Category Archives: Lithuania

They’re Ba-ack!

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In Lithuania the stork has its own holiday – March 25th. This is the occasion, give or take a day or two,when storks the world over return to the homeland to roost. It used to be a really big deal back when people relied on ritual and superstition to get them through the year. Blessed was the farmer whose homestead was chosen by a stork. Because this farmer, if he played his cards right by abstaining from bacon and performing certain rituals such as killing a snake and burying it under his doorstep, was destined to prosper in the coming months.

But even in the twentieth century, the stork featured prominently in Lithuanian folklore and storybooks. Growing up, one of the best songs we used to sing in our Lithuanian playgroup was about a stork. It went like this:

I have seen the stork walking through the mayflowers two times already.

Prance, prance, run, run, run,

Prance, prance, run, run, run,

Goes the stork through the high mayflower leaves.

It was a great song because as you went around in a circle you imitated the stork’s movements.

But I was still shocked, the first time I visited Lithuania in March of 1995, to discover that Lithuanians weren’t kidding about storks. They were everywhere! My great-aunt Veronika’s farm had a resident stork, and he actually returned home to roost while my mother and I were having tea there. I am telling you it was amazeballs.

The last time I visited Lithuania was in August, right before the storks left. They had been busy procreating all spring and early summer, and pretty much every other telephone pole in my Aunt Vida’s village had a giant stork’s nest with stork babies in it.

My husband the P-Dawg and I just couldn’t get enough of those storks. I took so many stork photos that after awhile it became necessary to mix things up with meta-stork photos.

Here is a picture I took of the P-Dawg taking a picture of some storks.

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So happy (belated) Stork Day! And may your kitchen garden and/or local Community Supported Agriculture co-op’s crop be abundant this year.

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Turn on the TV, Lithuania’s Free

Free LT CarOn March 11th, 1990, I’m in the kitchen eating Ramen noodles straight out of the package when the phone call from my mother comes at dusk.

Ijunk televizij?,” she tells me. “Lietuva laisva.”

My whole family has traveled to Washington to rally at the capital for independence, but I’m home alone, stuck in town for the SATs. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev started talking about glasnost, Lithuania’s push for independence has been clipping along at a steady pace. Lithuanians in the US are doing their part by demonstrating and lobbying their senators to recognize Lithuania as an independent country. The Soviet Union is losing ground in the face of the grassroots freedom movement, and you can feel it in that air that something’s about to give.

Many Americans are still unaware of the Baltic countries, and some are confused as to why freedom is theirs to demand. After reading a piece in Time magazine comparing the Baltic quest for independence to the southern confederacy and the secession of the southern states, I am incensed. I write an indignant letter to the editor and read Time religiously for a year, anticipating a response. I launch a school-wide Amnesty International letter writing campaign on behalf of Lithuania and parade through the halls wearing my Freedom For Lithuania T-shirt.

But organizing formal protests in Charlotte, North Carolina is difficult for Lithuanians because there are only ten of us. Seeing photos of my camp friends with their picket signs on the pages of the Lithuanian Worldwide Daily was depressing enough already, but now I’ve missed the moment of a lifetime, the thing that every Lithuanian in the world had been awaiting for half a century, but that no one thought could ever come to pass.

Lithuania has declared itself independent, the first of the Soviet occupied countries to do so. People are dancing in the streets of Vilnius and Washington, and Mama tells me they’ve just finished singing a spontaneous rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem in front of the capital, holding hands.

I see it all in my mind’s eye: the flags, the tears, the lighters burning their arcs of triumph in the darkness. It’s almost as though we freed the country ourselves. After hanging up with Mama, I stand alone in front of a flickering TV set and though I only know Lithuania through her language, songs and lore, I weep for her. In my darkened living room with hand over my heart, I sing her anthem, believing well and truly that my voice will amplify the chorus and help this long awaited victory bear its proper weight. All at once, the people I see on TV singing and dancing in the streets are not Dwaynies, but daring revolutionaries in which I feel enormous pride. I want to claim Lithuania’s victory as my own, though when you lay all the facts out on the table, I’ve had nil to do with it.

