Special Occasions in Baltic
Religion has a profound influence on the lives of the Baltic peoples. Most Lithuanians are members of the Roman Catholic Church, while both Latvians and Estonians are members of the Lutheran Church. Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Second World War erased their population in the Baltic lands.
The Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter highlight the festive calendar, but occasions for festivities also include celebrations of seasonal flowers and foods, saint’s days, harvesting and sowing, and family events such as births, weddings, and funerals. For example, the Estonian celebrations of Leaf Month (May), Juice Month (April), and Candles (February) indicate the deep ties of religion and nature. Thus the bounty of crops and orchards, religious and family events all intertwine in a heartfelt thanksgiving expressed in humble devotion and happy gatherings.
Traditional customs for Christmas in Lithuania include a meatless menu for Christmas Eve (called kudos), with twelve special dishes prepared from grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish to symbolize the twelve apostles. One of the oldest traditional dishes for kudos is a fermented poppy seed soup, aguono pienas, served with dumplings. Church services, visiting friends, and a buffet menu of ham baked in a sourdough crust, roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes, varieties of homemade sausages, and special winter salads completed with a display of special cookies and pastries (especially the poppy seed roll called aguonines) are part of the festive observances.
In the country areas of all the Baltic lands, the slaughtering of a pig for Christmas is followed by the many traditional activities involved in making sausages and blood puddings, curing and smoking hams and bacons, and rendering fat for lard. Again, roasted geese stuffed with apples and prunes share the table with salads of chopped herring and beets, potato dishes of many kinds, tart and salted pickles contrasted with sweet fruit preserves and all washed down with homemade beers and wines and even homemade vodka, faintly redolent of caraway. And while others favor richly sweet desserts to complete festive occasions, the Baltic pastries and yeast doughs owe their fragrance to roasted crushed nuts and poppy seeds and pot cheese: filling and delicious.
Concern and a special love for animals is exemplified by the Christmas Eve tradition of feeding small amounts of bread and barley to the farm animals before the family’s evening meal. This is similar to traditions in Slavic countries.
Easter is celebrated with church services, and the menu reflects the joy of the spring season. Decorated eggs as well as fruits and berries are hidden for the children to find, and the game of hohsimine (Estonian mischievous cracking of hard, and sometimes soft, eggs) is enjoyed by everyone. Communal buffet tables featuring family specialties are set up and prepared well ahead of time: a buffet of salads, meats, and fish and an array of good breads will be enhanced by the presence of the pasha: a Russian-inspired delicate cheese and whipped cream mold.
Weddings are often the excuse for the wearing of regional costumes and the presentation of distinct regional specialties in food, music, and dance. An Estonian country specialty is the serving of soup (pulmasupp) and farina and milk in wooden bowls traditionally eaten with wooden spoons. This wed-ding supper is accompanied by specially made beer drunk from wooden steins.
Similarly, traditional funeral practices often follow local or regional as well as religious customs. In some country areas of Estonia, the path for the funeral pro-cession may be laid out with spruce boughs, a spruce wreath marking the house of mourning. Following the burial, a large meal prepared by friends and neighbors may include roasted pig, sausages, blood puddings, headcheese, winter salads, or fruit compotes and breads. Homemade vodka will be drunk in toasts to the departed one.