Category Archives: Lithuanian traditions

There is Something Even More Frightening than Wedding Vows

About this time eleven years ago, I was having a conniption fit. It was the day before my wedding and I had no qualms about marrying the P-Dawg, but  the hem of my gown was crooked when I went for my final fitting and the traditional Lithuanian dances I had planned for the reception were keeping me up at night.

It’s not enough for a Baltic maiden to fret over her gown and her flowers and her vows and her seating arrangement. She must also coerce eight to twelve of her closest relatives and friends to dress up in their national costumes and perform a minimum of two carefully choreographed traditional wedding dances in front of the assembled guests.

Someone must be recruited to teach the dances, the dancers must track down and squeeze themselves into national outfits for which they were fitted when they were sixteen, and rehearsals must be held. It’s a fair amount of hassle, but the ten minutes of entertainment it translates to during the wedding reception is priceless, indeed.

The first dance – Sadut? –  is a formal farewell to the bride from her closest female friends. She wears a wreath made out of rue (national herb of Lithuania which symbolizes chastity and is poisonous to boot). The music is slow and solemn as the women weave patterns and dance in a circle around their friend. They end by kissing her on the cheek in turn and giving her a single flower as a gesture of goodbye.

The dance is kind of sad.

At the end of it, the bride’s mother is supposed to remove her wreath of rue and replace it with a matronly kerchief, which symbolizes the end of maidenhood. The good times are now officially over and the young married woman can look forward to weaving textiles and peeling potatoes until the end of her days.

My mother and I decided to forgo this tradition, choosing instead to launch directly into the happy wedding maypole dance – Rezgin?l?.

Both newlyweds and all of their friends, male and female, participate in this dance, which begins with the bride and groom dancing in circles apart from each other to a slowish beat. Then suddenly the music picks up in tempo, and the male and female groups join together with the bride and groom in their center holding traditional woven sashes aloft.

Next comes the part that can make or break the marriage: the friends must dance around the newlyweds with men and women moving quickly in opposite directions and weaving the sashes over and under, then reversing their steps to undo the knot. The pace is lightning quick, everyone’s been drinking krupnikas (home-made honey liqueur) since five o’clock, and no one can ever remember who is supposed to turn which way first. It never fails that during rehearsals, at least one hapless dancer pivots in the wrong direction and crashes into the person next to them, thereby messing up “the knot.”

There is great pressure when the dance is performed during the reception not to screw up. The dancers hiss commands at each other leading up to the maypole moment and the audience sits on pins and needles, holding their breath. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Will the sashes intertwine evenly, or will the marriage fall apart?”

If the maypole weaving is successful, happiness abounds and there is whooping and hollering from the dancers and audience alike.

If you think this sort of thing was stressful for me and my folk dancing friends, just think what must have been going through the mind of the Irish-American P-Dawg, who had learned the basic two-step the night before last.

But despite all of our botched practice runs (“Other way! OTHER WAY, PEOPLE! Okay, now girls go in and guys bow out. Reverse! REVERSE!”) no one ended up with a concussion and the P-Dawg’s and my knot turned out (more or less) right.

Later he told me it was the single most frightening experience of his entire life.

(Happy anniversary, P-Dawg! I love you from the bottom of my heart.)

M’ladies

P.S. The hem was fixed. I was late for my wedding rehearsal, but the gown was fixed.

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The Feast of the Dews

Lurking behind almost every Christian holiday on the Lithuanian calender is a pagan tradition thinly disguised. My ancestors, you see, were very late to the game on Christianity, accepting it in 1387 primarily as a political move. And one of the things I love most about Lithuanian culture are these stubborn remnants of the forest primeval that still manifest in feasts, songs, and traditions today.

Take, for example, the Summer Solstice, which now masquerades in Lithuania as the Feast of Saint John (on June 24th). In ancient times, the summer solstice (also known as “Kupol?” and “Rasos” or “Feast of the Dews”) was all about fertility, the power of medicinal herbs, and the assurance of a good harvest for the coming year.

Magical things were said to happen in the forest on midsummer’s night.

The fern flowered at midnight and was said to bring luck in life and love.

People took turns jumping over bonfires to ward off sickness of all kinds.

Young people made wreaths out of flowers and threw them into the river to see whose wreaths joined. Do I even need to tell you what it means when two wreaths join?

