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The Disappearance of Traditional Culture

As early as the 19th century, researchers began noticing that the new generation of Lithuanian women who sang didn't know as many traditional songs as their mothers and grandmothers had. However, traditional peasant culture only began rapidly vanishing from everyday life in this century. The influence of city culture, changing farming systems and the division of villages into farmsteads contributed to the disappearance of old collective field work traditions and accompanying songs as well as other forms of folk culture. Fifty years of Soviet rule dealt a fatal blow, almost completely destroying the old village farm structure and replacing it with a collective farm system. In addition, the demographic situation was changing. Young people migrated en masse to seek work or higher education in the cities, leaving behind the older generation.

Driving across Lithuania, one sees many small scattered groups of trees in the middle of fields. These mark the locations of farmsteads or the deserted remains of such inhabitation. Many of their former residents were exiled, killed in the war or resistance movements or moved to central collective farm settlements. These brick inhabitation lacked the character of the old villages.

However, especially in Dzukija, one can still find fairly well preserved wooden linear street-oriented villages which have been rebuilt and renovated to varying extents. Throughout Lithuania, villagers tend personal farm plots, though they are gradually reclaiming privatized land. Although some modern machinery is used, old farming methods are still predominant. The villagers produce most of their own food products using traditional techniques; they smoke their own meat, press farmer's cheese, and some bake their own bread and churn butter as well. Customary foods still surviving in the villages(especially those associated with Christmas Eve) have found their way onto the tables of city dwellers. Although today clothing material is purchased, in some villages there are still women who weave multi-patterned and colored bedspreads and other pieces. Clothing worn everyday and on special occasions follows city fashions and no longer retains distinct Lithuanian traits.

Many years of Soviet occupation did not noticeably lessen the influence of the church in village culture. Lithuanians, especially those of the older generations, actively attend Sunday prayers and celebrate church holidays. In some of these celebrations, Pre-Christian ties between people and nature are still evident. For example, during Whitsunday, houses are still decorated with birch branches; on Corpus Christi Day, farmers walk around their fields and have them blessed. As in earlier times, bundles of grass are still blessed during Zolines. On saint's days, bread, water, fire, grains and other objects are also blessed to lend them various magical properties.

Ancient field work customs have essentially disappeared, however labor is often still conducted in accordance with church holidays and parish calendar festivals. During the Soviet era, attempts were made to organize new ideological harvest celebrations, however they were never truly integrated into the lives of village inhabitants.

Efforts to desacralize everyday life resulted in the ascendance of New Year's Eve as one of today's most important holidays. However to most village as well as city dwellers, Christmas Eve has retained equal or even greater meaning as the first part of the new year cycle. The survival of this holiday can be explained by its family oriented, closed and, especially during the postwar years, secretive nature.

In some villages, the traditional Three Kings' masquerading procession is still held every year. Quite a few villages in Zemaitija can boast of uninterrupted Shrove Tuesday carnival and pre-Lenten merriment traditions. As with Christmas Eve, both village and city families still celebrate Easter; they dye Easter eggs using traditional and modern techniques. A week before Easter, on Palm Sunday, near churches, one can see groups of people carrying verbas. The Vilnius region is famous for its unique verbas (dried flower arrangements), which burst forth into color during the traditional Kaziukas fair held in Vilnius to celebrate the feast of St. Casimir, patron Saint of Lithuania.

Many of the customs associated with Jonines (St. John's Day) had already vanished earlier. Today there remains only the burning of bonfires, festivities, feasting and the honoring of men named Jonas. The mass character of Jonines was exploited by ideological culture which embellished it with uncharacteristic elements and vulgar forms. In this way, Rambynas Mount, once famous for its role in Jonines traditions, became the site of Communist Youth celebrations.

The only meaningful surviving autumn celebration is that of Velines and All Saints' days which are dedicated to the honoring of the dead. Traditionally, people visit the graves of deceased loved ones, tending them and lighting candles. This tradition survived in villages and cities in spite of all attempts to destroy it, including through atheistic propaganda. Most other calendar celebrations have only retained elements connected with church rituals.

Modern Lithuanian weddings no longer contain intricate customs as they once did. However, the main structural elements of traditional weddings still survive, especially in rural areas. Many couples choose to celebrate their weddings in their parents' native villages. Old rituals, their true meanings forgotten, sometimes acquire coarse forms; amusement and the bounty of the wedding feast's table are emphasized. The process of secularization did not succeed in convincing all couples to wed in civil registry offices; official registration is often followed by a church ceremony. Customs involving the visiting of the mothers of newly born infants are more common in the villages than in the cities. Many Lithuanians choose to be buried on their parents' land in their ancestral graveyards.

Picturesque dialectal speech can still be heard on the lips of older people, though the young, especially in Zemaitija, also use it. Village elders can still describe various beliefs, sorcery and legends about strange events. Up to this day, many of these people firmly believe in the veracity of this material.

Folk songs, dances and instrumental music have lost their former meaning and active role in everyday life. However, this portion of traditional culture has been excellently preserved; many people still remember songs, music and dances from their youth. For this reason, ethnographic expeditions to rural areas continue to be fruitful. It is not unusual for hundreds of songs and stories to be collected during one expedition. Sizable parts of singers' repertoires often consist of newer romance type songs. They are quite easy to differentiate from the older ones; sentimental lyrics suggestive of individual authorship and romantic melodies give them away. Such is the result of the interaction of city and village musical culture. Postwar partisan and exile songs also belong to this category. Of course these songs were never sung openly during the period of Soviet rule, but secretly they helped Lithuanians preserve their national pride and desire for freedom.



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Next: The Rebirth of Folklore in New Forms Previous: ARCHITECTURE AND FIGURATIVE ART

"LITHUANIAN ROOTS", Edited by Rytis Ambrazevicius


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Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.