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Twelve dishes and no booze; a Lithuanian Christmas

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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, East London, gives them out to the members of community.

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 South Africa!

It is not acceptable to consume alcohol on Christmas Eve – a tradition which I find extremely hard to follow in the UK, especially if some of the guests are not Lithuanian (which is very common). I also struggle to make herring rollmops and smoked mackerel look exciting for non-Lithuanians – unless, of course, I pay a visit to a local Lithuanian delicatessen shop, but even then my fiancé jokes that they’re stinky.

Celebrating Kūčios in the UK has become a rather tricky occasion, as I can‘t bring all family and relatives together to dine with me. Many of my non-Lithuanian friends are too busy to attend a dinner on Christmas Eve; some of them only finish their Christmas shopping when my grilled fish is already served! It also depends on the nationality of your partner, too – if a couple is Lithuanian, I wouldn’t be surprised to see all the above taking place. For multinational couples, it‘s a pick and mix – all those colourless, mushy meals unfortunately go out of the window, and only fried cod, grilled swordfish, rye bread or beetroot salad make their way to the table.

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.

9 Responses

20 December, 2007, 7:48 pm, tke said:

puikus įrašas. Sveikinu.

10 January, 2008, 4:35 pm, Kestutis said:

It is so nice to read your take on how those from abroad maintain their traditions despite the British neccessity to shop and be stressed out at xmas time. I am a british lithuanian born here to displaced people who maintained the traditions of Kucios( including the bread). Your story brought back many memories. Aciu.

11 January, 2008, 12:16 am, Lithuanian Jotter said:

Kestutis, thanks for stopping by. I haven’t mentioned the Christmas shopping as exchanging gifts it is not an essential part of Lithuanian Kucios. In fact, I can’t even remember bringing gifts to my grandmother’s house for Kucios celebrations – it became customary much later.

11 January, 2008, 12:43 pm, Kestutis said:

Ne ruska. I love the traditions of old Lithuania such as the going outside on Kucios vakara and listen to the animals, I wonder ( because my parents were here then) wetherthe old soviet tower blocks of the towns and cities could accommode those going outside to hear their future, maybee they did this from their small balconies.
Cetainly the pagan traditions of being connected to the land have a strong resonance with people and provide for some an antidote to the march of modernity.
I remember the Christmas party at the Lithuanian club in Manchester was always in January ( it still is).

11 January, 2008, 5:03 pm, Lithuanian Jotter said:

Well, in the Soviet times a vast majority of people living in block buildings used to go to their grandparents’ or other relatives’ farmsteads in the countryside where it would be easier (and safer!) to celebrate Kucios. I remember that the parents had to warn their small children not to spill the beans about such celebrations while at school as teachers had to monitor and write down if they knew some pupils were too religious. So celebrating Christmas Eve in the countryside, virtually in the middle of nowhere, made it more difficult to be ‘obviously and openly Catholic’.

28 January, 2008, 6:24 am, Rita said:

Oh, yes, I remember all those things taught by my grandmother, but it doesn’t apply these days, because it’s a modern world now and not so many traditions are kept this way 😉 Saying that, I mean, that I was borne in Lithuania but I was brought up in Britain (London) and I consider myself English, but so many things from the childhood remains and it’s so nice that Lithuanians have all these traditions that we English forgot many many years ago… So I hope, my kids will grow up with more family values and gatherings than I had as a Lithuanian kid rowing up in UK, and reserved British people will finally understand that all Europeans are quite a like, our cultures are not so different and we all should remember our families on Christmas Eve every year 😉

24 April, 2008, 10:29 pm, vitas nagys said:

Ihave experianced 40 xmas eves at my mothers house,from large dinner parties to later in life buffets{she is 83 }.One dish that will never be missed out is the vinagrette.Not the green one found in u.k.salad bars,but the one containing 12lbs of beetroot,haricot beans,onions etc.Try making this dish look green.Official taster for the last 10 years.Don,t wear a white shirt.

15 January, 2009, 6:26 pm, garbane said:

“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.” => wrong. they symbolise each month of the year. thats why by trying every single dish you make sure you have a prosperous year ahead.

18 December, 2014, 8:00 pm, Joanna M Valius said:

We are second generation Canadian Lithuanians who still speak the Language and keep the older
Lithuanian Catholic customs.
One additional menu we included in the evening kucias was to make the younger children happy was the delicious hot.potato “kugelis” Without bacon.Everyone loved it and the next day it is fried up for breakfast.
Su Sventem.

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