Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Baltic Christmas Day 10 - Kucios: The Connection Between the Dead and Living

On Day Ten of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we welcome Daiva Venckus. Daiva is the author of an upcoming book about her experience working for the leaders of the Lithuanian revolution during the collapse of the Soviet Union. For more on her experience please visit her website, and she can be found on twitter @DaivaVenckus and on facebook.

In the time before Christianity, Christmas in Lithuania was acknowledged as a celebration of the cycle of the sun. Winter represented the cycle of death and Christmas day celebrated the return of the sun, of the the rebirth of all living beings. Kucios, the night before Christmas, symbolized the transformation of regeneration and the connection between the dead and the living—emphasizing the solidarity of the family as community throughout the eons of time.

It’s not a surprise we celebrate the same traditions which speak to a time before Christianity. My grandparents brought these customs that had been practiced for centuries with them when they emigrated to America in 1949 and settled in Los Angeles. We have been celebrating the same rituals for over 65 years; however, it has evolved to include some American customs. I think we sometimes forget why we follow particular rituals since we’ve grown accustomed to our annual event, so it’s good to remind ourselves.

Our extended family gathers after the evening star (Venus) appears in the sky (shortly after sunset) on December 24 to celebrate Kucios. The Venckus family numbers approximately thirty to fifty people, depending if everyone is in town. The host’s house is decorated with evergreens and a Christmas tree with straw decorations. In centuries past Lithuanians brought evergreens indoors because since they remained green all year round, they were believed to have magical powers of life and fertility.

As everyone arrives we have a dilemma to resolve: Who will be Santa Claus?  
Our added tradition includes Santa arriving after dinner to give out gifts.
The excuses start: “I can’t be Santa, my kids will recognize me!”
“I can’t do it either, I have a cold and don’t want to get everyone sick.”
“Don’t look at me, I don’t speak Lithuanian well enough!”
If we have a guest who is unaware of our tradition, then we talk them into it. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. Besides the entertainment factor, the Santa costume complete with a beard and boots gets hot!

When the last family member arrives we gather at tables connected together to form giant banquet seating. Since our family is huge, there is usually a “kids” table nearby.

Before we eat, we rise and say a prayer of thanks and recognize those who are no longer with us. An empty plate is left on the table with a list of names of those family members who are no longer with us, because even in death they are still a part of our family. Candles on the table help to invoke the souls of the dead to join us. We then go around the room, each person (including the older children) names someone who has passed on to personally invite them to join us.

Then we share the Christmas wafer (plokstainelis). These are large communion wafers with pictures of scenes of Jesus’ birth that we acquire from our church, Saint Casimir’s. Just as we have settled down at the table chaos ensues. We approach everyone in the room with our wafer and present them with a wish for the new year as they break off a piece. It is bad luck to skip anyone, as well as allow anyone to break off a big piece. Therefore, although this is a solemn practice, there is a lot of laughter as we each try to be sneaky and break off a huge piece.

I usually wish the teenagers: “Do well in school,” the college grads: “Find a good job and the love of your life;” and the middle-agers: “Less debt and more happiness;” the older generation: “Good health and a long life.” The little kids just have fun running around trying to break off large pieces. It is a good time to sincerely connect with each family member and give them heartfelt wishes. With such a large family this takes quite some time!

Then it's finally time to eat. We have twelve meatless dishes to represent the twelve apostles. Although we reside in America, the dishes are supposed to represent the food naturally available in Lithuania in winter, so we make an effort to do so. However, since some very young American palettes aren’t too keen on traditional herring and such, we add a plate of fish sticks for the kids’ table to ensure they do not starve. And to be truthful, we adults sometimes sneak in a little sushi and caviar on our appetizer platter…

Our typical dish line-up includes several herring dishes with different sauces (mushroom, onion, tomato), smoked fish, mushrooms, beet salad (vinegretas), potato salad, green beans with nuts, a white fish platter, black rye bread. Desert includes cranberry pudding (kiselius), slizikai with poppy seed milk and fruit compote. It is the custom to taste a little of each dish—as those who do not will not live to see the next Kucios. In my family we don’t have to twist anyone’s arm to try each dish because everything is unbelievably tasty!

Once we finish eating, we move all the chairs to face the Christmas tree. We sing Lithuanian Christmas carols as well as a few American ones. We tell the children that Santa won’t know where to visit when he is flying overhead if they don’t sing loudly and enthusiastically.

After a few songs, suddenly, we hear a knock at the door with a jingle of a bell. The kids run to the door and open it to find Santa Claus, carrying a giant bag stuffed with presents. The kids scream with excitement as they dance around Santa and lead him to a chair positioned by the shimmering Christmas tree.

Venckus Chistmas 1969

Santa says, “What a long trip I’ve had! I flew over here straight from Lithuania! Does anyone want any presents?”
The kids jump up and down in anticipation. They are prepared to receive their gifts; however, nothing comes for free. In our tradition, to receive your gift you must perform for Santa. This requirement includes the adults.
That means reciting a poem or singing a song or telling a joke. Some play musical instruments or perform a magic trick. The littlest ones sing Lithuanian nursery rhymes, like Du Gaidelai (Two Roosters).

Our Kucios evening is filled with endless laughter and love. We appreciate where we come from and do not take the privileged lives we lead today for granted. We retell the stories of our grandparents’ first Christmas in the Displaced Persons Camps after escaping from Lithuania—how even though they didn’t have presents, they had each other. Our Christmas memories outlast our presents.

The Venckus Christmas in 1947 in a German Displaced Persons Camp

Kucios provides us a ritual to actively include our loved ones who have passed on in our celebration. By imparting our traditions to the next generation we embody rebirth and strengthen the connection with our ancestors throughout the centuries.

Thank you Daiva! It is interesting to see how the Lithuanian Christmas Eve traditions vary from the Latvian ones, especially since many of the dishes you described are familiar from my own Christmas dinners of past and some also appear in the Estonian holiday celebration. Join us tomorrow for one such recipe on Day Eleven of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas with Marika Blossfeldt, author of Essential Nourishment: Recipes from My Estonian Farm


  1. Really interesting. It's so good to see Lithuanian customs continued by emigrants and ancestors overseas. I can imagine it's hard to completely avoid American customs but it sounds like you have a very authentic Kūčios. Have a great Christmas!

  2. Thanks for the detailed and interesting description, Daiva! Neat to see that you invite the dearly departed - as far as I know, Latvians typically don't do that at Christmas. And the photo of your family in the DP camp captures that time period so well. One of my favorite family stories is of my dad's family coming to America - and arriving in their new town on Christmas Eve, where the sponsoring congregation had not only provided them with a furnished home, but also with a Christmas tree with gifts underneath! It was certainly a much warmer welcome than many DPs received.


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