The traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner is called “K??ios” (Koo-chos) and it’s one of the most important holidays of the year. Like most Christian holidays, it used to be a pagan feast marking the winter solstice and as such, it was fraught with ritual and superstition. The main focus was always family unity and so it was paramount that, come hell or high water, every member return to the ancestral home for the K??ios meal.
And when the Lithuanians said “everybody,” they meant everybody. My people believed that the souls of dead ancestors returned to be with their loved ones on Christmas Eve night. According to some accounts, before the meal began, the head of the household would quite literally open the front door to invite the ethereal posse inside. If a family member had died in the preceding year, a place would be set for them at the table. In one region of Lithuania, a glass of mead or beer was also set for the dead person and I mention this only because my family swears up and down that K??ios is supposed to be a non-alcoholic meal.
K??ios was also a night dedicated to forecasting and soothsaying, and a main obsession seems to have been divining one’s future in fortune and love. Various games were played and rituals were performed to ensure a good crop and healthy animals, not the least of which involved tying a chicken and a rooster together by their tails and seeing which one dragged the other one where.
My family celebrates K??ios, but like most Lithuanians nowadays, we stick with more basic traditions like twelve cold, meatless dishes (e.g., smoked eel and salmon, pickled herring, marinated mushrooms, beet salad, cranberry pudding, poppyseed biscuits in poppyseed milk). We still pass the plotkel? wafer around from the oldest to the youngest member of the family until everyone has broken from everyone else’s bread. One year we gazed for fortunes in hot melted wax and hid straws under the tablecloth which were later pulled to forecast who would have the longest life.
Now that Vija and Jonas are approaching the age of reason, it’s becoming increasingly important to me to drive these traditions home so that many years from now, when they’re sitting down to Beef Wellington with a nice Rhone red for Christmas Eve dinner, they’ll be overcome with guilt at the sight of my disapproving specter materializing before them and say, “Screw it! Let’s just have cold marinated fish and Vernors.”
To this end, I went online to research some of the more interesting K??ios traditions we could incorporate into our meal this year.
Here are the ones that won’t be making the cut:
- “On this day stroke the cows, so that they will be fat and have no pustules.”
- “If you want your horses to be good-looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses.”
- “Young men and women, wishing to find out who will be their mate, when casting lots take two candles, a towel and a mirror to an uninhabited house. The candles are lit and placed near the mirror. Wiping moisture from the mirror with the towel, they would see their future mate. Worthy of attention in magic rituals’ execution is total nudity.”
- “After supper, the girl should climb up into the attic, undress and walk three times around the chimney, then in total darkness she will see the young man she will marry. “
Merry Christmas, everybody! May your horses be good-looking and your cows fat with no pustules!Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)