Easter in the Baltic countries is a combination of Christian religious worship, Baltic pagan influence, and secular elements. While each country has its own way of celebrating Easter, some similarities exist between them.
Easter is a strong aspect of Baltic culture, and the way old traditions have been kept alive helps the people of today maintain continuity with the past.
What can you expect from Easter in the Baltics, and how do the countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia celebrate this springtime holiday?
The Baltic Countries’ Use of Easter Palms
Easter palms are one aspect of Easter in the Baltic countries that signify spring. Estonia and Latvia use pussy willow branches for their Easter Palms. The pussy willows branches are sometimes taken to church on Palm Sunday to be blessed. Some people also put them in a vase for decoration.
But pussy willows have traditionally been used for another purpose. During Easter, it was typical for one person to switch another person lightly with the pussy willow branches. This practice dates back to pagan beliefs about ensuring fertility, especially during springtime. But it’s also a good way for family members to tease one another as a part of the Easter festivities.
Lithuanians use handcrafted palms for their Palm Sunday rituals—these are called verbos. Verbos are a beautiful aspect of Lithuanian folk art. Made from dried flowers and grasses, they come in all sizes from palm-sized to several feet long. They also vary in shape, with designs depending upon the region they originate from—you’ll find fat, round verbos as well as tall, skinny ones at markets in Vilnius. Kaziukas Fair, which takes place at the beginning of March each year—well in time for Easter—is an excellent source for verbos.
Verbos may also be blessed at church on Palm Sunday, and like pussy willows, they act as lovely decorations that remind homeowners of the warmth, freshness, and brightness of spring.
Swinging for Easter in the Baltic States
Building swings during springtime is a well-established tradition in the Baltic countries.
While in Lithuania, folklore associations between swings and springtime are more relevant to Uzgavenes (Carnival), in Latvia and Estonia they are more relevant to Easter.
Large wooden swings that can accommodate multiple people standing were typically built in village centers so all could enjoy them. In Latvia, these swings were destroyed after Easter to prevent witches from using them for ill purposes.
Egg Decorating: An Essential Baltic Easter Tradition
Easter eggs are another essential aspect to Easter in the Baltics. Easter egg decorating has been practiced for generations.
If you know anything about the history of Easter eggs, you probably know that they were originally colored using natural plant dyes. Commonly found plant materials are able to color eggshells a variety of hues. For example, beets, a favorite root vegetable in the Baltic countries, turn eggshells pink.
Probably most easy to use and most common is dying eggshells with onion skins. While all three Baltic countries have such a tradition, it’s Latvia and Estonia whose egg-dying tradition preserves this technique as their most typical styles.
For a simple dye, eggs are boiled with the onion skins. For a textured appearance, the onion skins are bound to the eggs with cloth and twine before the boiling process. In the same way, flowers and leaves can be bound to the eggs to create patterns.
Lithuanian Easter eggs, called marguciai, have been elevated to a type of Lithuanian folk art that is practiced year round. These eggs are typically decorated in one of two ways:
- Using the wax-resist method, where wax is placed onto the egg to resist the dye bath it’s placed into.
- Using a knife or a needle, enabling the artists to scratch a design onto the surface of a dyed egg.
Lithuanian Easter eggs are characterized by the teardrop-shaped markings used to create designs on the egg.
The Magic of the Baltic Easter Egg
In all Baltic Easter traditions, eggs were considered magical and protective. People used them in rituals and to predict the future. Their decoration and use were also surrounded by superstition. The different colors on the eggs had special meanings, too!
At their most basic, Easter eggs symbolized life and birth, eternity, or the sun. But they also protected fields or farm animals, could send a message of affection, or were given as gifts to family and friends.
Easter Egg Games
Easter eggs were also used in a form of play for Easter in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Egg-cracking, where two opponents knock their eggs together to see whose egg has the stronger shell, is a common game.
Egg-rolling, where players send eggs down a slope to see which ones rolls the farthest, is another game from times past.
The Easter Sunday Meal
Today, people are of course flexible about what they eat for the Easter Sunday meal. However, traditionally, certain foods were incorporated into the Easter lunch or dinner with symbolic or seasonal meaning.
For example, eggs, as a symbol of the holiday, have long been eaten on their own or used in side dishes. All those boiled and colored Easter eggs needed to be eaten, after all!
Dishes made with dairy—including cheese-based desserts—are also a popular addition. As cheese-producing countries, the cuisine of the Baltic states sees generous use of cheese in dishes. Much of this cheese is of a mild, white, pressed variety, but cheese curds are also used for both savory and sweet dishes.
Pascha or pasha is a sweet dish in all three Baltic Easter traditions that is also enjoyed in countries such as Russia and Ukraine. This dish sees cheese curds, sugar, dried fruit, and spices or nuts molded into a soft dessert.
A main meat dish is also important because Easter ends the Lenten fast, which starts on Shrove Tuesday. Veal, ham, chicken, or rabbit are all potential main dishes for the Easter Sunday meal.
Each Baltic country has different national holidays connected to Easter.
- In Lithuania, the Monday following Easter is a day off.
- Estonia gives people Good Friday off, instead.
- Latvians enjoy both Good Friday and Easter Monday off.
Religion and Easter in the Baltics
The Baltic nations are a mixture of religions. Many people consider themselves atheists or, if they consider themselves Christian, do not actively worship. Though, of course, other religions are represented in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the majority of those who consider themselves to belong to a faith fall into one of three categories:
- Eastern Orthodox
Catholics and Lutherans celebrate Easter earlier than those who belong to Orthodox Christianity due to the difference in church calendars.
How to Experience Easter in the Baltics
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all organize Easter- and springtime-related events in major cities. They may also put decorate city squares and other public spaces for the holiday.
For a traditional Easter celebration, visitors to the Baltics and visit any one of the open-air ethnographic museums. Each country has its own museum of this type dedicated to preserving and demonstrating traditional folk culture through architecture, demonstrations, clothing, and food.
Are you looking for information specific to each Baltic state? The following articles go into detail about Easter in each country:
If you’re interested in how other countries of Central and Eastern Europe celebrate Easter, check out: