Lithuanian Advent Traditions

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Advent  – a Time of Preparation

As the year unfolds its final chapter, even in the unsettling circumstances of a pandemic surrounding December this year, we begin to think about Christmas. Although the repetitive jingles may become annoying, we may allow the “reason for the season” to filter through. And even if celebrations will not be the same for many, we can embrace past traditions by learning more about them.

Lithuania was a predominantly agricultural country, and folk customs were based on country life. According to many sources, Advent (meaning “the coming”, referring to Christ’s birth) was a serious time for finishing the year’s farm-work and turning to spiritual and physical cleansing. For Catholics, Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year and preparation for Christmas. In earlier times this meant fasting, eating no meat or dairy on Fridays, sometimes several other days or for the entire Advent period. Kūčios, the Christmas Eve meal,is meatless, because it is the last day of Advent. (More about Kūčios next time).

Most Christians also refrained from festivities and noisy gatherings during Advent, a period that came into existence in the Western world in 480 AD, according to ethnologists. Church documents reveal that in 567 AD the clergy was ordered to fast every day in December until Christmas, which later applied to lay people, including children who had received their First Communion.

One of the best-known Advent traditions in Lithuania and elsewhere is the evergreen wreath with one of four candles being lit each Sunday of Advent until the last, just before Christmas. Families would gather around the table with the candles lit and talk about their day’s work and pray together. The wreath would hold three violet candles and one pink. Some had a fifth, Christ’s candle, which would be lit on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas day.

In the olden days, when the year-end coincided with Christmas in the minds of the faithful, cleansing included repaying debts, not borrowing food or money (especially on Christmas Eve) and resolving any conflicts that had arisen over the year. In-depth housecleaning, bathing and saunas were requisite on Christmas Eve.

Folklore connects Advent and Christmas Eve to ancient rituals and superstitions. During the four weeks of Advent, it was forbidden to cut down trees or chop wood. This was a superstition harking back to mythical times, when it was believed that evil winter spirits destroyed plant life and imprisoned the sun. Therefore it was necessary to use magic rituals to renew the universe, so the sun might come back and nature may blossom once again. Anyone who did go to the forest to cut wood might see a tall, gray-haired woman, the spirit of the forest. Upon raising an axe, a keening might be heard, which was believed to be the goddess of the forest mourning for the trees. All kinds of bad luck would visit those who built a coffin or a house or burned logs from a tree cut down during Advent. Furthermore, the next year‘s trees would be misshapen…

Similarly, noisy work was avoided so as not to disturb the cycle of nature and the return of the sun. Pillows were not filled with down at this time to ensure the longevity of spring ducklings, nor were sheep sheared, because the ancients believed in reincarnation as animals. The Lithuanians were the last nation in Europe to accept Christianity, and old beliefs persisted in folk lore, and its imagery in folk art.

Next time – more about Christmas traditions and superstitions in Lithuania.

With information from alkas.lt, 15min.lt