Lithuania has centuries of history of practicing rites surrounding springtime, and many of its “Easter” traditions have their origins in pagan customs, which Lithuanians held fast to until the fourteenth century, when they finally converted to Christianity under Vytautas the Great. That’s one reason that Lithuanian Easter is a colorful, bright celebration that mixes superstition and religion with crafts, food, and community.
Let’s look at some of the most important Lithuanian Easter traditions.
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The name Velykos for Easter in Lithuanian has a Slavic root (note that Lithuanian, a Baltic language, is not a Slavic language—but it has neighbors who speak Slavic languages!). Velykos means “big day,” “great day,” or “important day.” Lithuania, though many of its inhabitants are atheist, is officially a Catholic nation. As the most important holiday of the Roman Catholic calendar, it’s no wonder it has been given such a name.
Easter Customs and Important Days
Lithuanian Easter traditions, often center around Catholic customs. For example, some Lithuanians take Easter palms, or verbos, to church on Palm Sunday to be blessed the week before Easter Sunday (Verbų Sekmadienis). Didysis Ketvirtadienis, or Holy Thursday, a day of cleaning, is followed by Didysis Penktadienis, or Holy Friday, a day of quiet and reflection.
Holy Saturday and Egg Decorating
Traditionally, it was on Holy Saturday that people would decorate Easter eggs in the Lithuanian tradition—by scratching a design into a dyed egg or using the wax-resist method to create a pattern on the egg. Children today, of course, typically decorate eggs with commercial kits, unless a granny or crafty adult introduces them to dying eggs the old-fashioned way, with plant dyes made from herbs or onion skins. Usually, it’s expert craftspeople who made the elaborate eggs you see for sale in shops and outdoor markets—and the art takes years of practice to master!
Lithuanian Easter Palms
A unique craft in Lithuania is the verbos, or Easter palm. Because of the northern climate of Lithuania (and Poland, which also shares this tradition), church goers celebrating Palm Sunday, the day that celebrates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, had to get creative and make substitutes for palm leaves. The verbos tradition evolved from simple juniper, birch, or willow branches to elaborate and beautiful wands of dried flowers and grasses.
Verbos are sold by craftspeople in outdoor markets preceding Easter, such as at St. Casimir’s Fair and come in a range of sizes and designs. In a nod to their Baltic pagan roots, people may gently whack each other with the verbos like their ancestors, who believed doing so would bestow protection and luck upon the person being hit with the branch.
The Significance of Lithuanian Easter Palms
Palm Sunday is the Sunday that precedes Easter Sunday and is a day also associated with the coming of springtime, which makes the verbos’s relation to fertility, crops, and the health of farm animals unsurprising. The practice of “whipping” (more likely, lightly tapping) someone or something with a willow branch or verbos to promote health and luck predates the tradition of consecrating the verbos in church. (If you’re familiar with Polish Easter traditions, you’ll notice some similarities.)
In earlier times, the Easter palms were placed inside the house for protection from the elements and to ward away illness, and the juniper needles were burned for their fragrance and to purify the air. As with Lithuanian decorated eggs, the pagan and Christian traditions combine to serve a dual purpose.
The Making of Verbos
The earliest verbos may have been decorated with twine or paper when they were not used in their natural form as a pussy willow or juniper branch. Today, it’s possible to find verbos of all sizes and styles, from verbos that are like magic staffs and taller than an average person, to small verbos that are easy to carry in a pocket or bag. Dried and dyed flowers and decorative grasses are tied to a branch in fanciful ways, creating loops, poofs, or starbursts, with some verbos tall and slender and others looking almost like bouquets.
Though originally verbos were made as a family starting on Shrove Tuesday (Uzgavenes, the Lithuanian Carnival), today, craftspeople keeping this tradition alive make verbos with either regional or modern aesthetics in mind and sell them before Palm Sunday. It’s possible to see and buy a great variety of Lithuanian Easter palms at Kaziukas Fair in March—and you’ll even see older women selling bunches of simple, freshly cut pussy willow, which ties well into this centuries-long tradition for springtime.
Lithuanian Easter palms made lovely additions to an interior, arranged in a basket or a vase, and they keep for a long time, being made from dried flowers. Choose one or more to create an arrangement to brighten up your living space or to symbolize spring in a typically Lithuanian way.
Lithuanian Easter Sunday
Easter Sunday is the most important day associated with Easter in Lithuania. begins with an Easter church service, which even families that are not normally practicing Catholics may attend. Because Easter is so important to the Catholic calendar, if someone has to choose one day of year to go to church, this one is it! The churches in Vilnius hold mass in different languages. The Bernadine Church offers one in English, while Vilnius Cathedral’s is held in Lithuanian. For Polish mass, visit the Church of St. Peter and Paul, and for Russian, check out St. Casimir’s Church.
Lithuanian families then will enjoy an Easter meal, which may include sharing a hard-boiled egg and communion wafer, and lots of meat to make up for the Lenten fast that begins with the Lithuanian carnival celebration. The Easter table is piled high with foods such as kugelis, Easter bread, and traditional Lithuanian desserts.
Old Lithuanian Easter Traditions
Old Lithuanian Easter traditions may continue in a modern form and for the sake of fun and celebration. For example, the Easter Granny is said to visit children for Easter and leave Easter eggs, but these days she may leave candy or small gifts. In the past, people also made Easter egg trees, hanging Easter eggs from decorated branches to create a lively display. People may also crack eggs together to see whose breaks first.
How to Experience Easter in Lithuania as a Visitor
To get a taste of Lithuanian Easter traditions as a visitor, visit the Lithuanian Open-Air Museum in Rumsiskes, which is a park set up to reflect the regions of Lithuania, with a town square and houses representing regional architecture. There, you’ll be able to play Easter egg-rolling games, view the collection of beautiful Easter eggs, see people dressed in Lithuanian national clothing, hear music, and even try your hand at decorating eggs.
The city of Seduva opens an “Easter avenue,” a kindergarten courtyard where hundreds of Easter eggs are hung each year. The local kindergarten classes, those living in Seduva, and people from other parts of the world contribute eggs to hang in this unique and beautiful Easter display. If you’re in the area of Siauliai to see the Hill of Crosses as a stop on your Lithuania itinerary during the Easter holidays, you may want to pop by Seduva. It’s located between Panavazys and Siauliai.