Monday, December 11, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 11 - A Beginner's Guide to Galerts

Today on Day 11 presenting Andrejs, a galerts-making rookie, with the goal of making this staple of the Latvian holiday table feasible to cook for each and every one of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas readers!

Galerts is a traditional Latvian meat-in-aspic dish, and is also known as head cheese or meat jelly. The Estonian version, sült, is made from pork using its gelatinous parts (although beef, poultry, and fish variants also are available). It is a traditional Christmas dish, but is sold in stores year-round. The Lithuanian variant, košeliena (deriving from košė (pulp or squash) or šaltiena (deriving from šalta, "cold", and refers to way of serving the dish), is usually made from pig's feet; sometimes part of the head is added.

Without further ado, Andrejs with his ‘beginner's guide to galerts’!!!

As most folks who are part of a small ethnic community know, being an observer or bystander at community events is usually not an option - one is expected to participate. Be that as it may, since my wife and I had just moved to Minneapolis from New York City, where we both had spent ten years in various roles in the Latvian community, I had promised my wife Anna that we would take a break from Latvian activity. However, I should have known better - one does not simply and easily step back from Latvian engagements! Within 48 hours of moving to Minneapolis a member of the Latvian "Ladies' Auxiliary" group (those who prepare all the delicious food and desserts at Latvian events), Larisa, reached out and asked me to prepare a traditional galerts for the Church Christmas bazaar. My qualifications for this task were that Larisa (a good friend of mine), remembered the one and only other time I had prepared the dish for a Latvian Christmas party fifteen years ago. Worse, I had done it as a joke, thinking it would be funny to bring galerts to an event where everyone else would bring cookies and other baked goods. Why is galerts funny? Because it is basically a cold meat Jell-O. I believe it follows the grand tradition of taking what each culture's forefathers did to either preserve food or use whatever protein was in abundance at the time (like with escargot, lobster, or lutefisk), and centuries later, declaring them delicacies.

As a Latvian kid, galerts was the bane of my existence. Visiting my grandparents was great, but I always dreaded that galerts might be served for dinner. Worse, the condiments for galerts are vinegar and horseradish - not exactly kid-friendly. I am not alone in this experience - to this day Anna refuses to eat galerts.

As an adult, I thought I had escaped being force-fed galerts. But I am also cursed by the desire to try new and different foods at restaurants. At one restaurant, I noticed "Pork in Aspic" on a menu. Intrigued, I asked the server what aspic is. He hesitated, and just said, "it''s...aspic". Rather than taking the hesitancy as a sign to move on, I took it as a challenge and ordered it, looking forward to trying something new. When our meals arrived, however, I was dejected - instead of finding an interesting new dish at a fancy New York City restaurant, I had just ordered myself a big ol' plate of galerts.

But back to the task at hand. When duty calls, duty calls. Considering this galerts would be my first contribution to our new Latvian community, I knew that I couldn't wing it as I had that first time 15 years ago, so I reached out to the Latvian cuisine expert - Anna's and Liene's mother, my mother-in-law (she teaches Latvian cuisine at the Chicago Latvian School, so I knew she could help me). While she was able to provide a few recipes, the Latvian cuisine expert pointed me toward the Latvian cuisine oracle - Anna's and Liene's grandmother. I was excited to achieve galerts enlightenment from the oracle, but as we all know from Greek Mythology, advice from oracles tends to be vague and subject to interpretation. Anna's grandmother said "Andrej, I do not follow a recipe for galerts, I simply make it". After expressing my hesitation, she took pity on me, and was able to find a recipe that she had once shared years ago with someone else seeking seeking galerts enlightenment. She also left me with a final piece of oracle advice: to use the recipe as a guide, but to make it my own. So with that, I give you my beginner's guide to galerts. But be sure to make it your own!

Recipe: Latvian galerts

1. Buy at least a couple of pounds of on-the bone uncooked meat - better to have too much than to realize you have too little. Remember that you'll be discarding the bones. I used ham hocks and pork ribs, but you could use beef ribs, lamb chops, or even rabbit.

2. Place meat in a large pan and barely cover with water (you want the eventual bone broth to be as rich as possible, so don't add any more water than needed to cover the meat). Add some bay leaves and whole peppercorns, as well as some veggies: carrots, onions, celery, or whatever you think would taste good. To be honest, I cheated a bit and added a couple of bouillon cubes as well. No one will be the wiser.

3. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for a couple of hours until the meat is falling off the bone.

4. Set aside some of the meat to dredge through BBQ sauce for dinner later. Your spouse will thank you.

5. Separate the meat from the bone, compost the bones, and refrigerate the meat.

6. Remove the veggies, bay leaves, etc. from the broth (or just strain it). Refrigerate the broth overnight.

7. Once the meat is cool enough, chop into small pieces - the smaller the better. If you have a meat grinder, even better (this is called "Musician's galerts", and as Anna's and Liene's father says, you can't even taste the musicians).

8. When the broth cools, the fat should settle on top - while fat in warm dishes is delicious, it is the enemy of a good galerts, which is served cold. Push the fat on the surface of the broth to one side and remove as much as possible. Hopefully you can stick a plastic utensil in the broth and have it stand up on its own - if so, success! If not, I reveal a cheater's solution in the next step.

9. Reheat the broth so that it is warm and can be poured. I add a packet or two of gelatin just in case - just don't tell anyone. Be careful not to add too much gelatin - a very firm galerts does not taste good.

10. As the broth heats, find smallish bowls that you can fill to the rim (no larger than ones you would eat cereal out of). Rinse the bowls with cold water (I don't know what rinsing the bowls with cold water does, but I do not question the oracle).

11. Place the meat in the bowls (densely, but do not pack the bowl with meat - leave some space for the broth to hold it all together). If you want to get fancy and add some color to your galerts, you can first place thinly sliced, cooked carrots at the bottom of the bowl and then cover them with the meat.

12. Pour the warm broth into the bowls. Fill to the rim. Place the bowls in the fridge and refrigerate overnight.

13. When ready to serve, run a knife around the inside edge of the bowl to separate the galerts from the bowl a bit. Place your serving plate on top of the bowl and flip over, landing the galerts upside down onto the plate. Give the bowl a gentle shake if the galerts doesn't release the first time. Garnish with greens or anything else that gives a splash of color. Serve with mustard, vinegar, and horseradish.

Following this recipe, I had a 50% success rate, but my failure was just from an attempt to make a vegan version, because why should vegans be let off the hook, right? I used tofu and "agar agar" in place of gelatin, which came out inedible and went directly into the compost bin.

'Vegan' galerts...
On the day of the bazaar, I was a bit nervous presenting my amateur galerts to the Ladies' Auxiliary members who have been running these events for literally decades. Luckily, my galerts was received with guarded approval, and two members even started arguing over it:

Left-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "So how should we slice it?"
Right-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "Slice it? But it is so beautiful!"
Left-brained Ladies' Auxiliary member: "Then how do you expect people to EAT it?"

The real judges, of course, would be those who have to taste it, and these folks take their ethnic Latvian food seriously. At the appointed time, people were lined up out of the hall and up three flights of stairs. I felt even more pressure when I realized that I was not the only person invited to make galerts, and my galerts was put at a disadvantage by being placed behind my competition on the banquet table. But as folks filed through, nearly everything was scooped up, and there was nothing left of my or my competition's galerts.

Anna and I were also able to get our annual quota of other Latvian foods like sauerkraut, black-eyed peas, pīrāgi, pan-fried pork-chops, and of course, the galerts (though Anna still refused to taste it). I had finally gotten over my childhood dread of galerts and enjoyed this year's portion. But for now, I'll leave the galerts eating to the true connoisseurs - maybe I'll try making it again in another 15 years or so... 

Thank you Andrejs, for this wonderful guide to making galerts! Since you won’t be making it again for another 15 years, it’s safe to visit during the holidays, right? (I share in Anna’s mistrust of the dish!!)

That’s all for today, and please join us again tomorrow on Day 12 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas for Baltic mittens…

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 10 - The Peace Light from Bethlehem

From candle to candle, lantern to lantern, scout to scout…

For 30 years the Peace Light from Bethlehem has been spreading a message of peace and unity across the world. Every year, a Scout from Austria retrieves the light from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, lighting a candle from the eternal flame. From there the Light travels back to Vienna, Austria under the auspices of the International Scouting Movement, and like the branches of a tree, the symbol of peace spreads through Europe during the month of December.

