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Merry Christmas



Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas day in Lithuania. Dec. 24th is the shortest day of the year. All traditions are related to it. CHRISTMAS EVE. The house has been cleaning the whole week. Preparations for Christmas Eve take all day, food prepared not only for the special supper (Kūčios) but also for the first day of Christmas. People fast and abstain from meat. It is vitally important that the Christmas Eve supper include no meat dishes because it could then no longer be called Kûèios but an ordinary meal prepared for any other evening.

Christmas treeOn Christmas Eve the house must be thoroughly cleaned, all the bed linens changed and all family members must bathe and don clean clothes before the evening meal. For the Christmas Eve dinner, the table is prepared as follows: a handful of fine hay is spread evenly on the table. This is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger on hay. The table is then covered with a pure white tablecloth, set with plates and decorated with candles and fir boughs. A small plate with as many Christmas wafers as there are persons present is placed in the center of the table. In some Lithuanian regions these wafers were called God's cakes (Dievo pyragai) for they were obtained from the parish and were imprinted with Biblical scenes of Jesus' birth. Although plotkelë was the popular and better known term, the word is borrowed from the Slavic.
Supper on Christmas Eve is special and traditional. The whole family gathers together. All family members make an effort to come home for the Christmas Eve supper, even from a distance. Perhaps not so much for the meal as for the sacred family ritual which draws the family members closer, banding everyone and strengthening warm family ties. If a family member has died that year or cannot attend the meal (only for very serious reasons) an empty place is left at the table. If you know that there is a person alone anywhere, you must invite him/her to Christmas Eve supper. Eating together and sharing with others is the most important thing.

Twelve different dishes are served on the table because Jesus had twelve apostles. All the dishes are strictly meatless: fish, herring, sližikai with poppy seed milk, kisielius (cranberry pudding), a dried fruit soup or compote, a salad of winter and dried vegetables, mushrooms, boiled or baked potatoes, sauerkraut (cooked, of course, without meat) and bread. In keeping with Lithuanian Christmas tradition, only the dishes as they were prepared in Lithuania for this meal should be eaten and fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, exotic seafood should be left for another meal. It must not be forgotten that Lithuania is a northern European country where cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, etc., do not grow in winter. The people whose lifestyle produced the Kūčios traditions made do with foodstuffs prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter.

Everyone gathers at the dinner table as soon as the first star appears in the sky. If the night is cloudy, the meal begins when the father or grandfather announces it is time to eat. When everyone is assembled at the table, a prayer is said. The father then takes a wafer and offers it to the mother wishing her a Happy Christmas. "God grant that we are all together again next year", the mother responds and breaks off a piece of wafer. She offers the father her wafer in return. The father then offers his wafer to every family member or guest at the table. He or the oldest member of family wishes the best wishes for everyone. The mother does likewise. After them, all the diners exchange greetings and morsels of wafer. If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes an apple after the wafers have been shared, cuts it into as many pieces as there are diners and gives the father the first piece. This symbolized the fall of the first parents when Eve gave Adam the apple which he took and ate. Then, the apple pieces are distributed to those at table.
He order of eating the other dishes is not established, everyone eats what he wishes, but it is essential to at least taste every food. Whoever skips a Kûèios dish will not survive until the next Christmas Eve. The meal is eaten solemnly, there is little conversation or joking and alcoholic beverages are not served. If anyone needs to drink, water, homemade cider or fruit juice is served.
For a hot meal, I usually prepare dumplings, shaping them into ears, with dried boletus inside. These dumplings are served with hot broth make from red beet roots and boletus broth. It is particularly tasty.

As soon as we eat the main dishes, we pause to wait for the coming of Christmas Man (your Santa Claus). When the children were small, he used to come with a big sack full of gifts.
Now that our family are all adults, he "leaves" the sack behind the door. Everyone gets many gifts which we have prepared for each other.

    Everyone is very pleased. After this large dinner, we eat special sweet courses: very sour thick cranberry kissel (jelly made with potato flour), mixed, stewed fruit compote, and a special Christmas Eve dish of with poppy seed milk, poppy seed milk with very small dumplings (lumps) sliþikai.
In earlier times, the man of the house always took food from the Christmas Eve table for the animals to the cattle shed. The belief was that people and animals would be friendly in the year to come, doing nothing bad to each other.

This night is always mysterious. Even the animals begin to speak in the cattle shed at midnight. You can go and listen to them. Christmas Eve is rich in prognostications. The night is very full of lots. It is a tradition to cast lots. As soon a the family has supper, the mother pours grains of wheat on the table. The more you pick up, the richer you will be next year.

The girls draw straws from under the tablecloth. The shortest straw mean the girl will marry, the thickest meant the girl will be happy. If you are angry with someone on Christmas Eve, you will be angry in the new year.

If it is a starry night after supper, it means the new year will be good. Hens will lay many eggs, forest mushrooms will be plentiful, the apple and nut harvests will be large next year. If it snows after supper, the cows will give lots of milk. There are lots of other lots that night.
After presents were changed, the children usually went to bed while the adults went to Midnight (which is still called Bernelių mišios - Shepherds' Mass).
It should be mentioned here that at Christmastime Lithuania is already in the grip of winter.

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The fields are covered with sparkling snow, streams, rivers and lakes are under ice. Country roads were also snows covered and the people usually traveled in sleighs. On Christmas Eve night bells were attached to the horses' harnesses: sometimes one or two or an entire string of bells. Sometimes small, high-pitched handballs or a good-sized bell. From all sides on Christmas Eve night resounded with the chiming and tinkling of bells: near and far, soft and loud . . . The mysterious, quiet night air of Christ's Birth resonated with endless ringing, the murmur of sliding sleighs and Christmas joy.

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