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Earliest ChristmasesThe actual date of the birth of Jesus is not known and during the first few centuries of Christianity it was celebrated at various times of the year. The modern date of December 25th was first adopted by Liberius, Bishop of Rome, in the year 354. This date was also adopted by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 379, and in 506 the Law Book of Alarich designated it as a public holiday.
The ancient Romans celebrated a number of midwinter festivals: Saturnalia on December 17 - 24, winter solstice or Brumalia on December 25, and the Calends of January on January 1. Saturnalia celebrated the sowing of winter crops, Brumalia celebrated the return of the Invincible Sun, and the Calends of January celebrated the start of the New Year. In time, Christian celebration of Christmas eclipsed all of the above, but some of the ancient customs, such as decking houses with evergreens, giving presents and feasting, became a part of the Christmas tradition. The Lithuanian name for Christmas, Kaledos, comes by way of Slavic languages from the Latin word for Calends, Kalendae.
Lithuanian Country ChristmasThe older Lithuanian Christmas customs and traditions reflect the rural lifestyle of most Lithuanians of that time. Lithuanians lived on small family farms, grew their own crops, raised their own livestock. What they did, what they ate, etc., was intimately tied to the cycle of the seasons and to the products of their own labor. It is also well to remember that Lithuania is situated in northern Europe and during Christmas is in a grip of a cold winter. The ground is covered with snow, lakes and rivers are frozen. All nature seems to be in a deep sleep except for the evergreen fir and pine trees. There are no fresh flowers, no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables.
Christmas EvePreparations for Christmas started early in the morning on Christmas Eve: the house was thoroughly cleaned, all bed linen were changed, food was prepared for several days, the livestock were tended to, water was heated and everyone bathed and dressed with clean clothes. Family members who were away made every effort to come home.
To commemorate baby Jesus in the manger, a handful of fine hay was spread evenly on top of the supper table before covering it with a white tablecloth. The table was then set with plates and decorated with small fir tree branches and candles. A plate of Christmas wafers was placed in the center.
An extra plate was set for any family member that was unable to come home or had died in the past year. A small candle was placed on the plate and was lit during the meal. It was believed that the spirit of the departed joined the family at the table on this sacred evening.
Supper started when the sun went down and the first stars appeared in the sky. When everyone was assembled by the table, the head of the family said a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of the past year and added a wish that the family would stay together and would be present at next year’s Christmas Eve supper. Then he (she) broke and shared his (her) Christmas wafer with everyone present and wished them a merry Christmas, and they, in turn, shared their wafers with each other and exchanged Christmas wishes. Now it was time to eat.
The meal served on Christmas Eve did not include meat, milk products or eggs. Even so, the meal was memorable. It consisted of twelve dishes, one for each Apostle. Typical dishes were beet soup, mushroom-filled dumplings, herring and other fish, bread, boiled or baked potatoes, cooked sauerkraut, mushrooms, dice-sized hard biscuits with poppy seed “milk”, cranberry pudding, and whole wheat with honey. Food was washed down with homemade cider. The meal was eaten leisurely and solemnly. Everyone was expected to eat some of each dish served; it was considered unlucky to skip a dish. Leaving the table before everyone was finished eating was also considered unlucky.
Christmas Eve Miracles and PrognosticationsWhen eating stopped, the mood lightened and diners turned to old legends and to prognostications about the coming year. This was a very special night and on such nights extraordinary things were thought to be possible. Children were told that at one mystic moment that evening the water in the well would turn to wine and that the animals in the stable would speak like humans. Marriageable daughters would go outside and bring in kindling wood to be counted – even number indicating a marriage in the coming year. Straws of various lengths were placed under the tablecloth and drawn to predict the length of one’s life or the length of one’s single life in the case of the young family members. A clear and starry sky on Christmas Eve was thought to portend a good year.
Christmas Trees, Santa Claus, and PresentsThe custom of cutting a small fir tree and bringing it home to decorate for Christmas was brought to Lithuania from Germany after World War I. Santa Claus, referred to as the Old Man of Christmas, and the giving of presents became part of Lithuanian Christmas about the same time. These practices were first adopted by people in the cities and then slowly spread to the rural areas. Santa Claus brought presents only for children, who were required to earn them by performing for everyone present. They had to perform whatever they were able: recite a poem, sing a song, do a dance, or play an instrument.
The use of evergreens as decorations on festive occasions is a very old custom, however, predating Christianity. Especially in the colder climates of northern Europe, where during winter all plants and trees except for fir and pine die back or seem to go into a deep sleep, evergreens held a special place in the imaginations of the people. Because they were green all year, they were believed to have magical powers of life and fertility.
The unique straw ornaments, so typical of Lithuanian Christmas trees today, have an interesting origin. Juze Dauzvardis, the wife of Petras Dau˛vardis, Consul General of Lithuania in Chicago (1937-?), was asked to decorate a Christmas tree with Lithuanian ornaments as part of an international Christmas tree exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Wanting to distinguish the Lithuanian tree from all others, she with the help of Sisters of St. Casimir came up with the idea to use ornaments made of straw. Ornaments made of wheat or rye straw were used as house decorations by Lithuanian farmers during weddings and other festive occasions. Mrs. Dauzvardis decided to make her Christmas tree ornaments from white paper drinking straws and with the Sisters came up with a variety of designs: stars, snowflakes, chains, bird cages, bell towers, and other geometric patterns. The Lithuanian Christmas tree with its distinctive white ornaments became a great hit at the exhibition and straw Christmas tree ornaments became a Lithuanian tradition.
Christmas Eve NightAs midnight approached, the uneaten food on the supper table was left to stand overnight and the family left for midnight mass, known as Shepherds’ Mass. It was believed that souls of departed family members, relatives, and ancestors would visit the house during the night and the table set with food would make them feel welcome. In the country the trip to church was by horse-drawn sleigh accompanied by the jingling of tiny bells on the horse’s harness.
First Day of ChristmasIn the country on Christmas morning, the hay used on the supper table was taken to the stable and fed to the cows, oxen and sheep, the animals present at the birth of baby Jesus. The supper table was then examined for hay seed, numerous seed left on the table portended a plentiful harvest next year.
The first day of Christmas was considered most sacred and, therefore, all unnecessary work was avoided. Only food prepared days in advance was eaten. Much of the morning was spent at home singing Christmas hymns and carols. As the day progressed neighbors would start to visit each other and exchange Christmas greetings. And finally, usually at the home of the most prosperous neighbor, the musicians would appear, signalling the end of the Advent season and the return of entertainment and all types of merrymaking.
Christmas SeasonChristmas season lasted until the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. Every evening during this period was devoted to recreation and merryment. Christmas trees were kept decorated throughout this time.