Kūčios (Lithuanian pronunciation: [ˈkuːtɕɔs]) or Kūtės (Samogitian Dialect) is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Lithuania, held on the twenty fourth of December. The meal is a family occasion which includes many traditions of both pagan and Christian origin. Some traditions are no longer widespread and usually Lithuanians just enjoy dinner with relatives and friends while the main events and festivities are left for Christmas Day.
Everyone in a family makes a special effort to come home for the Christmas Eve supper, even from great distances. They make the journey not so much for the meal as for the sacred ritual of Kūčios. Kūčios draws the family members closer, bringing everyone together and strengthening the family ties. In this spirit, if a family member has died that year or cannot attend the meal (only for very serious reasons) an empty place is left at the table. A plate is still placed on the table and a chair is drawn up, but no spoons, knives or forks are set. A small candle is placed on the plate and lit during the meal. It is believed that the spirit of the deceased family member participates in the Kūčios along with everyone.
Preparing for Kūčios is an all day event, though the preparations can begin up to a week in advance in some communities. On Christmas Eve, the entire house must be thoroughly cleaned and all of the bed linens must be changed. Everyone attending Kūčios must bathe and dress in clean clothes before the evening meal. Before gathering at the ritual table, everybody makes up with their neighbors and forgives their enemies. The twelve dishes for the evening meal are prepared as is the meal for the first day of Christmas during the day.
Traditionally, people fast and abstain from meat for the entire day. While the Catholic Church has decreed that food may be eaten as often as desired on Christmas Eve, most Lithuanians still adhere to the original custom of abstinence. Before they changed their stance, Catholics could only eat a handful of boiled peas and water on Christmas Eve with exceptions allowing small children, the sick or very old persons to eat a bit more. This tradition is still followed by many Lithuanians. Although official fasting no longer exists, most Lithuanians refrain from eating meat on Christmas Eve so as to preserve tradition. Regardless of what is consumed during the day, it is vitally important that the Christmas Eve dinner include no meat dishes because it would then no longer be called Kūčios but an ordinary meal prepared for any other evening (Lithuanian-American Community 2002).
For the Christmas Eve dinner, the table is prepared in a special way. A handful of fine hay is spread evenly on the table which is a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger on hay. The table is then covered with a pure white tablecloth, set with plates and decorated with symbols of the life force, which sustains the human world according to pagan beliefs (Dundzila 1990). These include fir boughs, candles, and a bundle of unthreshed rye, which pagan families would traditionally bind around their apple trees the next day. Live flowers are not appropriate for the table, in particular the red or white poinsettias that are so common in other countries during the Christmas season.
Dinner starts when the first star appears in the sky. (This tradition is no longer common). Waiting for the star to appear in the sky symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem leading the shepherds to Bethlehem. Instead of a town, the star leads the members of the family to the table for dinner. If it is a cloudy night, the evening meal begins when the head of the house announces it is time to eat. Either way it is determined, the meal usually begins between six and seven o’clock.
In certain Lithuanian regions apples were placed on the table because December 24 is the feast day of Adam and Eve. The apples recalled our first parents through whose sin mankind fell and that the world was saved through the submissiveness of the New Eve— Mary, the Mother of God—to God's will(Lithuanian-American Community 2002).
If apples are placed on the table, the mother takes an apple, cuts it into as many pieces as there are diners and gives the father the first piece. This symbolizes the fall of the first parents when Eve gave Adam the apple which he took and ate(2002). Then the remaining apple pieces are distributed to those at table.
The reason for there being twelve separate dishes varies between pagan and Christian beliefs. The pagans practiced Kūčios traditionally with nine different foods, because there were nine months in the year according to the ancient calendar. According to the alternative tradition, the thirteen different dishes represented the thirteen lunar months of the year(Dundzila 1990). However, under the influence of the solar calendar, the number changed to twelve. Christians have different beliefs but it is not hard to see how the pagan beliefs could have been adapted by missionaries or monks. For Christians, the twelve different dishes served on the table represent Jesus’ twelve apostles.
The evening meal consists of very specific dishes. There can be no meat, dairy, or hot food. (Ramuva & Vilnius 2007) Typical dishes include fish, vegetables, and bread. Silkė is a name for herring, a type of fish, dish which is served with different sauces. The sauces can be tomato, mushroom, or onion based. Ungurys, or smoked European eel, is also a common dish. Other common dishes include boiled or baked potatoes, spanguolių kisielius (cranberry kissel), cooked sauerkraut (prepared without meat), mushrooms, kūčiukai or šližikai (bite-sized hard biscuits) with agounų pienas or aguonpienis (a poppy seed “milk”), cranberry pudding, and multigrain breads with honey and margarine because butter is not allowed being a dairy product.
According to ethnologists, Kūčiukai is the archaic form of ritual bread, that is meant for the souls. They are so tiny because souls have no material bodies; the plentifulness of them is due to the fact that there exists a great number of souls.
Everything served at the meal should be made from ingredients available in Lithuania during the winter. This is because the people whose lifestyle produced the Kūčios traditions made do with food prepared in the summer and fall: dried, pickled and otherwise preserved for the winter. The meal is traditionally served with water, homemade cider, or fruit juice. Everyone is expected to eat some of each dish served; whoever skips a Kūčios dish will not survive to see the next Christmas Eve. Leaving the table before everyone has finished eating is also considered unlucky; the first to rise while another is still eating will be the first to die. The meal is eaten leisurely but solemnly, there is little conversation or joking.(Ramuva & Vilnius 2007)
In the past rituals used to be widespread and now are not as common, the rituals used to predict the future and welfare of family members such as these:
After the meal, everyone leaves the table to go to sleep or the midnight mass, known as the Shepherds’ Mass. The food is left to stand overnight. It is believed that the spirits of deceased relatives or loved ones will visit the home during the night and the table set with food would make them feel welcome. It was believed that the baby Jesus allows the souls of all the departed to return to earth to visit their families.
The evening of Kūčios is filled with many traditions for either predicting the future or assuring success in the year to come. These traditions predate the Christians coming to Lithuania and, as such, are all pagan beliefs.
On Kūčios, as during many other Lithuanian feasts, much attention is paid to wedding themes. Many of these rituals involve the maidens in the house. There are several rare marriage charms:
On Christmas Eve a greater attention was given to animals. This was to assure their health, fertility and breeding success: