Traditional holiday table
Treating a guest is an old Lithuanian tradition. And we adhere to it with sincerity. That’s why traditional holiday table is so important in Lithuania. The custom of heaping people’s plates with food without asking if they want any is slowly fading, but our traditional holidays still involve gatherings around the table, heartfelt conversations with family, and lots and lots of traditional dishes.
We always end the year with 12 dishes on the table – this is the most important tradition of the Kūčios dinner that we eat on Christmas Eve. The 12 dishes symbolise the months of the year, and we invite the people who are closest to us to partake of them on Christmas Eve – we cover the table with a white tablecloth with a handful of fine hay underneath it, and eat everything that nature gives us: grains, seeds and nuts, dried fruit, fish and vegetables. The most important dishes on the Kūčios table are kūčia – a boiled cereal dish with dried fruit and honey, and kūčiukai – sweet nuggets made from leavened dough and served with poppy seed milk. You won’t find any meat, dairy products or eggs though – the old tradition encourages fasting.
Easter, the feast of the resurrection, comes to us with the largest table. Baked ham, meat rolls, stuffed fish, vegetable dishes and pies – it’s simply impossible to eat everything. In Lithuania, the beginning of Easter has long been declared by beautifully decorated Easter eggs dyed in the colours of spring. This, the most important symbol of Easter, has been with us since the times of paganism – our ancestors associated it with resurrection and life. Decorated with the first herbs of spring, immersed in a bath of onion husks, oak or alder bark, or summer greens, or ornately decorated with wax, these eggs are the centrepiece of the Easter table, both now and then.
According to the old tradition, we drive winter out of our yards and streets with pancakes. Taking place in February, Užgavėnės is the last day to eat meat, and celebrates fertility and abundance. They used to say that if you eat well on Užgavėnes, you’ll be full, fat and strong all year long. So on that day, you should eat at least seven times, but no more than 12. And as fatty as possible – cabbage, vėdarai, stew, meat, sausages, pies, and of course – pancakes, to the joy of children and adults alike. We make all kinds – from potatoes, flour, curd cheese or meat, with savoury mushroom filling or sweet jam.
The first weekend of spring is the day of riestainis – a traditional ring-shaped bread. We hang a whole string of them around our necks and bring them home from the annual Kaziukas Fair. A traditional riestainis bought there and served with a cup of hot tea is just the best.