Thursday, December 7, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 7 - Kūčios, the Longest Night

“My grandfather Kazys and my mother's oldest sister taught us to do an ordinary but important ‘right thing’ each Kūčios. We celebrated family. Begun by Domina Masionis Babarskiene before her death, and continued by my grandfather each Kūčios, we in time learned from the celebration that loving acts are stronger than death. And this loving act each Christmas Eve matured as our family came to include different groups of people." -Barbara Tedrow 

  
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Bridges Lithuanian American News Journal, volume 40, number 9. Copyright 2016 Lithuanian American Community, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


Kūčios, our Lithuanian family’s Christmas Eve ritual, was one way that my mother’s family kept their Lithuanian identity. At Kūčios, they drew on a tradition of the past as a way to appease their sorrow and regret at leaving their homeland for life in their new country, the United States of America. The yearly Christmas Eve observance imprinted on us the Lithuanian way to adapt, to connect past and present, to keep family together, and to immerse ourselves in the mystery and joy of life.

Babarskas family farm in Radžiūnai, a small village near Alytus in Lithuania

My mother had some firm beliefs about the evening. “Only family attends Kūčios with their spouses,” my mother would pronounce emphatically; she wasn’t always sure about the in-laws. She believed that talking about Kūčios ahead of time would lead to ridicule – concentrating on the details of dinner would make the holiday seem frivolous. My mother also may have feared the neighbors would think we were political subversives or practicing witchcraft if we explained that this holiday celebrated Lithuanian traditions rooted in nature and Christian mysticism. Remembering the dead with a candle burning on an empty plate was a bit out of the ordinary in the U.S.
We children didn’t need an explanation for Kūčios. The mystery of the holiday was intensified as we ate by candlelight in the dining room, heard happy and sad stories of relatives dead and alive, and listened to the adults speak Lithuanian. Grandfather Kazys, whom we lovingly called “Didzukas,” made it real when he wept softly, remembering his boyhood in Radšiūnai, Lithuania, a small village near Alytus. Then when my father, Nick, spoke of his Ukrainian family and my mother and aunts remembered their mother, we knew that happiness and sadness intermingled on this evening.

Aunt Ruth with author's father upon return from the mine

Kūčios preparation was women’s work in our family. The house was cleaned from the top to bottom. The 12-course meatless meal included smoked fish, pickled herring, pickled mushrooms, poppy seed rolls and cranberry pudding. Later, when my mother and my Aunt Min worked for well-to-do families who liked shellfish, Aunt Min began serving lobster, shrimp, clams and crab cakes. Ukrainian pierogis (potato dumplings) and Lithuanian grybų ausytės (mushroom dumplings) were holiday staples, made in advance and frozen.
The holiday was a mandatory time of family togetherness, but our Kūčios traditions evolved when everyone could not attend. Travel costs could be staggering for members traveling from long distances. When Aunt Beatrice, my mother’s youngest sister, moved to Pittsburgh in the 1950s after she married, she came only on Christmas Day. But when she was diagnosed with cancer and in remission, Aunt Beatrice flew to Boston to celebrate Kūčios with us at my sister Nicki’s house. Over the years, my grandfather Kazys died, then my father Nick, and Aunt Beatrice died too.
When I moved from Pennsylvania to Michigan and finally to Atlanta, Georgia, I resolved to carry on the Kūčios tradition at my house. Finally my turn to host, I struggled with how to included our diverse family: the living and the dead, young and old, Lithuanians and non-Lithuanians, male and female, picky eaters and traditionalists.

Nicki and Barbara

In 2013, the dinner was special because my mother, Florence, who was 91 with dementia, attended her last Christmas Eve dinner. That December 24, when we returned from early Christmas Eve Mass, my playful, impatient grandchildren were running through the house playing tag. I said to the grandchildren in a sweet but direct voice, “Why don’t you all go out on the porch and find the first star? This is the year’s longest night and you should be able to see a lot of stars.”
OUMA, the stars aren’t out,” the grandchildren shouted impatiently while peeking out the windows.
“Go outside on the porch and search the sky,” I repeated gently. “When the sky darkens, you will see the stars. Only when you see the first star can we begin Kūčios, our Christmas Eve dinner.”
Wisps of clouds softened the Atlanta skyline, hiding the stars longer than normal, yet the children trusted that a star would appear. Running from window to window, then out on the porch for a closer look, the children scanned the sky.
“There’s the first star,” shrieked dark-haired Sophie, age 9, my oldest granddaughter. She looked like an ornament in her red velvet dress climbing on the wrought iron banister. Pulling her younger cousins Bente, age 4, and Selleck, age 6, to the porch railing, she pointed to a tiny twinkle dangling against the darkening sky between two houses across our tree-lined street.
Grandson Nick stood by, waiting for the star-watch game to be over. This evening he was more than a kid looking for the first star. Nick, at age 12, agreed to help lead Kūčios for the first time.
Shouting, the younger kids raced to pull me out to the porch. “Come, Ouma. The star is here.” Obeying their command, I left the chaotic kitchen. Outside they pointed to the star hanging in the sky. Then more stars appeared against the darkening blue above, but we had no time to stargaze. I returned inside to signal that festivities should begin. As I passed the dining room, I reached into my long black and white apron, found the stick matches, and lit the six white tapered candles standing tall in brass candleholders across the dining room table on a special linen table runner. So began Kūčios 2013, celebrating the longest night of the year.

