Category Archives: Lithuanian traditions

Name Days

Every so often I like to scour Etsy for vintage Lithuanian ephemera, as one does. If I’m feeling generous, I will also add “Latvian” and “Estonian” into my search parameters. That’s how I came to be the proud owner of three pre-war Latvian day planners and one set of German trivia cards about Native Americans.

kalendars

indianer

It seems that the primary purpose of the calendars was to keep track of name days, which were very important (still are?) in Eastern Europe, and celebrated like birthdays. There is a Lithuanian word – “vardadienis” – that literally means “name day.”

Since my daughter’s name is Latvian in origin, it was never listed in the Lithuanian calendar. Now that I finally know her name day, I will be sure to commemorate it by giving her flowers and a doughnut with sprinkles for breakfast.

aprilis

My son’s name day is June 24th. On this day, if he were in Lithuania, he would get a free drink and try to jump over a bonfire. My husband’s name day is March 17th and every year he gets a parade.

My name day is May 28th, but so far nobody has ever sent me a card or even given me so much as a pat on the back.

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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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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).

himmeli

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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