THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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1st OF NOVEMBER IS
ALL SAINTS’ DAY
All Saints’ Day in Lithuania is one
of the most solemn of holidays
November 1st, people of the Christian Faith all over the world celebrate All Saints’ Day. In Lithuania it is one of the most solemn of holidays. This day is set aside as a day to honor the souls of family members that have passed away as well as remembering the Saints of the Catholic Church.
While in modern times, this day involves visits to cemeteries to decorate graves, attending Church and get togethers with family, the meaning of this day and some of its traditions go back to ancient times and it is interesting to see how some of these ancient traditions have intertwined with the traditions of the Christian Faith in Lithuania today. To this day, you will still hear most Lithuanians refer to All Saints’ Day as “Vėlinės” which was a holiday going back to pagan times that celebrated the souls of dead ancestors with feasts and special rituals. History is not exactly clear about this but it is known that the feasting and rituals did not take place on one specific day but rather continued over the course of a number of weeks. In ancient writings this ritual is called " Ilgės" - pangs of love or longings. The name comes from the fact that this ritual went on for a long time - long ritual. In Eastern Lithuania, this ritual was called " Dziedu" days, old men's days. This name was related to beggars who were asked to pray for the souls of the dead.
The ritual traditions of the dead were and still are today directly related to peoples' belief that on this day the souls of the dead return to earth to Churches, cemeteries or their homes. The most ancient belief is that they returned to their homes. Therefore the souls of the dead were and still are graciously received and treated according to rituals of our ancestors. In the 1500s some of the practices began to change to more of what is common these days. Now it became common for people to gather in cemeteries, where people would pray for the deceased and comment to each other about all the good qualities of the departed person. Afterwards a bountiful supper would be prepared for all to enjoy. Now when it is said “for all to enjoy” it is meant ALL – including the departed. This is based on the belief that “the soul of the dead cannot rest if the table is not set”. In the Žemaitija region of Lithuania there is this traditional prayer that is given by the father of the house.
“Dear souls of the dead, you are still remembered by the members of my family, you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance, especially you, my grandparents, my parents, also our relatives, children and everyone whom death took away from our home. I invite you to this annual feast. We wish that this feast is agreeable to you, just like memory of all of you, is to us”
After a short silence, the father asks everyone to sit at the table and the food is eaten in silence.
Another practice was that on the eve of All Saints’ Day tables would be set with food in the evening, in rooms with doors and windows ajar to allow the souls of the dead, easy entry. Also, soft beds were prepared with white bed linen for the anticipated guests. Blessed candles were then placed and lit on either side of the pillow and the family knelt near the bed awaiting the arrival of the soul of their dead family member. If they heard cracking in ceilings or floors, this meant that the dead souls had arrived.
Even as late as the early 1900s, in some parts of Lithuania, an assortment of food was brought to cemeteries and left there. Upon returning home from the cemetery a dinner of seven different foods of meat, grains and eggs was prepared and the table was set in a room with windows and doors open wide to allow the souls to enter as it was believed that the souls of the dead partook of the meal together with the living members. No one sat at the corner of the table as this spot was reserved for the souls of the departed. An assortment of food was also placed on that corner of the table and then everyone began to eat.
In Lithuania, the belief that souls of the dead come for a visit during All Saints’ Day has lasted to this day. The traditions of honoring the dead that are practiced today began in the mid 1800s. The most common practices are joint visits to cemeteries, decorating of graves, lighting of candles and prayers. So Monday 1 November I will do what millions of Lithuanians will do around the world - honor my ancestors. The day will start by me driving around to different homes in Vilnius to pick up some of my relatives that no longer drive. We will make the forty five minute drive from Vilnius to Guronys which is the ancestral home of my grandfather’s family Karnila and my grandmother’s family Petkevičius. As always, we will go to the two “old cemeteries” first. Here will be the meeting point for other members of the family since on this day, the same as with so many Lithuanian families, we have family members from near and far traveling to our ancestral home.
