Kūčios – Christmas Eve, December 24th – is one of the oldest Lithuanian feasts celebrated in accordance with the solar calendar.
First and foremost, it is a winter solstice celebration, therefore its rituals, customs and beliefs were used to influence the highest powers of nature, darkness and light, to mark the end of the year of farm work and welcome the new year, to honour ancestors and the deceased, to ensure the wellbeing of the family, successful farming and crops, to reconcile with relatives and neighbours. The tradition combines the Baltic symbols with the Christian symbolism regarding the birth of Jesus Christ.
The significance of the Lithuanian Christmas Eve celebration has no equivalent in the Western world, similar customs have partially remained only in the Eastern Poland and the Western Belarus. The structure of the celebration, main rituals and beliefs have changed minutely up to the 21st century. Ethnological research and awareness raising contributed to the preservation of the element, although it partially led to the disappearance of certain regional differences.
At all times, Christmas Eve has been celebrated by all Lithuanians: those living in the country, in exile and in migration. It is a family celebration – children return to their parents’ home. Before sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner, the house and the yard have to be cleaned, everyone – washed up and the Christmas tree – decorated. The dinner is of not less than 12 dishes, each prepared differently depending on a region and consisting of crops, fish, forest and garden goods, but no meat, animal fat or dairy. The main dishes are kūčia, kūčiukai, poppy milk, pap (thick beverage from oats or berries and starch), herring, and mushrooms. The table is set in the good room and the dinner is served when the Evening Star has risen. Places are also set at the table for recently deceased family members.
The dinner begins by sharing kalėdaitis, a special Christmas wafer consecrated at the church, and wishing each other happiness. It is a must to taste every dish in order for the forthcoming year to be stuffed and rich. After the dinner, pieces of every dish are left on the table for the souls.
Despite that Christmas Eve is a family only gathering, it remains one of the most widely celebrated and waited Lithuanian tradition – all Lithuanians – home and abroad – take seats at the table.
Christmas Eve dinner table
Photograph by Arūnas Baltėnas, 2012
Submitted by Lithuanian National Culture Centre, 2017