Lithuanian Carnival, Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras is, as elsewhere in the world, a pagan tradition that has been linked to the church calendar. A Lithuanian holiday to mark the end of bountiful tables before the Lenten fast, in Lithuania it also is a way to usher out winter and welcome spring with ritual and tradition.
Let’s take a deeper look at Lithuanian Mardi Gras, called Užgavėnės in Lithuanian, and how it is celebrated in Lithuanian culture.
When Is Lithuanian Mardi Gras?
Fat or Shrove Tuesday in Lithuania, since it is attached the church calendar and depends upon when Lithuanian Easter falls later in the year, falls on the same day as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday in other traditions that follow the Roman Catholic calendar.
Therefore, Shrove Tuesday falls somewhere in February or March. In Lithuania, winter traditionally hangs around well past March—sometimes into April or even May in particularly hard years, so this celebration may give hope that a good celebration will send winter, snow, and cold packing and encourage spring to arrive more quickly.
It also acknowledges the lengthening days, which become more apparent during this time after winter’s long, dark nights and helps break up the monotony of the grayness of the season with colorful masks, a fire, and plenty of food and laughter.
Food for Lithuania’s Shrove Tuesday
Pancakes, due to their resemblance to the sun, are an important part of Uzgavenes. Lithuanian Carnival shares this in common with other Mardi Gras festivities, such as Maslenitsa in Russia.
Of course, if people are to have a proper feast, pancakes must be accompanied by other hearty Lithuanian food dishes, such as a mixture of beans, potatoes, and pork, called šiupinys, perfect for a cold day and full of energy-giving nutrients and fat.
Lithuanian Carnival Masks
Masks are also a part of the Uzgavenes tradition. Lithuanian Mardi Gras masks are made of a variety of materials, but since Lithuanian folk art wood carvers are experts at their trade, wood has been a traditionally favorite material for Fat Tuesday masks. The masks often represent a witch or devil with contorted expressions, but animals may also be represented.
Unfortunately, in Lithuanian tradition, masks representing members of the Jewish and Roma community have been used alongside depictions of “evil” forces. Given that these populations are minorities, marginalized, and during WWII were all but exterminated in Lithuania, criticism has been waged against the use of such masks both from within Lithuanian society and without. As Lithuania becomes more tolerant and more aware, we can only hope that these elements of Uzgavenes fade into the past.
Žiema, žiema bėk iš kiemo!
Another important element to Lithuanian Carnival is the fight between winter, represented as a large, well-fed figure called Lašininis (Porker—lašiniai is “bacon” in Lithuanian), and spring, represented by a slender figure called Kanapinis (Hempen Man). These two characters symbolically duke it out, and as you can imagine, Kanapinis wins over his opponent every time.
Not to go easy on banishing winter, an effigy representing the cold season, called Morė, is burned as a part of the festivities.
People chant Žiema, žiema bėk iš kiemo! This phrase means, “Winter, winter, run out of the yard!”
Variations in Fat Tuesday Celebrations in Lithuania
Of course, with modern Uzgavenes celebrations being a resurrection of Baltic pagan traditions dating back to ancient times, it makes sense that different regions had their various ways of scaring away winter as well as enjoying the day.
Sometimes the effigies differed in names, appearance, or even gender. Sometimes they were drowned instead of set aflame. Sledding, visiting friends and family, swinging, and doing laundry were also a part of some Uzgavenes rituals.
Where to Celebrate Uzgavenes Today
If you’re in Lithuania when Carnival takes place, it’s worthwhile to seek out celebrations so you can witness them for yourself. Often, depending upon the year, Uzgavenes is celebrated somewhere in Old Town Vilnius, variously on Kudirkis Square, the Teachers’ House, or elsewhere.
Rumšiškės Open-air Ethnographic Museum, however, can be counted upon to host traditional festivities. If possible, it’s worth making a trip there to see Lithuanian Carnival celebrated in all its glory. But you can also go here to see other Lithuanian holidays being celebrated year-round.