The most important part of the Christmas season for Lithuanians is the Christmas Eve supper, called Kūčios. The supper starts when the first light of the first star is seen in the sky, because it is believed to be the Star of Bethlehem. Prior to eating, two rituals are preformed. The first is breaking communion wafers.
The communion wafers go by several names – plotkeles, paplotelis, or plokstainels. While plotkeles is actually the most used name, it’s of Slavic origin and devout Lithuanians insist that using a true Lithuanian name is “better.” The wafers are sometimes called Dievo pyragi, meaning “God’s cakes,” because they were blessed in a church and are stamped with a nativity scene. The wafers are presented in one of two ways; either set down in front of each person or placed in the center of the table on a round plate. There is one for each person.
After a prayer is said, the father (or head of the family) takes and offers his wafer to the mother (or spouse) while wishing her a Happy Christmas. The mother responds with “God grant that we are all together again next year” and breaks off some of his wafer for herself. The father then offers his wafer to every other family member or guest at the table and the mother does the same with her own. Once they are finished, the guests join in the greeting. To skip anyone means misfortune or death in the coming year.
When breaking off a piece of wafer, each person tries to get a bigger piece than what is left behind. If they succeed, it means they will be lucky in the New Year. The holder of the wafer does everything he or she can to make sure a larger piece isn’t taken to break the luck of the person removing a piece. Anyone who doesn’t break off a piece of each guest’s wafer will die.
The second ritual is optional. December 24th is considered Adam and Eve Day, so some families will place apples on the table. The lady of the house slices an apple and offers the first slice to her husband, the same way Eve offered the apple to Adam. She then hands out slices to the rest of the guests. Most of my sources said the point is to recall Adam and Eve, “our first parents,” and the sin they committed which caused mankind to fall. We were saved only because New Eve, Mary the Mother of God, was willing to submit to God’s will and give birth to Jesus. The contrast between Eve and Mary makes for a powerful lesson.
Now, I have some ideas about that. Apples are highly symbolic. They show up in myths from all over the world, from Greek to Norse to Arabic, and everywhere in between. In each of these myths and stories, the apple represents immortality and fertility, and in some instances springtime and heavenly bliss. Gods, royalty, and commoners sought apples in the hopes of becoming ever more powerful. Not to mention, apple symbolism is extremely sexual. For example, they were used in fertility rights in pagan times, Paris gave a golden apple to Aphrodite because of her beauty, and the Greeks believed the apple was innately feminine because the inside resembled female genitalia. And then, of course, there is the story of Adam and Eve in which apples stand for a loss of innocence.
It seemed odd to me that the apple turned from a super-sexualized object to a highly religious symbol. So, I formed my own hypothesis.
What I suspect happened with the apple, and this is only what I suspect because I couldn’t find much history on the subject, is that pagan inhabitants of Lithuania included apples in some way in their winter solstice festivities. Maybe they ate them in anticipation of the harvest to come or to symbolize the fertility of the earth. Like so many other pagan traditions they may have translated their use of the apple into a Christmas ritual and attached religious meaning to it. It’s an interesting use of an object that has been for so long a symbol of sin.
Anyway, that’s just my hypothesis. I could be completely wrong, but to find out I’d have to do some hardcore research out in Lithuania and unfortunately I don’t have the time. But believe me, I would totally do it.
Once the rituals are completed, it’s time to begin the Christmas Eve supper. It consists of twelve meatless dishes; one for each of the 12 Apostles of one dish for every month of the year, ensuring the family has enough food all year round. The meal is served on a table that has been covered with a layer of straw to symbolize the manger and fertility (again with the fertility!) and covered with a pure white tablecloth. The table is decorated with fir boughs and candles and places are set for those who have recently died.
The meal may include herring and other fish, slizikai (small hard biscuits) with poppy seed milk, kisielius (cranberry pudding), dried fruit compote, mushroom soup, boiled or roasted potatoes, dried and pickled vegetables*, beet soup, sauerkraut, bread, and various cakes and cookies for dessert. Some regions also serve kucia, a traditional dish made of a mixture of cooked grains served with honey. Drinks are water, juice, or cider but never alcohol. Anyone who doesn’t try at least a bit of each dish will
Wait for it….
*Fun note: That originally said “died and pickled vegetables,” an edit I missed originally. It was pointed out to me, but I thought it was funny because, well, dying.
All the guests and family members remain at the table until each person is done eating. If you leave before someone is done eating you will be the first to die. Any remaining food after the meal is left on the table for spirits of dead loved ones to enjoy.
The meal is followed by lots of predictions and prophecies, many of which have to do with dying. By the way, Lithuanians are incredibly superstitious. Almost everything means death. Check it out here.
Here is a quote from the same website that I absolutely love:
“Children whining that they do not like and are unaccustomed to such food should also be ignored. An explanation of the meal’s significance and a calm statement that everyone will eat only what is served on the table should forestall or at least lessen this problem.”
Or you could just tell them that if they keep complaining they’ll die.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Andrews, Tamra. “Apples.” Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000. 8-10. Print.
-Bowler, G. Q.. “Lithuania.” The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 133. Print.
-“Christmas Eve – Kucios: Lithuanian Customs and Traditions.” JAV LietuviÃ¸ BendruomenÃ«. Voras Internet Services, Ltd., 29 Oct. 2002. Web. 19 Dec. 2011. .
-Crump, William D.. “Baltic.” The Christmas Encyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. 24-25. Print.
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