By Asta R., Springfield, Illinois
Christmas was a very special and magical time in our family when I was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s in Kaunas, Lithuania. We were living in the same house with my father’s parents much of that time, as well as my father’s sister’s family. My parents and grandparents would prepare us for Christmas by telling us stories about Jesus, as well as Lithuanian folk stories of the season. We loved them all. I truly believed that animals talk on Christmas Eve, and that the longest straw pulled from under the tablecloth during our special Christmas Eve feast, called Kucios (or Kuciu vakaras), would mean the longest life.
Our grandmother would stress the importance of having a clean house and clean bodies in preparation for Jesus’ birth. We all would help to clean and scrub the house, change all the sheets, and wash and iron clothes. I think that rush of cleaning before Kucios made it even more special.
The day before Christmas Eve, or even on the same day, we would decorate a real but modest-size Christmas tree. I still remember that evergreen smell, so crisp and fresh! We would decorate the tree with regular ornaments, but also add paper snowflakes, garlands, cotton balls, and of course, chocolate candies–those were the best! My brother, my cousins and I always ate the candies right off the tree, then arranged the wrappers on the tree so they still looked full and none of the adults would know.
The kitchen on Christmas Eve was too busy for kids even to enter because my grandmother and mother were preparing 12 special Kucios dishes. These traditional dishes always included several combinations of herring: herring with plums and nuts, herring with red beets and beans, and sometimes with dried apricots, or with carrots and onions. Our bread was neatly sliced under a linen cloth to keep it warm. The table was also set with hot boiled potatoes, baked fish patties, and sometimes with a mushroom and cheese dish that melted in the mouth.
Mom and Grandma always made kisielius, a thick fruity drink made from from cranberries and potato starch. We used to drink it cold, and I still remember how we kept it cool outside because our small refrigerator was so overstuffed. One of our main dishes was kuciukai, little poppy seed crackers that were always homemade. We also always made fresh poppy seed milk right on Christmas Eve. When I was old enough, it was my job to grind the poppy seeds until they were white. Oh, it was such a long job at the time!
Then after all the cleaning, decorating, and cooking, we would wait until the appearance of the Evening Star. Only under its clear and beautiful light would we then go to the table, usually between 8 and 9 p.m., and sit down to our family Christmas Eve dinner. The oldest person said the opening prayer and broke the large Christmas wafer, which we all passed around and shared, each person breaking off a piece. (This is a communion-like wafer that is specially blessed in church in preparation for Christmas.) After that, everyone did their best to sample at least a portion of all 12 traditional Kucios dishes–and not overeat. There were never any alcoholic beverages on the table on Christmas Eve and no meat, just fish. Wine was tasted only on Christmas Day.
After the meal, we used to sit around talking until about midnight, when there was a sudden knock at the door. This was the exciting moment when we children would rush to the door to find a bag full presents for everyone! Some years, Santa, himself, brought the bag. Only after midnight was it permitted to play music and dance—if anyone still had enough energy.
My last Christmas in Lithuania, before our whole family emigrated, was in 2003. Although my grandmother was gone, my grandfather was still alive, and it was great to have that last Kucios with him (he died in March, and we emigrated in June.) I do miss those Christmas Eves with my grandparents—but I am so happy to have all these memories.
Our happy Kucios tradition continues here in the U.S., where we have had some very nice Christmas Eve dinners in Chicago with extended family.