The oldest of the two “old cemeteries” in Guronys is where my great grand father Vincentas and my great grandmother Kristina are buried. I actually go to this cemetery quite often in the course of a year’s time. When ever I am driving through the area I’ll stop by for “a visit”. I think you can understand that it gives me a very warm feeling inside to be at the final resting place of my ancestors especially when I can look three hundred meters away and see the spot where their house once stood. I don’t mind telling you though that when I “visit” Vincentas and Kristina on All Saints’ Day there is very much a different feeling. On this day, you get this very strong feeling that they are there with you and they can feel your feelings and hear your thoughts. Now I’m sure that among our dear readers there are those in the scientific and medical fields that could very aptly explain these feelings. Sincerely I can tell you that I would like hear these explanations. Please don’t be offended though when I ask that on this day, All Saints’ Day, don’t give me the scientific explanation for these feelings. On this day I’m having too much fun “visiting” with my ancestors.
From one cemetery to another and another, candles will be lit, prayers will be given, gravesites will be decorated and at the grave of each person we will stand and talk about their fine qualities and the things they accomplished in their life, the same as has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years. The visits to one cemetery to another is not only for the members of the Karnila and Petkevičius families. This also includes visiting the graves of the wive‘s and husband‘s families as well so all and all it‘s an all day affair.
Once we have visited and paid our respects to all the departed most of the group, this is usually six to eight carloads of people, will gather at the home of one of the families that live near by. Here we will go inside and socialise and enjoy a wonderful meal. Of course, it goes with out saying
that at one corner of the table a place will be set with a plate, silver ware and drinking glass and no one will begin eating until food has been placed on and near this plate and drink has been poured into the glass. After all, this day is for our ancestors and it would be impolite to start eating before they are served at the table.
The drive home is very pleasant. There is much conversation about the family. Its history, notable events, hardships that were borne, accomplishments and joyous occasions. During the drive home you also behold a very glorious sight. The sun has set, it is dark and all along the way you drive by cemetery after cemetery that are all aglow with the candles placed their by the cemetery’s inhabitant’s loved ones. This is truly a magnificent and heart warming sight to experience. Probably the most pleasant experience of the drive home is the feeling you have inside you. You have spent the day with family. Not just the family members that had traveled from near and far to pay their respects, but you have spent the day with your ancestors and departed loved ones. I think you would all agree that to spend the day with your ancestors is always a wonderful experience and one which leaves you with a warm feeling in your heart.
The origins of All Saints’ Day go back to ancient times as do also some of the beliefs. While some would say that these “beliefs” are basically superstitions, to this day there are many people that still believe in many of them. I thought you may find interesting some of the beliefs that are held by some people in Lithuania to this day. While one may believe none of them, another in only a few another person may believe in many.
The beliefs of All Saints' Day are:
1- On the day of All Saints, the souls of the dead come to visit the living, asking that the living pray for them.
2 - Before All Saints' Day, a homemaker will sweep the house and sprinkle the floors with sand. In the morning, if she sees the floor covered with small footprints, but there are no small children in the house she would believe that souls of dead children had come into the house.
3 - If a mother goes to the cemetery at midnight on All Saints' Day, she will see her dead children.
4 - On All Saints' Day, churches are filled with souls of the dead. That day, the souls are not burning in hell. They are happy. However some souls, whose mothers are wailing, arrive wet, soaked by earthly tears. Moral of the story - No need to cry for the dead.
5 - On the Eve of All Saints' Day, one does not go visiting or walking through villages because all roads and the country side are filled with souls of the dead. There can also be some mean souls.
6 - On All Saints' Day and in the evening no ashes or garbage should be taken out because the souls can be witched by these items.
7 - If it rains on the night of All Saints' Day, there will be numerous deaths the following year.
8 - If the sun does not shine on All Saints' Day, the following year will be filled with misfortunes.
9 - If on All Saints' Day, trees are still fully covered with leaves, it will be a year of black death.
10 - If a child is born on the eve of All Saints' Day, when in life they attend a funeral meal, they will see evil souls.
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