For 14 years the Peace Light has traveled to the Baltics, some years brought by the Ukrainian scouts, other years traveling north from Austria/Poland: Lithuania, to Latvia, to Estonia. Taikos šviesa iš Betliejaus, Betlēmes miera gaisma, Petlemmi rahu valgus; many names in different languages, but bringing the same message of peace & hope to cities, towns, communities and homes across the world.

12 year old Tobias Flachner lighting the Peace Light in Bethlehem in 2017 (source)

From Vienna, Austrian Airlines transported the Light of Peace to New York and to Toronto, arriving at JFK on November 25, 2017. After a sharing ceremony at the airport, the Light immediately started its travels across the United States; last week the Latvian Scouts in Chicago received it, and will pass it on Christmas Eve during candlelight ceremonies.

The Latvian scouts receive the Peace Light in 2014 (source)

We watched the connections travel west, then south: from Pembroke, MA  to Indianapolis with BSA Pack 105 from the Mayflower Council, Indiana to Chattanooga with Lincoln Heritage Council Troop 1, from Chattanooga to Atlanta with Troop 370 of the Atlanta Area Council…

And then, on the day after it snowed two inches here in the South (where it never snows!) I drove to Atlanta to bring the Light to Upstate SC. A red lantern was fueled and ready, and a supply of vigil candles awaited us at home.

Representative of Atlanta Area Council sharing the Light in Atlanta

Today we will have a Welcome Ceremony for the Peace Light, bringing Latvian Scouts, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts and the community together in this wonderful tradition. Represented will also be Troop 553 from the Indian Waters Council in Columbia, and through them the Light will continue its travels south to Florida, hopefully making it all the way to Key West.

We are honored to have been a part of bringing the Peace Light to Greenville (and possibly the Upstate) for the first time. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help of dozens of people, from the Scouts who transported the Light hundreds of miles from JFK, to the folks who manage and the Peace Light Facebook page…. From the Scout Leaders of Troop 30 here in Greenville today, to those leaders with a vision 30 years ago… Tonight our home will be lit by the Light of Peace, and I am warmed by the knowledge that I share this Light with Lithuanian, Latvian & Estonian Scouts, my family in Chicago, and communities and homes across the world.
If you are in the US/Canada and interested in participating in this tradition, please join the Facebook group “Peace Light – North America” where distribution plans and route maps are shared, as well as event information and photos. You will find links to the UK and other World Scouting Peace Light contacts at GAZ’s website. This website includes information about safe handling of the Peace light flame and how it is distributed throughout the European Continent and History of the Peace Light “movement.”

The Peace Light is a live flame, and precautions should be taken when transporting it and keeping it. When traveling, a lantern in a stabilizing carrier is most often used, and the car windows left partly open for ventilation. At home we prefer to keep the Light with the 3-day vigil candles. They are in glass cylinders, have no odor, and burn for up to three days. Instructions on building carriers for lanterns, as well as other ideas and suggestions can be found on the Peace Light website and Facebook group.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 9 - Christmastime Animal Stories and Superstitions

Christmas and the winter solstice is traditionally a magical time in all three of the Baltic countries, and nowhere is this magic more evident than in the natural world and the Baltic customs surrounding animals.

The Deer Mother (who represented the “life-giving-mother-deity”) was a center figure in Winter solstice celebrations in ancient and primitive cultures; she flew across the earth on the longest, darkest day of the year carrying the sun within her antlers to usher in the return of the sun and resume the fertility of the land. In Lithuania, the Devyniaragis (a white deer with nine antler points) carried the sun and moon within its antlers. Read more about Lithuanian traditions in Daiva Venckus’s post from last year’s series!

In ancient Latvia, Ziemassvētki celebrated the rebirth of the Sun Maiden. Traditional celebrations included participating in ķekatas (also known as budēļi & kaļadas, similar to mumming), when people dressed up costumes and went from house to house singing, dancing, and playing games. The traditional costumes varied, but popular choices were animals such as a horse, bear or crane. The ķekatas are believed to bring luck to the households that they visit, scaring away evil spirits in the process with the loud singing and carousing, and are warmly welcomed with food and drink. More on the budeļi tradition in Imanta’s post A Baltic Christmas Day 4 – Čigāni!

The Lithuanian winter solstice celebrations also included many superstitions concerning animals. For example, sprinkling wheat and peas in the barn was thought to ensure the health of your animals, while taking all the milk pots outside and placing around the farmstead after dinner was so that the cows would give more milk in the next year. If you want your horses to be good looking, steal manure from your neighbor and feed it to your horses, and to keep wolves from carrying away animals, mention wolves while eating.