Family dinner in Lucerne Mines, PA

At 6:20 p.m., with the stars glittering outside in the sky, our candle-lit cocktail party began. Grandpap Bill and my son-in-law Mike fired up the gas logs, and turned on a CD with accordion music by Lithuanian artist Gintarė. The hors d’oeuvres were six of the traditional 12 Lithuanian dishes that would be served during this portion of the evening. We served Lithuanian dished of smoked fish, pickled herring and mushrooms, caviar, tiny poppy seed rolls and cranberry pudding. Grandpap Bill offered a shot of whiskey to adults and ginger ale to the non-alcohol drinkers.
Skanaus – good eating,” Grandpap Bill bellowed. In an out of the cocktail party, my daughter Leslie and I passed into the kitchen because we were both Kūčios participants and organizers. In a precise but subtle way, our job was to keep the evening flowing smoothly because it could drop into chaos with so many moving parts. Leslie and I frantically checked the food preparation schedule, poured water and ice into the Waterford crystal glasses, located serving dishes and spoons, and scanned for any possible problems like a missing piece of cutlery.
By the end of the cocktail party, disheveled from our juggling act, Leslie and I needed a break. With our aprons damp from drying last-minute dishes and our brows dripping with sweat, we sat in our little library for a quick rest, with our legs splayed out in a decidedly undignified manner. As the rich aroma of the cinnamon candles filled the air, I was taken back to my grandfather’s humble cedar shake house at 92 Ninth Street in Lucerne Mines, PA. Oh, how I missed him and Aunt Min. I remember we called Grandfather Kazys “Didzukas,” our special term of endearment. I can see him standing at his front door as the falling snow swirled around him in the blue night. With his wide-brimmed brown felt hat, in his baggy blue denim trousers and his warm, grey, durable Pendleton wool shirt, he would rub our hands when we entered and say “šaltis” (cold).

The Lucerne Mines home in PA

          Short, sturdy, dark-haired Aunt Min also eagerly awaited our arrival. She wore her long, mid-calf, crepe, dark blue coat dress with rhinestone buttons and a belt. Over the dress, she wrapped around her wide waist a stained apron with a bib and long front panel. Standing in black leather stacked heels at least two sizes too small, she overflowed her shoes. It did not matter. Her warm, welcoming hugs made her beautiful to us.
          My granddaughter Sophie snapped me out of my daydream. “Ouma, I’m ready for our reader’s theatre after dinner,” Sophie whispered. She had The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, her favorite. Kazyinka and the Magic Harmonica by Aloyzas Baronas was new to her. In the story, Kūčios was so special that at midnight the animals could talk. Sophie was doing her best to be patient, but the dinner celebration on the longest night of the year was turning into a personal endurance test.

Kūčios, 2013 in Atlanta, GA

          Our faces were bathed in candlelight as we stood opposite each other around the table with our backs to the room’s darkness. Kūčios wove together pre-Christian and Judeo-Christian beliefs to celebrate the winter solstice, the sacredness of family and the Incarnation, which means we must see God in nature and in people. Nick, with the help of Grandpap Bill, passed a plate filled with apple slices and asked everyone to take a slice, eat it and remember our biblical first parents, Adam and Eve. The apple slice acknowledges that we often fail others and must forgive ourselves and others.
          I softly said, “May we know mercy and give mercy.”
          Several beats of silence passed when precocious Selleck, second grandson, suddenly asked, “What is mercy?” One of the adults explained mercy is having compassion and forgiveness toward others who you could otherwise hurt: “Tonight we come together to wish each other well and commit to give our best to one another, those present and those not present.”
          Next, Nick took the small plate of plotkelė (or paplotėlis), unconsecrated communion wafers, from the center of the table and passed one to everyone. Then we asked each other’s forgiveness for any transgressions and wished each other well for the coming year. Everyone moved around, broke their wafer with each other, then gave them their good wishes. “We do this because we know when we are loved and love, we can see the spirit of God in each other.” When everyone settled into their seats, we inhaled the silent Kūčios ambiance of togetherness.