The maidens who didn’t stay up all night tried to rise before dawn so they could wash their faces with the morning dew, which was considered magical and restorative only on the morning of midsummer’s night.

And there was a lot of hocus-pocus in the bushes.

Of course, the traditions have evolved over the years. I don’t think anyone in Lithuania washes her face with morning dew anymore, but I do know that there is still singing, drinking, wreath-weaving and making out in the forest on midsummer’s Eve. And my friend Chef V tells me that if your name is Jonas or Janina, you can drink in any Lithuanian bar on this night for free.

So happy summer solstice! May your tushie not touch the fire when you jump over it tonight.

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How to Make Lithuanian Easter Eggs

Today I will show you how to make traditional Lithuanian Easter eggs, or “margu?iai” (mar-gu-chei).

But shhhh! Don’t tell the Ukrainians. They think they have some kind of monopoly on this thing.

You probably already have at your disposal all the implements needed to make margu?iai, except beeswax. Beeswax is  the key ingredient, so you won’t want to skip it. I’ve heard of people using paraffin as a wax substitute, but those people were never seen or heard from again.

I ordered my beeswax from the mighty Internet, but you can also find it at natural food stores, craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabrics, or your local beekeeper.

You never know when you’ll need a pound of beeswax. But for decorating eggs, just a few ounces will do.

Okay! Let us take a few deep, cleansing breaths to find our center.

We are ready to begin.

First, boil some eggs and let them cool.

Next, cut a potato in half and place it on a plate, cut-side down.

Now take a large metal spoon you can do without and bend it at a ninety-degree angle.

Don't Try This at Home

(If you are not familiar with ninja mind control, I bet you could also just use your hands.)

Stick the handle of the spoon in the top of the potato, put a few pieces of wax on the spoon, and light a small candle directly underneath it, close enough to the spoon to melt the wax.* Like so:

Next, grab a pencil and stick a sewing pin with a smallish head into the eraser end.

When the wax is completely melted and piping hot (may be smoking just a little bit), you are ready to begin decorating.

Dip the pin head into the hot wax and hold it there for a few seconds. Then take it out and brush it on your hard boiled egg with surgeon-like precision, using careful, measured strokes. You’ll need to re-dip the pin head in the wax for each stroke you want to make on the egg. The hot wax always goes on in a teardrop shape, which lends itself nicely to flower, sun, and vine patterns.

The key is to transfer the hot wax onto the egg quickly, before it cools and hardens on the pin head. And once the wax is on the egg, THERE IS NO GOING BACK.

Why? Because the parts of the egg that are covered in wax will not take color, so even if you try to hide your faux-pas by scratching it off, when the egg is dyed, the mistake will become visible for all the world to see. You’ll probably be run out of town  and on your tombstone will be written, “She screwed up a Lithuanian Easter egg and tried to cover it up.”

Shame.

When you feel you have applied a sufficient amount of wax patterns on your egg, dip it in food coloring mixed with hot water and a few tablespoons of vinegar. If you want to go Old Country on your eggs, you can boil all manner of plants and flowers – like red onion peels or beets – to create distinct and vibrant colors. I use Lawry’s food coloring drops.

When you take the egg out of the dye, it should look something like this:

Not too shabby, right?

But, wait! The fun doesn’t end there. You can make multi-colored margu?iai using one simple trick I’m about to show you out of the kindness of my heart.

Wait for your beautiful colored egg to dry.

Take it back to your workstation.

Put some more wax on it. Keep your hand steady and make it nice, for Pete’s sake.

Now, dip the egg in another color dye. The wax patterns you put on during the second go-round will take on the color you dipped the egg into the first time.

Dare I say the end result is magical?

Smart. Beautiful. Lithuanian Easter Eggs.

(If you’ve made these before, please add your tips and tricks in the comment section below!)

* You can also use a fondue pot or similar device, which is a better for regulating the temperature of the wax.

 

Special thanks to R?ta Degutis of the Lithuanian-American Citizens Club of Cleveland, who hosted the workshop where I did my decorating this year. Because if there’s anything I like better than decorating margu?iai, it’s decorating margu?iai while sipping Lithuanian beer. If you live in the Cleveland area, stop by the Gintaras (Amber) Dining Room on Fridays from 5-8 or Sundays from 11-2 for traditional Lithuanian fare.

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