There are a couple of traditions that some people still follow, such as taking Christmas bread to domestic animals in the barn and hay to the forest animals. In Lithuania, much attention was paid to the animals on Christmas Eve, as their health and fertility depended on it. However, be careful not to stay in the barn too long… In Latvia and Lithuania, animals were believed to gain the ability to speak like humans at midnight on Christmas Eve. This is a widespread superstition throughout Europe, and although in some cases the animals use this gift to help humans, in most cases overhearing the animals is bad luck. For Latvians it wasn’t only the animals that gained human characteristics; Christmas Night in the Kitchen by Margarita Stāraste Barvika tells the tale of everyday objects coming to life in addition to the old Dachshund gaining the power of speech.

Fortune telling was an important part of the winter solstice celebrations. An old Latvian superstition states that if you carried a black cat around the church on Christmas Eve, you would be rich. Concerning marriage in the upcoming year, the windows would be covered after supper, and a rooster and hen were pulled out from under the stove and tied together by the tails. Superstition said that if the rooster pulls the hen to the door, there will be a wedding; however if he pulls the hen back under the stove, there will not be a wedding that year.

In Estonia, fortune telling also often involved the animals. For example, the chances of a young woman getting married were predicted by giving corn to roosters; the rooster was then observed to see which grain it would eat first. Tradition also dictated that domestic animals in the barn were offered bread on Christmas Eve. And during the holidays, noisy activities such as horse-driving were not allowed, because they could disturb the good ghosts.

The magic of Christmas Eve also extended to the insects. Lithuanian tradition was for the beekeeper to take honey and bees to his poor neighbors, and so that bees would not swarm on Christmas Eve night, the beekeeper took the first harvest grain sheaf around the orchard. Meanwhile the Latvian custom involved going to a neighbor’s barn to shear a sheep, and placing that wool in the hives; this was thought to guarantee the health of the bees.

Many of these old traditions were incorporated into new ones with the advent of Christianity, and although we are not tying the tails of roosters and hens together to reveal the chances of a wedding in the upcoming year, you will find customs such as budeļi and extra care of animals around the holidays still practiced. A century ago, the trip to church was by horse-drawn sleigh accompanied by the jingling of tiny bells on the horse’s harness. Although these days the ride is more often in a vehicle, the jingling of those bells can still be heard on the wind on a magic Baltic Christmas Eve.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 8 - A Baltic Christmas in Britain

For Day 8 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we travel from Atlanta, GA to Britain! Please join me in welcoming Emily Gilbert, author and blogger at Changing Identities: Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain!

Estonian Christmas tree, Photo: Reet Järviks
Christmas is a time when many Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain recreate the traditions of their homelands and their parents’ homelands. Among the families of those who were forced to leave their homelands due to the Second World War, the unique traditions surrounding Christmas are of great importance, and provide an opportunity to reconnect with their Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian heritage.

Anita Woronycz, a second-generation Lithuanian living in Wales, recreates the traditions of 1930s Lithuania with her Lithuanian mother, who came to Britain after the Second World War. She described to me how they mix the traditions of Lithuania and Britain, so that all three generations in the family can enjoy this special time and celebrate their unique heritage. In Lithuanian tradition, Christmas Eve is the most important meal during the Christmas period and many Lithuanians in Britain have carried on this custom, known as Kūčios. In Anita’s family, the table is laid to seat all the generations, and red candles lit.

Anita's Family's Christmas Eve table

Anita’s mother and her Lithuanian sister-in law prepare many of the traditional twelve dishes eaten on Christmas Eve in Lithuania, but adapt them to suit their tastes. Kūčios is a meatless meal consisting of mainly uncooked dishes, including fish & vegetable dishes and bread. Anita’s mother prepares kisielius which is a cranberry dessert or drink of varying thickness. Anita’s late father, also Lithuanian, modified this dish to include the Lithuanian Christmas biscuits made with poppy seed, known as kūčiukai (šližikai), and Anita continues this family tradition: "Every family has their own traditions, just as the Brits do. I throw my Christmas Eve biscuits into my cranberry kissel (kisielius)!" Anita noted that at this meal they also eat coleslaw and crab sticks, which are "definitely not traditional!"