Dee Dee with Alan

          Then, like seeds that were fed and watered in sunlight, curiosity gradually bloomed.
          Sophie, Bente and Selleck wondered out loud if animals really spoke a midnight on Christmas Eve as told in the Kazyinka story. They questioned, “Are the spirits of the dead really here with us? Why were nature, animals and the dead so important to the Lithuanians?”
          Sonja, Bente and Selleck’s mother, answered, “Yes, I believe the spirits of the dead are with us in non-interfering ways. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but because life energy is not destroyed by transformed, I can accept that the energy of the dead is around us. Do animals talk? I believe they talk in some way, perhaps not words like us but in their own way. How well we care for the earth, keeping its balance with people and animals, will mean our survival.”
          While everyone talked, the crab cakes were served with a delicate orange sauce. The mushroom and potato dumplings were passed around the table along with a green vegetable, cooked mushrooms and rice. I finished eating my food and answered carefully. “We believe that we were meant for good and can do good if we can forgive and act with compassion. All of us are better when we are loved. Nature and people are one and we are in this world together.”
          “Why do we only eat fish for this meal?” asked Selleck.
          “In Lithuania and the other Baltic countries, fish such as herring and cod were preserved in brine and vinegar and served at sacred winter rituals during the pre-Christian era. Christians adopted this, too, and it was meant to remember the sacrifice of Jesus’ death. But look it up when we are done and then tell us what you learned,” I suggested.
          Leslie, Nick and Sophie’s mother, added “Nature has lessons. In the starkness of winter it is difficult to believe spring and summer will come again. But we need the rest in the winter for the plant growth of spring and summer. This holiday we learned that even at the darkest time of the year, there is always reason for hope. We know about the baby born in a manger to a poor woman, and a pharaoh who tried to kill all the Jewish first-born sons because it was predicted that one day one of these sons would become a future king. But Jesus’ small family found a way to save themselves when they worked together and believed in their good.”
          “Everything is possible with God,” I said.
          “You mean, even stopping global warming?” asked Sophie, waving her hands to include the world.
          “Yes! Aren’t we supposed to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind? That means doing the hard work to figure things out for the good of all, like stopping global warming,” Grandpap Bill responded. “Yes, sometime we fail, but we must continue to try.”

Barbara with Dee Dee

          I raised my glass and wished everyone good health, “Tavo sveikata. God willing, we will be together next year.” Engulfed by the glow of candlelight, the past and present wove together as we each stayed in our inner worlds. In minutes, laughter and small talk began again.
          My son Mark dropped his voice as he leaned into the table’s candlelight and pondered what he had just heard. “Ok, Mom. So Christmas Eve, the Kūčios celebration, honors God in nature and the relationship between people and nature? That’s why we celebrate the living and the dead, science and mystery, animals and people, women and men, because it marks how we are a part of an ever-changing connected universe. Learning to love and care for each other and our differences makes the puzzle work. We start with our family and our place. Lithuanians celebrated this for centuries before we celebrated the birth of Christ?”
          “Yes, that is a way to explain it, Mark.”
          I thanked Nick for leading Kūčios. “Sophie, Selleck and Bente can take their turns next year.”


          When I blew out the candles on the dining room table, I placed a few leftovers on the empty plate with a candle remembering those absent. One by one, we passed the window on the way to the living room. As predicted, we could see many stars made brilliant against the darkness in the background. In the living room, the children began enacting Sophie’s chosen stories. Nick asked, “Ouma, next time, will you tell us why Kazys cried and how he got to the U.S. from Lithuania? What about Grandpap Nick’s Ukrainian family?”
          Kūčios, a Lithuanian family tradition, taught us how to capture the wisdom and sacredness of ordinary life in good and in difficult times no matter where we live, Alytus or Atlanta.

Barbara Tedrow, daughter of Nicholas Maruszak and Florence Babarskaitė, is a retired college professor living in Avondale Estates, GA, and Atlanta suburb. Her formative years were spent in Western Pennsylvania with her Eastern European family who worked in the coal mines. She has held Fulbright Fellowships to South Africa in 2002-2003 and 2008. In the fall of 2016 she was on a Fulbright Fellowship to Lithuania and returned again in 2017. Her research and teaching is focused on narratives around sense of place, time and nature as a means to understand one’s context for learning about self and the world.

Many thanks to Barbara, as well as the Bridges Lithuanian American News Journal, for permission to include this insightful look into Kūčios in this year's 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! We welcome everyone back tomorrow, for a look at a Baltic Christmas in the U.K.!

1 comment:

  1. Brings back fond memories of my parents hosting Kucios at our home. Very nice!!

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