The declaration alone is not a guarantee of freedom. The Soviet Union imposes an economic blockade on the country immediately, and Lithuania’s newly elected government’s efforts are thwarted at every pass. In January of the following year, after several days of unrest and warnings from Moscow, the Soviet Army is discharged. Soviet tanks storm the capital, zoning in on the area around the national TV tower where thousands of citizens have gathered in peaceful protest. And with the eyes and cameras of the international media trained on the Gulf War half a world away, the Soviet Army kills fifteen civilians and injures hundreds more in a last ditch attempt to reclaim Lithuania as a Soviet state.

We are incensed at the world’s inaction in the face of such valiant struggle. The only country to officially recognize Lithuania’s declaration of independence is Iceland. But within a year, the entire Soviet Union falls and Lithuania is well and truly free.

Technically, independence means my friends and I can stop switching to Lithuanian whenever an adult is within earshot. But this seems somehow wrong, like lying to a substitute. We wonder if we’re really supposed to hang up our crusade capes, to ball up our Freedom for Lithuania T-shirts and chuck them in the trash? Should we still strive to marry Lithuanians and teach our children to folk dance? Are we expected, after all this time, to actually move back? It’s disconcerting, at the righteous age of sixteen, to be suddenly left without a cause. One guy we know switches almost immediately to freeing Tibet.

Much argument and discussion takes place in our immigrant circles about the best way to proceed. Everyone agrees that the fatherland needs money and religion, so relief organizations step up their efforts. Nuns and priests go over to re-sow the seeds of Catholicism, and some of my peers move to Lithuania to participate in her rebirth. My friend Rita helps launch the first Lithuanian Mc Donald’s and Tommy B. Birch Tree moves to Vilnius to open a Mister Chicken franchise. Some retirees cash in their savings and move back, but most decide to stay. Others add stipulations to their wills that they be buried in Lithuania after their deaths. A few Lithuanians, already dead and buried, are dug up and shipped back.


(This has been a short excerpt from my secret, never-to-be-published book ;)

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How To Make Lithuanian Straw Ornaments

As promised, here are steps to make a very basic Lithuanian straw ornament with a four-sided base (šiaudinukas).

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Okay, these are made from copper tubing, not straw. But the steps are the same!

We are going to use paper straw instead of the traditional rye straw because it’s easier to work with and easier to find, and we’re going to use fishing line instead of thread because when you use fishing line, you don’t need a needle.

Supplies:

  • White paper art straws (you could use plastic as well, but I would judge you)
  • Clear monofilament fishing line (not braided)
  • Ruler
  • Scissors

First, cut twelve pieces of straw so that they are all equal lengths. I recommend anywhere between two to four inches per piece for this first attempt. Be very precise in your measurements because even small differences in length can make the final product lop-sided.

Now cut about and arm’s length of fishing line and string four of the straws onto it, threading them to almost the very end of the line.

Bring the two loose ends of fishing line together and tie them in a knot so that the four straws you strung on the line form a square. From now on, we’re going to call this our “foundation square.”

square

Tuck the short end of the fishing line into one of the straws in the foundation square to hide it.

Now string two more straws onto the long end of the fishing line and tie a knot at one of the corners of your foundation square so that your shape looks like a house with a roof:

house

From now on, we are going to call that roof part an “ear.” (Just go with it.)

Tie another ear onto your foundation square by stringing two more straws onto the end of the fishing line and tying a knot at the next corner of the foundation square. Your shape should look like this:

cat ears

Repeat this process until your foundation square has four “ears.”

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A foundation square with four “ears.”

(When you run out of fishing line, just tie more on making sure to hide the knot you use to secure it within one of the straws.)

When you have four ears around your foundation square, run the fishing line up through one of the ears so that it comes out through the pointy end.

Then tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it to form a pyramid. Your shape should look like this:

pyramid

Now thread the end of the fishing line back down to one of the corners of your foundation square and through one of the remaining “loose” ears.

