Dining With the Dead: Lithuanian Christmas Eve Traditions

Šližikai (Poppyseed Biscuits)

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.

Beet Salad

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.

Dead Ancestor

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!

Source: http://ausis.gf.vu.lt/eka/customs/christmas.html

Images courtesy of Google Images.

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12 thoughts on “Dining With the Dead: Lithuanian Christmas Eve Traditions

  1. Becca

    Oh I want an ethnicity so much. I love this and I love how you’re teaching your kids too! And now, to borrow from the Lithuanians, I will go get naked in the attic.

  2. Saulene

    great job! I don’t know have you seen this, I wrote this article few days ago and it’s mostly about traditions that are still alive in Lithuania (I live in LT), well at least in my family. Maybe you will find something interesting.
    You will thind some differences, but it’s becouse every region have a bit diferent traditions and over the years they have change in every family…

    good luck
    Linksm? šv.Kal?d?!

  3. Kat

    Nudity seems to be a common theme, huh? Seems a little pervy. I’m in! ;)

    I like the thought of setting a place at the table for a deceased member. I think it is a really nice idea. But I’m kinda morbid like that. ;) hehe

    Seriously, it sounds like a lovely way to celebrate!

    Have a very Merry Christmas!

  4. Jencaras

    We are all trying very hard to keep these traditions alive and thus hoping that our children will keep a place in their hearts for these valuable assets of our culture. Aciu labia

  5. ginamonster

    It’s always fun and interesting to read your posts! I’ve always told myself that when I marry I would like to have a table set at the reception for the deceased. They don’t need food, of course, but I think it would be a nice way to honor them and have their presence.
    Of course, each year that goes by that I don’t meet Mr Right pushes me faster and faster into spinsterhood and I fear before too long I will be too old and dried up to be of interest to the marrying sort!

  6. Katfish

    This half-Polack half-Slovak will be haunting her kids if they don’t pull together our 13 course Christmas Eve dinner like I always did FOR THEM!!!

    And big thumbs up for Vernors and cold fish-got some ready for New Years. It is not a holiday without Vernors

  7. Allyn

    I never knew that there could be a gathering which is like this, we have different types of culture, tradition and as well as customs but then we share the same belief and urge to promote strong family ties. I do hope that each year no matter how far we are from the past’s tradition but then let’s not forget to establish a strong family bond and annually scheduled a family gathering. Remember that a family that stays together will eventually live forever.

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