In Lithuania, Easter (Velykos) is the most sacred of holidays. It signifies the end of the 40-day Lent, and begins on Palm Sunday, lasting throughout Holy Week where Lithuanians attend church several times. There are also several traditions that are unique to the Lithuanian culture.
Celebrations for Easter or velykos in Lithuania actually begin on Palm Sunday with the start of Great Week. But "Palm Sunday" is actually a misnomer since palms grow in warm, humid climates. Instead, verba or "dwarfed spruce" branches are used. The verbos are collected and then adorned with flowers and ribbons. After being blessed in church, they are brought home and dried. The needles are pulled off and saved to be burned as incense during times of calamity like thunderstorms, sickness, and death. The bare branches are tucked behind holy pictures or in the rafters of the home for protection.
Holy Thursday, or Didysis Ketvirtadienis in Lithuanian, is a time for ritual cleansing. In the old days, the bathhouses were heated and, for those near bodies of water, a quick dip in a river, lake or pond (or at least a perfunctory splash on the face) was required. Not only was it imperative to clean one's own person, but the entire house and everything in it – windows, stoves, walls, clothes – needed to be in pristine condition.
On Good Friday, Didysis Penktadienis in Lithuanian, people are very somber in respect for the crucified Christ. Children are forbidden to make noise, and the house cleaning begun on Holy Thursday comes to an end because, as superstition has it, the dust can get into Jesus' eyes and he is already suffering so much. Another rather macabre Good Friday superstition has it that all bugs and pests can be removed from the home by scattering cemetery soil where the bugs breed!
On Holy Saturday, Didysis Šeštadienis in Lithuanian, people go to church to obtain blessed fire and water. The belief is that they have miraculous powers and can cure a multitude of ills and provide protection. A basket of Easter foods – eggs, salt, bread, cake, ham, bacon, sausage, butter, cheese, a symbolic butter or sugar lamb, and other foods that vary by family – are brought to church for a blessing. Blessing of the Baskets is a common tradition among most Eastern Europeans. Some regions have their food blessed on Holy Saturday and others on Easter morning.
Preparing for Easter on Holy Saturday
The food that will be eaten on Easter is prepared on Holy Saturday and, later, the entire family colors Easter eggs. These margučiai are decorated by two methods. In their simplest form, they are dyed naturally with onion skins, beets, flower petals, hay, and tree bark, for example. The more elegant eggs are made with the wax-resist method.
After Easter morning church services, people return to their homes to dine on a sumptuous breakfast with the contents of the blessed food basket. The meal starts with an egg that can be sliced and shared by the entire family as a sign of unity, or each person can have his own egg and toast with it by clinking it against another's. If your eggshell remains unbroken after the "clinking," you are destined to have a long life.
Then, for dinner, all the stops are pulled with a groaning board of delights forbidden during Lent and now eaten in celebration of Christ's Resurrection. Eggs in every conceivable form, pig's head or roast pig, roast goose, roast chicken, baked ham or roasted lamb, bread, cheese, sausage, potato sausage, bacon, horseradish, and more. There are blynai, dumplings, kugelis, salads galore and mushrooms in almost every dish. And then comes an incredible assortment of desserts. They include Easter Bread (Velykos Pyragas), Easter Gypsy Pie (Velyku Pyragas Cigonas), Log Cake, Poppyseed Roll (Pyragas su Aguonomis), Mushroom Cookies (Grybai), Easter Cake (Kaimak), Molded Cheese Dessert (Pashka), Poppyseed Cookies (Aguonu Sausainiukai), and so much more. And to wash it all down, good strong coffee and homemade gira, which is similar to kwas.
Lithuanian Easter Granny and the Easter Bunny
On Easter Sunday, children hunt for Easter eggs left for them by the Velykų Senelė (Easter Granny), also known as Velykė. Bunny helpers paint the eggs for Granny and load them on a little cart pulled by a tiny horse. Granny uses a sunbeam as a whip and, sometimes, instead of a tiny horse, the bunnies pull the cart. Granny distributes the eggs to all good children. Bad children receive only a single, plain white egg. Sounds like the St. Nicholas Day coal in the stocking trick! The Easter Bunny (Velykos Kiškis) also figures prominently in Lithuanian Easter. He bakes up a batch of bunny-shaped cookies very early on Easter morning and distributes them to all good children.
- If it rains on Easter morning, little children let it pour on their heads to ensure quick growth.
- If, on the way to Easter Mass you pass a woman, you'll have an accident. To take the "curse" off, you'll have to retrace your steps and take another road to church.
- After Mass, the person who arrives home first will be successful all year. Watch out for pushing and shoving.
- If an accident occurs on Easter, the rest of the year is destined to be fraught with bad luck.
- If Easter morning is sunny and beautiful, the summer will be fair. If it rains or snows, bad weather is to be expected for the rest of the year.