Tie the ear out of which the fishing line is protruding to the ear opposite from it. Your shape should look like this:

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Cute, but not very exciting, is it? This form is the basic building block that, once mastered, makes creating elaborate variations possible. Here are some simple ways to add interest to a basic four-sided ornament:

Use longer straws for two of the four sets of ears:

Use longer straws fro two of the four sets of "ears" to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using brass straws.)

Use longer straws for two of the four sets of “ears” to make a teardrop shape. (This is an ornament I made using copper straws.)

Nest a smaller ornament inside a larger one:

Here's a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.

Here’s a small three-sided ornament nested within a larger one.

Hang a smaller ornament to the end of a larger one:

An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.

An ornament I made using copper straws and pieces of amber.

Or use longer straws for the foundation square and shorter straws for the ears:

himmeli ornament closeup 4

You can also hang smaller ornaments from the corners of a larger one:

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The instructions I’ve provided are for making ornaments using a four-sided foundation square, but more elaborate ornaments can be made by making the foundation square five, six, seven, and even eight sided. Alternately, a simple triangle/pyramid shaped ornament can be made using a three-sided foundation.

Good luck.

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Come Swing from my Sodas

This year the P-Dawg and I are hosting K??ios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve meal, and one tradition I really want to incorporate is the hanging of a sodas – a large geometric straw ornament – over the table where we will eat our meal (which will consist of twelve cold, vegetarian dishes made from ingredients readily available to the ancient Balts in midwinter, which is to say fish, nuts, berries, mushrooms, beetroot, and potatoes.)

Small straw ornaments have been popular in Baltic and Nordic countries for a long time as tree decorations, but what I’m talking about is a construct so ginormous and elaborate that it could knock over a small child (if it wasn’t made out of straw.)

Here is a Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year

A Sodas we saw in Vilnius last year

Sodai, or “gardens,” were geometric ornaments made from the rye straw that was so readily available in the farming culture of Lithuania, and hung over the table where the family gathered for K??ios. Though pretty to look at, sodai were also rife with meaning. I probably don’t even have to tell you that the larger your sodas, the better the next year’s crop and the more prosperous your farm. But a lesser known fact about sodai is that they were a symbolic link between the heavens and earth (the Finnish and Swedish word for them – himmeli – is derived from the word “sky” or “heaven.”)

Those of you who read my original post about Lithuanian Christmas Eve traditions will know that in Lithuania, the heavens and earth mingle on Christmas Eve. On this night, not only do we remember our dead, but we also set a symbolic place for them at the table. According to master sodas weaver Marija Liugien? of Vilnius, the sodas must have a very specific shape that includes a pinpoint at the top to channel energy from heaven and a pinpoint at the bottom to pass it down to earth. In her estimation, the properly constructed three tiered sodas is a close approximation of the Tree of Life. And Mrs. Liugien? is not impressed with the recent trend in making sodai all willy-nilly, like in a decahedron. These, she contends, are not true sodai, but just ornamentation, and Design Sponge, Anthropologie, and Apartment Therapy can all take their decahedron sodai and shove them.*

It is imperative that the sodas have natural perpetual motion when hung. Some sources say this is so that spirits would not get trapped inside, others say the motion is a natural result of the spirits having a good time swinging from the sodas. If the sodas I made does not swing naturally, I am just going to have to blast a fan at it during our K??ios meal. And speaking of the sodas I made, I have to tell you I’m not sure that Mrs. Liugien? would 100% approve of it because although it does have points at both the top and the bottom, it is a far, far, cry from the elaborate sodai that the ancient Lithuanians and some current ones made.

Look, I don't have time to make a sodas with five hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel just as many potatoes.

Look, I don’t have time to make a sodas with three hundred equilateral pyramids. I still have to roast five pounds of beets and peel ten pounds of potatoes.

My sodas is not made from natural rye straw, but from white paper art straws that I ordered from Amazondotcom. I have made straw ornaments from actual straw in the past and for the most part it has been a disaster because I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but real straw is quite brittle and not particularly conducive to being cut into equal parts with a pair of child safety scissors wielded by a lefty.

In my next post I will show you how to make a basic Lithuanian straw ornament, and that is not an empty promise.

* She didn’t really say that.

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