Before the meal, Anita noted the importance of the sharing of the "blessed Christmas wafers (plotkele) before eating." In Anita’s family, these are sent over from Lithuania by a family member.

Anita’s kūčiukai in kisielius

Latvians in Britain also prepare Latvian food for Christmas, and adapt it to varying degrees to suit their tastes. A Latvian woman who came to Britain in the late 1940s noted that she always made pīrāgi (a Latvian bread roll containing bacon) around Christmas time, in a similar way to how many English people make a batch of mince pies for the festive season.

Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain find it much easier to maintain traditions today than during the first decades after the war due to the wider availability of foodstuffs, which has increased further due to post-EU immigration from the Baltic countries. After the war and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain relied heavily on Polish products - which were the only similar food available in towns and cities outside London. A second-generation Latvian, Pauline Szelewski, noted that her family used to buy Polish products for Christmas: "Dad would seek out Polish products, which were the closest he could find at that time, I guess, i.e. sprats, black rye bread." As a second-generation Latvian living in Britain, Pauline notes that nowadays: "We have recreated our own low-key celebrations where we go for a walk in the country and enjoy a relaxed meal at the end of the day. We usually play charades, Scrabble, or watch a film."

During the period of war and displacement in the 1940s, it was particularly difficult to maintain the culinary and cultural Christmas traditions of the homeland. However, once in the safe havens of the DP camps, the refugees tried as much as possible (despite scant rations) to recreate homeland traditions. A Latvian woman described the food they had eaten in the DP Camps in Germany: "I know one Christmas Eve…. in the camp… all we had on that Christmas Eve – because I think they saved the nicer things for Christmas Day – we had boiled swede and sort of fresh herrings cooked in water. We didn’t even have fat. I will always remember that. But then on Christmas Day, I’m sure we had something much nicer. [But it was] not enough, no." A Lithuanian woman in Nottingham who was a child in Meerbeck DP camp also recalled that "…in Meerbeck, Father Christmas would bring us an orange. Now for me an orange… was fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic."

Pīrāgi (Photo: Alex Māzers)

After they arrived in Britain, Christmas became one of the most important ways to recall and celebrate customs of the homeland. In many cases traditions were adapted; for example, among intermarried couples, Christmas celebrations mixed two or more cultural traditions. An Estonian, Heino Poopuu, described how it was difficult to fully maintain the Estonian traditions with having an Irish wife: "At Christmas time we want to be feeling sort of nostalgic and listen to music, and well, we can’t listen to the same music. That’s one thing, and there are a great many other things."

Heino described how Christmas had been celebrated as a child on Saaremaa Island: "The evening of Christmas Eve was traditionally devoted to the observation of piety and might include going to church in the late afternoons, but the highpoint of the evening was the dinner of pearl barley sausages followed by carol singing under the candlelit Christmas tree. Children received one or two presents each – usually something to wear. The remaining three days were taken up with visiting and entertaining visiting relatives at home. When I was still very small, the custom of bringing straw indoors was still alive, enabling the children to play boisterous games which, I believe, was the reason mother stopped it as being too messy."

In Britain, the observance of religious traditions around Christmas continued to be important among all three Baltic communities, with Christmas church services taking place across Britain in the mother tongue. The communities also organized a variety of Christmas celebrations in clubs and associations across Britain. The picture below shows a Christmas party at the Estonian Club in Bradford in 2009 with Jõuluvana (Santa) and his helper (Päkapikk).

Photo courtesy of Reet Järvik

Another important aspect of Christmas among all three communities which differs from British tradition is the lighting of the Christmas trees with real candles. A second-generation Estonian in Britain, Reet Järvik described the importance of decorating her tree every year with wooden ornaments and real candles: "It is imperative that Estonians have a real Christmas tree with real candles. We have real candles every year."

In these ways, a Baltic Christmas in Britain is a mix of Latvian/Lithuanian/Estonian customs and British Christmas traditions, and even those of other cultures among intermarried couples. It has been fascinating to learn about how Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain celebrate Christmas, and I would like to wish everyone from all three communities in Britain and across the world, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thank you Emily, for the illuminating look at Baltic Christmas traditions in Britain! Emily Gilbert is author of Rebuilding Post-War Britain: Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian Refugees in Britain, 1946-1951, Pen and Sword, 2017. For more from Emily, please visit her blog, Changing Identities: Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians in Britain.

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.!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...