Growing up in Soviet era, I used to celebrate Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s farm in a small village near Prienai. Called Kūčios in Lithuanian (pronounced as koo-chios), the 24th of December is more important than Christmas day, and is the time best suited for bidding farewell to the year that has passed. It is also an exceptionally family-orientated celebration, with a long standing tradition that encourages inviting a lonely neighbor to join in with the diners.
Being an elderly lady who took care of a self-sufficient little farm, my grandmother made sure everyone obeyed the Christmas Eve rules. She’d bring a small stack of hay and spread it on the table, covering it with a crisp, white tablecloth, and the day would be spent preparing the food, and cleaning.
There are no starters, main courses or puddings, as it is customary to prepare a total of twelve dishes, each symbolising one of Jesus’ apostles. All the food must be prepared with local produce, and any exotic ingredients should be avoided. The most popular Christmas Eve dishes include fish, herring, pulses, vegetables, mushrooms, sauerkraut, dried fruit, small bread biscuits with poppy seed milk, and bread.
The main, traditional dish of the night, called Kūčia (koo-cha) is made from poppy seeds, grains, pulses, and hemp seeds mixed with nuts, honey and water. No meat is allowed on the menu. During the evening, everyone can help themselves to any meal they want in any particular order, but they must have at least some of each.
As for cleaning, most Lithuanians will clean their house thoroughly before Christmas Eve – no skipping behind the books and sofas! In fact, it is very common to try and complete all outstanding work: settle all debts; make up with relatives, neighbours and enemies; forgive those you can‘t make up with; and ask for forgiveness if you‘ve been acting inappropriately in order to reach the New Year with peace of mind. As with cleaning, it is believed that you should not carry over any dirt, misunderstandings, or untidiness into the next year. Should you wish to ignore those rules, you are thought to experience financial and personal troubles throughout the next year.
Another very old tradition during the dinner is to pull a straw out from a bundle, as it is believed that you can see your fate: the longer the straw, the longer you will live. Life and death have huge significance on this night, and we would always remember those family members who had passed away during the year. An additional set of plates would be laid out for the departed, because it is believed that on Christmas Eve their souls come back to visit. For that reason my grandmother would never clear the table after the Christmas Eve dinner – it must be left for the night as a sign of remembrance.
The most religious part of our Christmas Eve traditions is the sharing of thin Christmas wafers at the beginning of the dinner with family members following a prayer. The wafers usually have scenes from the Bible pressed on them, and are distributed by local Catholic Churches. I’ve been getting mine in the post for several years now, and I know that Lithuanian St. Casimir’s Church in Bethnal Green,
The night of Christmas Eve is believed to be a time of true magic, and there are many myths and legends related to it. Traditionally, Lithuanians believed that animals could talk on that particular night, and it was possible to predict many things: one’s future; the length and quality of life; the possibility of marriage; good wealth, health, and so on. I used to love the ‘marriage indicators’. One of them is to run outside and listen carefully: if you hear dogs barking in the South, that’s where your future groom will come from. I would never have imagined that they could bark from THAT far away, as my fiancé is from
It is not acceptable to consume alcohol on Christmas Eve – a tradition which I find extremely hard to follow in the
Celebrating Kūčios in the
Having spent seven years in the UK, I admit I don‘t do enough to be thoroughly authentic. But, then again, I’ve just ordered a pack of Christmas Eve wafers to be posted to me, tucked away between the pages of a book.
This is a longer version of a piece I wrote for The Daily Telegraph, published along with other contributions from Polish, Slovakian and Bulgarian authors.