For Lithuanians, Christmas Eve is the highlight of the year‘s family events
Family members make a special effort to gather on December 24 for the traditional Christmas Eve meal, Kūčios. Friends who have no relatives to celebrate with are often invited to join the family.
Kūčios is a unique meal, which includes dishes that are rarely made at other times of year. Traditionally there are twelve (meatless) dishes consisting of fish and vegetables, which must all be tasted by everyone at the table. With the passage of time and rise of various influences, many restrictions respected in the past have fallen by the wayside. And the traditions themselves varied from household to household. In Lithuania they also varied by region.
The first ritual of Kūčios is the sharing of bread – the Christmas wafer, distributed to the faithful at church. Once everyone gathers, a prayer is said by the eldest or by the head of the household. Each person takes a rectangular, Communion-like wafer (distributed by the church), and shares it by offering others to break off a piece and eating it while wishing each other a Merry Christmas.
In older times, there was no dairy or meat allowed, and although most Lithuanians adhere to the restriction on meat, dairy was introduced decades ago, depending on the household‘s regime.
A star feature of the meal is herring, which was prepared ahead of time. More widely available in large cities, whole herring would be gutted, soaked, skinned, filleted and cut into bite-sized pieces, then place in a tomato sauce or mushroom marinade, or a beet and sour cream mixture. Many of us now resort to buying jarred pickled herring, or admit to despising it. Tastier made by mothers and grandmothers, and usually in several formats (tomato sauce, mushrooms, etc.) this was the course that drove up the sodium and parched us out at midnight Mass.
A favourite was what kids now call red fish, usually white fish fillets browned and layered in a tomato (nowadays mostly ketchup) and onion sauce. Vegetables take the form of pre-made salads, the ubiquitous Lithuanian beet and bean mišrainė (a chopped mixture of boiled beets, navy beans, pickles, hard-boiled eggs and sometimes herring), and potato salad in households that like it. I remember a cold sauerkraut salad with peas, and a tomato-based rice salad dotted with tiny shrimps.
Memorable but no longer popular in today‘s modern households is the stuffed fish, or gefilte fish that my mother made. This involved scraping out the flesh of a pike or whitefish, taking out the bones, adding seasonings and stuffing it back into the skin so that a whole fish, with a carrot-disc eye and a lemon slice in its jaws, lay on a platter to be sliced into portions. I remember liking it – but not enough to go through the process.
Various iterations of mushrooms as well as smoked, cured and baked fish crowded the Kūčios table, and were counted to make twelve (for Christ‘s apostles), including the bread and desserts, if necessary.
Kisielius, the cranberry pudding is a favourite among those who like its tartness. Tricky to make because if you add too much starch, it jumps together into a solid pink mass. Better under than over-starched, some families remember drinking the kisielius as a thick juice (smoothie?). A friend told me she had never seen a kisielius that wasn‘t solid and pink… We all tend to be loyal faithful to our mothers‘ culinary efforts, whether defeats or successes. To me, of course, the perfect kisielius is a jewel-toned, fairly sweet, semi-transparent pudding-textured delight and the highlight of Kūčios until acid reduction becomes an issue.
Aguonpienis, the substitute for cow‘s milk is made of poppy seeds, soaked overnight and ground in a blender with honey to make a whitish-gray liquid that some people love to pour on their kisielius and/or the preskučiai/šližikai. These are tiny, rock-hard biscuits that can be made ahead of time, with modern variations (egg, butter) making them more palatable. For many years the dried fruit compote (kompotas) was also a traditional refreshing element of the dessert table.
As new generations bring in new flavours and trends, and we “elders“ seek shortcuts and a lesser array of leftovers, Kūčios is changing. And this is natural and likely unavoidable… The most important is to gather with family if we can, which is so difficult this year, or at least be with them in our thoughts as we celebrate the great Event.
What are you making for Kūčios? Which are your favourite Kūčios dishes? Which do you remember from your past? Write to us at [email protected] and we will share your stories and recipes here.
With info from Treasures of Lithuanian Cooking and Lithuanian Customs and Traditions