THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Prie lietuvių stalo – at the Lithuanian table
Text: Vin Karnila
Sveiki garbingi skaitytojai,
Lithuania is steeped in traditions. It would be difficult to think of any part of daily life, family events or holidays where age old traditions are not practiced. Included in these are the time honored traditions that are practiced at the table. Yes, even sitting at the table to enjoy your meal is something that involves traditions practiced for generations by Lithuanian people all over the world.
To start, there is the order of seating. The father sits at the end of the table. Now the end he sits at is important to note also. He sits at the end of the table that is near the wall not the end that faces the open room or the door. The eldest son sits at the father's right, while the other men sit next to the son along the wall. Women sit across from the men and the mother sits at the opposite end from the father. This traditional seating is maintained especially during holidays, when the entire family gathers together.
Now the question arises about the seating when the grandparents are at the table also. In this case it is customary that the father of the man of the house would take the position at the end of the table near the wall and his son (the man of the house) would then sit to his right.
Here is another tradition that I still see happening regularly. This involves an unmarried lady regardless of her age. She can be four or forty four it doesn’t matter. Very often at big get-togethers the hosts need to borrow tables, chairs and benches to accommodate all the guests. As a result the seating can be a little cramped, which is really no problem and adds to the friendship of the occasion. What happens is one of the little girls will want to sit at the table so she will squeeze her way onto the end of a bench at the corner of the table. Upon seeing this, the married ladies will throw their hands up in the air and shriek in horror. There is then a mad scramble and this confused little girl will be thrown between two of the married ladies and a married lady will take the place at the corner of the table. The by now very confused little girl will sit there with a very perplexed look on her face trying to figure out what the big problem was. It is then explained to her that if an unmarried lady sits at the corner of a table she will be cursed and never will marry. As I said, I see this happening to this day. To see the whole thing unfold can be quite entertaining.
With all the wonderful food that has been prepared, still the most important of all is the Bread. For Lithuanians bread is the most important of all food. It is a part of Lithuanian tradition and culture and is a symbol of life itself. This is why the Bread is placed in the most honorable place on the table which is right in front of father. The meal starts with the slicing of Bread by the father and this is done following tradition.
Father slices and passes the bread with great respect. The first slice, a corner of the bread is given to the eldest, married son, with wishes that his firstborn will be a son. Each member of the family takes a slice of bread directly from father's hand and places it respectfully on the table. Notice that the tradition is that the father takes the bread in his hand and places it in the hand of the others. While passing food to others at the table with your hands in some corners of social etiquette would draw gasps of table manners’ shock, for Lithuanians this is a symbol of great respect and love. The father is passing the bread, the symbol of life, from his hand to yours. I don’t mind telling you and I am not embarrassed to say that every time I sit at a table and watch this symbolic gesture take place I am almost overcome with emotion. It is truly one of the most beautiful of traditions in its symbolism.
The remaining, unsliced piece of bread remains on the table, with the cut end facing the most important corner of the house (whatever corner the family feels is the most important corner) or is facing the sun. The cut end of the bread was not placed facing the door because it was believed that this would make the bread angry. I must say that no one has ever explained to me exactly what would happen if the bread got angry about having its cut end pointed at the door but considering the importance bread plays in Lithuanian traditions and our daily lives it’s best we point it in the correct direction so we don’t find out.
This next tradition concerning bread is absolutely essential to abide by.
The bread IS NOT to be placed upside down on the table. I can guarantee that if you do this YOU WILL hear about it. The reason being is that placing bread upside down on the table is a serious desecration and for that the bread's vengeance will appear as a death in the family.
Another important tradition for the respectful handling of bread is that it is not allowed to break a slice with one hand. It takes both hands to earn bread so also it should be broken with two hands.
This tradition works great to get the kids to practice better table manners and handle their food more carefully. If you drop a piece of bread on the floor you must pick it up off the floor, kiss it and then eat it. It doesn’t matter how big or small the piece is, this tradition must be followed. Oh yes, I remember this one. This was probably the number one thing that got me to use better manners at the table.
