrated at midnight. Many families go to the churches, the temples are materially crowded and in the streets of the cities and the countryside there is a coming and going of cars and lights.

The Eucharist is the high point of the Vigil celebration. Previously there have been the so-called rekolecjeI was told that I had a three-day retreat in all the parishes, with confession at the end. A few months ago I overheard a casual conversation in the street: where are you going Marek? - I'm going to church, to confession. - But how can that be, if it's not Christmas or Easter? And the fact is that going to the sacrament of penance during these two important liturgical seasons is also a deep-rooted custom. Certainly, frequent confession is important, but it is more important that at least infrequent confession a couple of times a year be made. The facts speak for themselves: in this country you still see endless lines for confession in Advent and Lent. I myself have had the experience during these days: the parish priest where I live called me and asked me if I could help him during those days to hear confessions. We were four priests dedicated to confession for quite a few hours during those three days. If there is penance, there is a sense of sin, there is a need for a Savior, for the coming of Jesus.

The authorMarija Meilutyte

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