20 January 2018
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Lithuanian Velykos (Easter) traditions

Description: laidotuves3a by alfredasfoto.

The word for Easter, Velykos, has been borrowed from Byelorussian and means "important day." The word is very accurate because Easter is the year's most solemn feast in Lithuania. Easter is not only the feast of Christ's Resurrection, but also nature's awakening from the winter's sleep.

The early Eastern morn, just before dawn, abounds with magical power. Much of this magic is concentrated in flowing water. Bathing in such water before sunrise prevents all boils, sores, rashes and other skin ailments. If it rains on Easter morning, it is necessary to stand bareheaded in the rain to ensure good growth. Small children who want to grow quickly are reminded of this.

As the sun rises on Easter morning, it "dances" swaying from side to side and changing colour: from green to blue, to red and then golden yellow. This phenomenon can be seen by rising before dawn and watching for the sun's first appearance on the horizon.

Earlier everyone went to the Resurrection services. If on the way you passed a woman, you'll have an accident. To avoid calamity it was necessary to turn around, return home and then take another road to church.

In Lithuania the Easter morning procession was usually conducted around the church. It was very solemn: church flags were held high, girls strewed flowers, the choir and all the people sang, alternating with a brass band, and the church bells pealed loudly. Three turns were made while singing the Lithuanians' favourite Easter Hymn Linksma diena mums prašvito (A Happy Day Has Dawned for Us). After the services, a blessing was made over the Easter food which was arranged in baskets decorated with greens and placed on the altar-rails.

At the conclusion of the liturgy in Church, the people hurried home. In fact, all large and small roads, every path was the scene of races: whoever arrived home first would be successful all year and would complete all work on time. Even persons walking tried to pass those ahead and reach home first. It is not surprising that accidents happened during such races. Perhaps that is why it was said that a woman met on the road brings disaster (someone had to be blamed!).

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At home, Easter breakfast was eaten. The meal began when the homemaker peeled a blest Easter egg, cut it and gave a piece to every member of the family. This was done so that peace and love would always reign within the family and everyone would live in harmony. Afterward, a variety of other dishes were consumed: meat, sausages, and cakes. On Easter it was necessary to eat well and to satiety, to "recover from Lent" because of the fast all through Lent. If the area had poor families with no Easter food, their neighbours shared what they had and brought the disadvantaged families everything they need to be satisfied and happy.

Children hunted for hidden Easter eggs left for them by the Velykų Senelė (Easter Granny) or Velykė. Bunnies who painted Easter eggs were also a familiar fixture, but they were only helpers for theVelykų Senelė. Very early Easter morning they loaded Easter eggs into a beautiful little cart pulled by a tiny swift horse. The Velykų Senelė used a sunbeam as a whip. Sometimes the bunnies themselves pulled the cart laden with Easter eggs.

The Easter Granny travels around the country, stopping in every child's yard to leave eggs in baskets placed or hung for that purpose. When they awake, good children find beautifully decorated Easter eggs (and in. more recent times even sweets). Bad children only find a single plain completely white egg. If this happens, the child is disgraced. His friends and family laugh at him. Sometimes bunnies accompany the Granny and help her distribute the Easter eggs. They are kept busy not only before Easter and on Easter day, but all year round baking cookies for children. When parents leave their children behind, they promise to bring them a gift, bunny cookies. Upon their return, they tell the following tale:

"I'm walking through the woods (or orchard or past the bushes) and I see a bunny wearing an apron and hat, his sleeves rolled back, taking sweet-smelling cookies from an oven. I say to him: 'May the Lord help you!' He answers, 'Thank you, thank you. Would you like a taste? They're still hot.' Of course, I dol They smell so good, they look so good. . ."

In the meantime the-child can hardly control himself: "What kind of oven was it?" "Tiny, pretty." "Did you get to taste any cookies?" "Yes, of course." "Did you bring me any?"

At this point, the father, mother or other family member pulls out the goodies and distributes them to the children who are extremely impressed not only by the bunny cookies but also by the baking method itself. They can practically see the flushed, rushing bunny mixing the dough and stoking the oven. How wonderful that morn or dad just happened to be passing at the very time the cookies were done! 

Bunny cookies are famous throughout Lithuania. It would be good to remember them outside Lithuania as well.

