There are not very many nations in the world that celebrate Christmas Eve so devotedly as the Lithuanians. The celebration of Christmas Eve is part of the late autumn and winter holiday cycle which includes the commemoration of the dead and the celebration of the winter soltice and the New Year. Christmas Eve customs center round the celebration of the birth of Infant Jesus, and intertwine with the symbolism of Last Supper, the clan- destine social meals of the primitive Christians, agapae, Adam and Eve (December 24 is the name day of Adam and Eve).
Christmas Eve is the day for family reunions, both their living and dead members.
Everyone observes the unwritten law: Christmas Eve determines what kind of year it is going to be. It is a day of thorough cleaning, both inside and outside the house. People try to be nice to each other, pay all their debts and have confessions with the priest. On this day neighbours do not visit each other without a good reason. It the Christmas Eve table is poor, the whole year will be poor.
After the day's chores and a good bath the master of the house or the grandfather brings in an armful of hay to be spread under a new white tablecloth. To make it more aromatic "so it could entice more good spirits", the hay is sometimes mixed with mint. A basket with hay is also placed under the table "for the Infant or the Lamb to lie on". In some localities a little hay is spread in or under the plate with Christmas Eve wafer which is placed together with bread and sometimes a little cross in the center of the table.
Lithuanians know more than one hundred recipes of Christmas Eve dishes. Some are popular all over Lithuania such as for example preskuciai or slizikai (1 or 1,5 square centimeter biscuits with poppies) served with poppy seed milk, also herring, fish and mushroom dishes, oatmeal or cranberry puddings. Others are popular only in some regions. For example Zemaitians are fond of hemp seed dishes, soups and herring, Dzukians prefer mushroom soups and buckwheat dishes, Suvalkians are fond of peas, apples, Aukstaitians of wheat dishes.
Late in the evening, with the appearance of the Evening Star in the sky, which showed the way to the shepherds to Bethlehem, families sit down to supper. There are usually seats reserved for the absent members of the family. The seats are marked with a fir twig or a myrtle. The family members who have died that year are treated as being simply absent, except that the seats reserved for them are marked with a fir twig and a burning candle.
The master of the house makes a sign of cross over the table and says a grace to thank God for the food and the harvest of the year and asks Him to bless the house for the coming year. The supper -starts with the thin Christmas Eve wafers, hallowed in church. The wafers are handed out by the father or the oldest member of the family. On accepting the wafer the members of the family exchange their best wishes for the season. There are usually 12 dishes on the table, one dish for every month of the year so that the family should have enough food all the year round.
At the Christmas Eve table people behave gracefully and respectfully. Grandparents and parents are the first to speak. They remember the dead and absent members who cannot take part at the supper. The conversation centers round the birth of Infant Jesus, the coming holidays, the most important events of the past year and the harvest. People look hopefully to the future and their visit to church on Christmas day. Beekeepers discuss the industry of bees.
After supper and a grace of thanks for the food, both the grown-ups and the children enjoy telling fortunes by drawing out stalks of hay from under the tablecloth. The grown-ups are interested to know what the harvest is going to be like the next year, the younger people mostly want to find out their prospects for marriage. In many districts of Lithuania the Christmas Eve table is not cleared for the night, for people believe that the souls of their ancestors and other dead members of their family come home for supper on this night.
Not a single living being, thing or spot inside or outside the house is neglected that day. Apple tree trunks are tied with the straw which has been used to strain the boiled peas for the supper to protect them against the sharp teeth of hares and to increase the harvest of apples for the next summer. Beekeepers go to listen to their bees, treat them to bits of food from the Christmas Eve table, the farm animals get the hay from the table and the fowl the yummy bits and leftovers. People discuss various unheard-of things - water that has turned sweet all of a sudden or has turned into wine, animals speaking a human language and other curiosities.
After leaving the table young people enjoy fortune telling by trying to embrace an even number of fence palings, to fetch an armful of an even number of fire wood blocks, by burning bits of paper, by throwing wooden cogs, melting wax and lead. All this is done mostly to find out one's prospects for marriage the next year.
The Christmas tree is the greatest joy for children. The tradition of deco- rating a Christmas tree came to Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century Christmas tree decorations used to be made of pieces of straw strung together on a thread into intricate geometrical figures, coloured egg shells and pastry were used to make birds, horses, squirrels, lambs, moons, suns, stars, flowers and other figurines. Christmas trees were also decorated with apples, fir or pine cones, nuts and paper cuttings. The Christmas tree has always been the place where family members leave presents for each other.
Christmas Eve customs reflect the best moral traditions of the Lithuanian nation. It is a day of thanksgiving and national unity.
J. Kudirka "THE LITHUANIANS"