Lithuanians brought many traditions with them to the diaspora, but All Souls’ Day on November 2 is an important day now chiefly celebrated in Lithuania itself. The thousand-year-old observance falls immediately after All Saints’ Day, which is on November 1. While All Saints’ Day is focused on Christian martyrs and saints, All Souls’ Day is all about the members of one’s own family. It’s a day for being with family, visiting cemeteries, sharing memories of loved ones, and honoring traditions.
Both All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day are prayer days associated with the Catholic Church. Members of other Christian churches also observe these holidays. In some parts of the world, the celebrations incorporate indigenous traditions and beliefs as well. For example, in Mexico, the famous Día de los Muertos festivities stem from the Mayan culture, whch held that it was disrespectful to mourn for someone who had died. Hence the colorful costumes, lively music, and delicious foods that marks the day.
All Souls’ Day, or “Vėlinės” in Lithuania (from the word “vėlė”, or soul) is one of the most ancient Lithuanian traditions, predating Christian times and reflecting Lithuanians’ deep belief in the afterlife and bonds with the world of the dead. Today the tradition involves visiting the gravesites of relatives, tending them and lighting a candle in their memory. People also tend abandoned gravesites as a Christian gesture, but also because in ancient times the souls no one prayed for were thought to be vengeful.
Accordng to ethnologist Gražina Kadžytė, lighting candles on the graves of loved ones is a relatively recent custom, begun at the end of the 18th century. In Lithuania candles are lit on the eve of All Souls’ Day in honour of both the dear departed and strangers, as well as for “wandering” souls. Their flames represent life and renewal as well as unity.
The significance of flame in rituals for the dead is quite ancient, dating back to the earliest of Baltic tribes. According to archeologists, evidence of cremation is found throughout Lithuania up to the era of Christianity and beyond. Before the lighting of candles, a ritual of All Souls’ Day bonfires was widespread, and is still practiced in certain areas of Dzūkija (southeastern Lithuania). Kadžytė notes that aside from their symbolism, they served to burn up fallen tree branches and pinecones, as well as old wooden crosses. The fires would have to be tended, so cemetery visitors would stay longer to pray, sing hymns and talk amongst themselves.
Formerly a three-day event called “Ilgės” (from the word for “long”), which was also held in neighbouring Belarus, there were shared meals meant for communing with the dead. There is evidence in the Vilnius Jesuit College archives showing that the clergy was frustrated with people bringing offerings of food for the souls of their ancestors, especially to Easter and Christmas celebrations. The Church was unable to fully eradicate the ancient customs, which slowly melded with Christian practice, and family meals at Vėlinės long included prayers and hymns, offerings and invitations to the souls of the deceased.
All Souls’ Day is also a time to meet with relatives from various areas of the country. Where in earlier times cemeteries were close to home, later some families made a type of pilgrimage of attending the graves of departed relatives, and visiting with those still living, creating opportunities to reach out and share stories of the past.