A variety of games were played with Easter eggs. The simplest is an egg-breaking contest. Two players face off, each holding an Easter egg and hit each other's egg. The one whose egg remains intact is the winner. The egg is held in the fist so that only its tip protrudes. The other player hits it with the tip of his egg. If the egg breaks on the side, the impact was wrong and the owner of the broken egg is not considered the loser. The winner claims the broken egg. After the game the number of eggs won was tallied. It was of paramount importance to have a hard-shelled egg that withstands breaking. In selecting a strong egg, the contestant taps an unboiled egg against his teeth. If the sound is clear and sharp the shell is hard: if dull and muffled, the egg will break quickly; it's not even worth colouring.

Some smart alecks devised an "unbreakable" egg. It was made this way: a raw egg's shell is pricked at both ends. A thin straw is inserted into one end and used to blow out the contents through the opposite end. Another straw with one end shaped as a funnel is then placed into the hole and melted pine or fir sap is poured until the egg is full. If the sap does not flow smoothly, a helper inserts a straw into the opposite hole and draws the air out of the egg. After the egg is filled with sap, the holes are carefully concealed and the egg is then tinted along with others. It weighs about the same as a real boiled egg. Sometimes the empty shell was filled with melted sugar, but it was much heavier and the sugar hardened unevenly making it more difficult to play. Of course, if caught, the cheat was punished. The direst penalty was to eat the "Easter egg."

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Another amusing Easter game was egg rolling (pictures above). This was best done outdoors, but also could be played in a larger room. A trough is made from pieces of wood or bark to measure about 10 cm long and 15 cm wide (it can also be much longer). One end of the ramp is propped up to produce a downward incline, but not too steep. A small circle is drawn at the bottom of the slope for the playing field into which the eggs will roll. When the game is played outdoors, the trough must be placed on a smooth surface because the eggs will not roll in the circle if there are pebbles, high grass, etc. When played indoors, the surface of the circle must not be too slippery for the eggs will roll out. A low wall or enclosure may be built around the circle. When all the preparations are completed, the players begin the contest. Four to eight persons play. Each uses an egg of a different colour to tell them apart. Eggs may also be marked in different ways. The egg is let down the incline. After one contestant finishes, the next rolls his egg aiming to reach the other's egg and tap it. If the egg hits the first one, its owner wins and takes the first egg. The eggs are rolled down the slope in turn. A contestant who wins egg rolls out of turn until his egg fails to hit another. Another player then takes his egg from the circle and rolls it.

Eggs used in the rolling contest may already be cracked (for instance, already used and won in an egg-breaking contest), but their sides should be intact because eggs with cracked sides do not roll well. The trough may be straight or curved in different ways to make the eggs roll longer. The slope may also be made of cardboard from an old box, plastic or any other material strong and rigid enough to support the weight of an egg.

A simpler egg-roll is done without a trough. A circle at least one meter in diameter is traced on a smooth surface. Barriers or enclosures are placed around the circle to keep the eggs from rolling out (crumpled newspaper may be used). A gate is kept open on one side through which the players push their eggs. The first player is chosen by lot. He rolls his egg into the circle. The second player attempts to roll his egg so that it will tap the first one. The game is played like the one using an incline, but in this case the eggs are rolled into the circle by hand with the player kneeling or sitting on the ground.

Because the egg does not roll down a ramp, the entire game depends on the contestant's skill, how he rolls his egg into the circle. If the egg is rolled so hard that it leaves the playing field, the contestant loses his turn.

In the past, only young men and adolescents played egg-rolling contests. It was not proper for girls to do so. They provided their beaus with eggs, cheered the contestants on and guarded the eggs won. Today mostly children (boys and girls) roll eggs. 

If guests arrive on Easter, they are given Easter eggs as gifts. The guests also bring an Easter egg for each family member (or at least the hosts and sweets for the children). Easter morning children go "egg begging" but only to the homes of acquaintances, close neighbours or godparents. When they arrive, they say hello and stand silent at the door. It is quite obvious to everyone that an Easter egg is required. The children politely say thank you, wish a Happy Easter and continue on. When Easter was celebrated for three days, no one went visiting the first day; it was unacceptable to intrude upon people on such a holy day as if someone had thrown you out of your own home.

The first day of Easter was said to be dedicated to God, people were expected to conduct themselves seriously and quietly, spend time with their family, eat well and "recover from Lent." The second day was for recreation, visiting friends and having company. The third day was devoted to relaxation. People slept late, recovered from all the merrymaking because work was waiting in the wings.

