Christmas in Lithuania: Festive Holiday Traditions

Christmas in Lithuania? Yes, please. This small country in Northern Europe celebrates the holiday season in a big way. From public-facing events to small family gatherings, here are customs and traditions you can expect when you visit Lithuania during Christmas.

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Christmas Trees

First, we have to talk about the Christmas trees. Lithuania’s Christmas trees are well-known for their vision and creativity, with the Vilnius Christmas tree often making the list of Europe’s most beautiful. Lighting up Cathedral Square, in past years, this tree has variously represented the game of chess, a giant clocks as seen from drone perspective, or cozy birdhouses with a hollow inside for children’s story hour.

Of course, the Cathedral Square Christmas tree isn’t the only remarkable tree in Lithuania. You’ll see beautiful trees throughout the capital—but if you travel around the country, you will find that smaller cities also get into the tree-decorating spirit and make a lasting impression with their annual contributions to this tradition! Think delicate garlands of lights, huge reflective bulbs, fanciful ornaments, and unpredictable but tasteful color schemes.

Christmas tree lights agains a black background
Lithuanian cities get into the Christmas tree tradition with enthusiasm. This tree is from Palanga. Photo by Evaldas Daugintis on Unsplash

Christmas Markets and Holiday Events

Lithuania’s Christmas markets are a big part of the December calendar of events in Lithuania. Though smaller markets throughout the country may appear, Vilnius, the capital city, is clearly the winner when it comes to number and duration of Christmas markets. You’ll be able to enjoy mulled wine and Christmas treats, shop for unique gifts made locally, and buy souvenirs that will remind you of your winter holiday in Lithuania for years to come. You’ll find Lithuanian folk art, Baltic amber, and Lithuanian linen as well as Lithuanian clothing brands.

See also: Vilnius Christmas Markets

Furthermore, a whole series of events surrounds the Christmas market, from visits from Santa, the appearance of a Christmas train, and even a light show projected onto the side of Vilnius Cathedral.

See also: Vilnius at Christmas

Of course, you’ll also notice that Christmas concerts and performances are held throughout the country at various venues. Take in The Nutcracker ballet, visit the opera, listen to a choir singing carols, or enjoy the orchestra or philharmonic. Kaunas, Klaipeda, and Vilnius in December have packed calendars that keep people busy and maintain a festive mood.

An arch of lights in front of a historic building decorated with Christmas lights
Here, the Presidential Palace in Vilnius is decorated for Christmas. Photo by The Northern Vox

Christmas Eve Traditions in Lithuania

Christmas Eve in Lithuania (Kūčios) is when Lithuanians celebrate Christmas officially. This day is for gathering family together for dinner and is important in Lithuanian culture. After the Christmas wafer (kalėdaitis) is broken and shared, relatives sit down to a meal of 12 meatless, eggless, and dairyless dishes, which signify either the 12 Apostles or the 12 months of the year. Each dish should be tasted by each guest in order to have a successful coming year.

Lithuanian Christmas foods may include:

  • Herring, often as a part of a salad (such as carrots and raisins, or beets and apples)
  • Cranberry kissel, a cranberry drink thickened with starch
  • Mixed grains
  • Borscht or other beet dishes
  • Kūčiukai, or poppyseed cookies, soaked in poppyseed milk, which is often sweetened
  • Potato dishes
  • Mushroom dishes

Old traditions, which may be upheld by elderly members of the family or as a part of the fun of Christmas, say that eating may begin after the Christmas Star can be seen in the sky. Furthermore, hay may be placed under the tablecloth to represent the hay of Jesus’s manger in Bethlehem. Sometimes, an extra plate may be placed as a memory to a deceased relative who can no longer partake in the festivities. These traditions mirror those of Christmas in Poland, which shares a history with neighboring Lithuania.

The magic of Christmas Eve doesn’t end here, however. It’s said that on this day, animals can talk. While city dwellers may listen closely to see if their cat or dog may have suddenly developed the gift of speech, in the countryside, it was typically farm animals that were expected to suddenly share their wisdom in human language rather than squawks, growls, or snorts.

A decorated Christmas tree stands in a square in Vilnius Old town
A Christmas tree decorates Town Hall Square in Vilnius every year. Photo by The Northern Vox

Christmas Day Traditions in Lithuania

While Christmas Eve in Lithuania may be important, Christmas Day (Kalėdos) is not overlooked as an opportunity for gathering and even more eating.