Now one more piece of advice regarding bread at the table. How many of us have used a small piece of bread to mop up some of the remaining gravy or sauce off our plate? I openly confess to this practice and it’s a very practical and tasty way to enjoy the remaining sauce and at the same time you are helping clean the dishes. In fact one of the pleasant parts of sitting down to enjoy a wonderful Italian pasta dinner is using a piece of fresh and oh so delicious Italian bread to get every last drop of tasty tomato sauce. Growing up in a mostly Italian neighborhood I can tell you that this is common practice and is accepted and even encouraged. However when you are seated at a Lithuanian table, bread is never and I repeat NEVER used to clean up sauce off the plate. Weather you hold the bread in your hand to do it or break off a small piece and then use your fork, bread is not a tool to clean your plate and bread is not an eating utensil. The tradition is that bread is eaten from your hand and is the practice that should be followed at the table.
Should a visitor arrive when the family is at table, the visitor greets the eaters
with "skanaus" (bon appétit). If father answers "prašom" (you are welcome), it means do join us at the table. However if the answer is "ačiū" (thank you), the visitor is not invited to join in the eating. If invited to join the family at the table, a visitor from far away is either seated next to father or in his place. A “beggar” is seated at the other end of the table, near the door. Please allow me to add something to this. If you are visiting a Lithuanian family, that still follows traditions, and you are invited to sit at the father’s place, you are being paid a great honor. Be sure you thank your hosts most graciously.
Now here comes another Lithuanian tradition – The tradition of accepting or declining. When offered something you MUST at first politely decline. To accept at the first offering is considered extremely rude. The host MUST then ask offer again. For the host to not offer a second time is considered extremely rude. You should then again politely decline the second offer. The host should then offer again for a third time. After the third offer you can then graciously accept. If after the third offer you still politely decline then it is accepted that you really do not and/or can not accept the offer. Hence the tradition of asking three times.
An unexpected visitor was always graciously received and even if the family was not prepared to eat yet, food was soon set out. It usually consisted of traditional sausages, curd cheese, honey, eggs and homemade beer. To be polite, the visitor did not eat or drink until the host urged him to do so. This urging, when done immediately after the food and drink are put on the table, is a true sign of Lithuanian hospitality.
If the table is loaded with all kinds of goodies but there is no urging to partake in the food, it is said, "there was plenty of everything, but there was no urging at all from the host".
In earlier times, the host would fill his glass with beer or mead, and greet guests with these words,
"to your health dear brothers, drink and be merry. Be healthy, dear visitors". He then sprinkled a few drops on the floor so that everyone would be in good health and then drank from his glass. The spilling of a few drops of your drink is actually done as a “gift to the gods” (of drink). Refilling his glass again he would then pass it to the guest. If everyone shared the same glass, each one greeted each other with these words, "be healthy", and answered with "to your health". The glass was sent around the table from the right side because spring seeding was done with grain sprinkled to the right side, so drinks also go to that side. This tradition still continues today.
Lithuanians are known for their hospitality. They like to entertain and be entertained. Expecting guests they go all out preparing all kinds and amounts of delicacies. The hosts appreciate this statement, "there was plenty of everything, the only thing missing was bird's milk".
Guests preparing to go, thank, saying "thank you for the delicious cake, strong beer. Today we ate and drank yours, next time we'll drink mine". The host answers, "to your health".
There is another belief that the family cat, when she washes her face with her paw is telling you that guests are coming. The guests will come from the direction to which the cat is facing. Another arrival is forecast by cutlery falling on the floor, if a knife or spoon falls, a male guest is on his way, if a fork falls, expect a female guest.
So the next time you are invited to sit at the table of Lithuanians, take a moment to observe how many of these traditions are still being followed. Or – Maybe you can add some of them to your table?
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