For Easter, homemakers set out Easter dishes which remained on the table all day. When guests arrived, the women could then spend time with the company and did not need to work. The table was covered with a white cloth and decorated with greens or fruit tree branches (mostly cherry) which were cut and set in water several weeks earlier so they would bloom for Easter. (Easter lilies were unknown.) Greens were also attached to the tablecloth hem which hung down from the table. The table was laden with cold Easter dishes: baked ham, goose, suckling pig, a basket or plate full of Easter eggs, sweet cheese, bread, cakes, etc. Beer (mostly homemade), liqueurs and cider were served as beverages.

Everyone who arrives to extend Easter greetings must be served. It was considered very impolite for the guest to refuse refreshment. Everything had to be at least sampled and the cook praised, else she would feel insulted.

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The young who behaved with such solemnity all during Lent wanted to have fun on Easter. They assembled at a larger house to sing and dance. This usually was done in late afternoon or evening. During the day, it was popular to swing in swings and sing. If the Easter weather was warm and fair, the swings were hung from a tall tree so the young could swing higher. Given inclement weather, the swing ropes were tied from barn rafters. People swung not only for the fun of it but to ensure a good harvest next summer, just as on Shrove Tuesday. While swinging, the girls and young men sang special songs.

A group of young men assembled to practice singing Linksma diena mums prašvito (a popular Easter hymn), some other songs and make the rounds. These are the so-called lalauninkai (from lalauti — to talk loudly and much). In many other countries, such as the United States or England, carolers make the rounds before Christmas singing Christmas carols and songs. They may be compared to Lithuania's Easter lalauninkai.

These singers are usually unmarried men sometimes accompanied by a fiddler or harmonica-player. Upon arriving at a house, they first sing an Easter hymn; convey their Easter wishes and then carol. The homemaker gives them cake, sausages, Easter eggs while her husband serves liquid refreshments. The Easter eggs are handed out by the young girls of the household. Although most homes were visited, it was predominantly those with unmarried girls. They were told before Easter that the singers would arrive and tried to make beautiful Easter eggs. This was a perfect opportunity to display their talents and show off before the other village girls. It sometimes happened that the singers refused to accept an Easter egg judged to have a poor appearance and this was considered a major disgrace.

The songs these carollers sang were noted for the refrains repeated after every verse. The verses were short, usually composed of only two lines. The refrain had no connection with the song's overall content. These singers were especially well-known in Dzūkija which is famous for similar types or harmony songs.

On the hill a pear tree stood; under the pear tree lay silvery dew. . . The refrain — vynelis vyno žaliasai — refers to new wine.

It is not necessary for lalauninkai to sing the customary ditties, other songs may be selected.

On Easter, a person can learn the following summer's weather, about his personal happiness and gain protection against various pests if he knows what to do and what guesses to make.

If he wishes to avoid seeing snakes all summer, he must avoid seeing a needle the first day of Easter.

If an accident or calamity occurs on Easter, things will go wrong all year, the year will be unlucky.

We've already mentioned the races home from church on Easter morning: anyone who arrives home first will be first to complete all work, everything will go well for him (especially work in the fields).

Prayers are said to be really heard on Easter, it is therefore necessary to pray a great deal.

If Easter morning is sunny and beautiful, the summer will be fair and the weather good; if it rains (or snows) bad weather is to be expected. The worst sign is to hear thunder on the first day of Easter but even this evil may be found to have a "silver lining." If thunder rumbles before leaves have sprouted (trees very rarely had leaves in Lithuania at Eastertime), thieves will have a difficult time plying their trade that year.

If the sunset is very red, dangerous thunderstorms may be expected that summer.


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Decoration of Easter eggs - margučiai - is a very ancient custom in Lithuania. At the foot of the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius archaeologists have found eggs made of bone and clay, which shows that this custom was known in Lithuania as early as the 13th Century. Easter eggs are also mentioned by Martynas Mažvydas in his dedication to his book "Hymns of St Ambrosius" (1549). Easter eggs were particularly popular at the turn of the 20th Century. They were decorated both by grown-ups and children, by rich and poor. Some were dyed in a single colour, some were decorated with patterns.

Decorations are produced by painting patterns on warm eggs with the tip of a stick or a pinhead dipped in hot wax. Droplet-shaped strokes are grouped in patterns, twigs of rue, little suns, starlets and snakes. The most frequent pattern is that of a sun, like those on large and small distaffs. Smaller patterns are joined by dots and wavy lines into larger ornaments. Their combinations are so varied that is is impossible to find two identical Easter eggs. Every village has its own best egg-decorators.

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Basket of Lithuanian Easter eggs.
Photo by Gilanda Matonis.


Category : Lithuania today

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