If families did not go to church on Christmas Eve, they may attend on Christmas Day. Large church services, such as at the Bernadine Church in Vilnius, are even broadcast on television. However, nothing quite beats attending one of these services in person.

This day is also a day for eating a more substantial meal—this one with meat. The main dish may be roast beef, duck, chicken, or pork, with various side accompaniments. The holiday table may also feature traditional Lithuanian desserts.

Lithuanians celebrate Christmas through the 26th of December, usually taking the 26th as a time to visit with more distant relatives or friends.

Lithuania’s Santa Claus

Santa Claus in Lithuania is known as Kalėdų Senelis (Christmas Grandfather). He makes public appearances at Vilnius Christmas markets and Christmas markets throughout Lithuania. However, when it comes to visiting houses, he does so on the night of Christmas Eve, so children wake up to gifts underneath the tree Christmas morning.

Pagan Lithuanian Christmas Traditions

Of course, while Christmas today is typically associated with Christianity, Lithuanians were celebrating during the winter during pre-Christian times. Baltic paganism leant the holiday superstitions and beliefs that, due to their fanciful basis, do not survive to this day—but nevertheless, they are fun to consider.

In addition to listening to animals talk during Christmas, you could:

  • Predict your future husband
  • Predict a future wedding
  • Protect the animals for the coming year
  • Ensure a good harvest

Spells and rituals differed from region to region, and they involved simple actions such as lighting candles in a special way, dropping coal or pine needles in water, or taking other protective or preventative measures to ensure good fortune for the coming year.

The dead were honored on this day, and an odd number of guests may have meant that a beggar was invited to dinner to even out that number.

Certain parts of Lithuania also have the tradition of mummers—young people who would dress up in particular clothing and go from house to house, singing and receiving small gifts in exchange.

You may also like: Christmas in Estonia

New Year’s Eve in Lithuania

New Year’s Eve marks the end of the Christmas season in Lithuania—well, almost. During Soviet times, New Year’s Eve was more important than Christmas, but Lithuania is well done with those enforced traditions. Instead, Christmas is the main holiday to spend with family, while New Year’s Eve is typically spent out on the town—sometimes outside on frigid squares, where people count down to the new year and a fireworks display. Some people also attend parties, either those organized by friends or at restaurants and other venues.

A Christmas wreath of pine cones with a sign that says "takeaway"
Restaurants may be open to serve clients for the holiday season in Vilnius. Photo by The Northern Vox

Lithuania’s Tradition of the Day of the Three Kings

Epiphany, January 6, is celebrated with a procession of the Three Kings, which ends the Christmas season. In the capital, this procession usually winds its way through Old Town Vilnius from the Gates of Dawn to Cathedral Square, with effigies of Kasparas, Merkelis, and Baltazaras prominent figures. Children especially love this procession.

If you see the symbols +K+M+B, it refers to the three magi—people write these initials on their doors in chalk.

Epiphany is often when people take a dunk in ice-cold lakes, often having to cut a hole in the ice first in order to partake in this ritual.

Russian Orthodox Christmas in Lithuania

Though Lithuania is, for the most part, at least according to history, a Roman Catholic nation (and its main holidays coincide with the Catholic calendar), it does have its share of Orthodox Christian believers. Orthodox holidays occur a bit later than those celebrated by Catholics, and though these are smaller and quieter observances, they do happen as a natural result of the nation being multi-cultural and multi-religious.

snow-covered trees in a city park
Snow isn’t guaranteed for Christmas in Lithuania, but it is a possibility. Photo by The Northern Vox

Celebrating Christmas in Lithuania as a Visitor

Visitors can certainly enjoy Christmas in Lithuania, though their celebrations may be limited to those of a more public nature unless they know Lithuanians willing to invite them over for the holidays.

Visitors can enjoy Christmas decorations and markets, as well as concerts and shows related to the holidays that run through the month of December. In fact, visiting during this time of year is one of the best things to do in Lithuania despite the cold weather!

Some restaurants may also be serving special Christmas menus, but it’s important to book in advance. Likewise, New Year’s Eve celebrations should be planned well in advance, as venues tend to fill up quickly.

Alternative ways to enjoy the Christmas season in Lithuania include taking a day trip, such as to Trakai, which is especially beautiful if there’s been a snowfall. However, it’s also possible to book some time at a spa to enjoy saunas, steam rooms, and massages. Or what about a cozy coastal retreat in Palanga and Sventoji, where the Baltic sea is just a short walk away?

Remember, however, that it is important to dress warmly for winter in the Baltics because, whether snow falls or not, temperatures are typically below freezing and skies are gray.

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