Traditions, rituals and folklore related to calendar feasts


Human life and the conception of time are regulated by the phenomenon of nature, first of all decrease in the sun light intensity and the solstice. The solstice was expected to appear on about the 30th of November (this period of time coincides with Advent, compare to Latin word adventus – arrival), and its rebirth has been celebrated at the end of December (approximately from Christian Christmas – 25 December) up to 6 January – the Twelfth day). The longest day feast (St John) as a rule was started at the end of May and lasted up to the 29th of June (St Peter). According to the ancient ritual conception of the annual feast cycle was divided by ethnologists into the following two large parts:

1) rituals arranged to glorify the sum rebirth, to wake the nature and earth, to ensure future yield, to condition the affluence of crops and domestic animals (Christmas, New Year, Mardi Gras, St George, Easter, Pentecost and others);

2) rituals related to looking forward to the yield, harvesting, thanks to divinities and ancestry for the affluence (St John, St Peter, the completion of rye harvesting, the end of harvesting feast, the flax puller and the flax scutcher, Allhallows, the All Soul‘s Day).

Although each seasonal feast was related to particular objectives, rituals and musical „score“it is possible to reveal some common features. One of these features is related to ritual dishes which are being prepared during different seasons and feasts. A symbolic affluence accent is a common element related to the dishes mentioned, for instance during Christmas even nowadays it is required to eat 12 dishes and during Mardi Gras it is necessary to have 12 meals and similar.

The origin of the main ritual dishes is rooted in the times of primitive society: these are dishes made of beans, cereals, as well as of poppy seeds, hemp, and honey. Coliphia (one of the most important ritual dishes prepared as for funerals as for seasonal feasts, which was connected to the dead ancestry cult) is made of wheat, barley, peas, beans, rye, mixing it with water sweetened with honey or the poppy milk. Hotchpotch for Mardi Gras, Christmas and Easter is being prepared of cereals, peas, flour, fat and pork. The Mardi Gras pancakes are treated as archaic ritual dishes (earlier, these pancakes were designed for the dead). One of the most important ritual drinks is beer.

In different feasts it is possible to detect some traces of cult of the dead. Yet in the beginning of the XX century it was hoped that souls of dead relatives stay among the living. This was conditioned by constant attention to the dead drawn by the country community. For example, after having started to eat Christmas dinner, the first pieces of dishes and sips of drinks were given to souls of ancestors and yield divinities. This ancient tradition was observed while celebrating all other agricultural and family feasts with the belief that the ancestors’ souls were participating in the feast celebrating.

Particular dishes for the dead have been prepared two times a year: in spring (prior to ploughing and seeding) and in autumn (at the end of October after harvesting). Earlier, people during the All Soul‘s Day were gathering at cemeteries and not only mourning for the dead, but preparing particular dishes as well. Traditions related to conjuring up the spirits of the dead and treating were observed within the All Hallows and All Soul‘s Day. Baking of bread designed for the dead ancestors was of prime importance. This kind of bread was being baked within St George, Pentecost, the Assumption, the All Hallows and other feasts and was distributed to beggars.

In opinion of ethnologists, souls of the world of the dead ancestors was represented by guisers that were walking during the time of seasonal and family feasts (within the period of time between feasts, such as Christmas and Epiphany, during Mardi Gras and weddings). Participants of the walking mentioned used to be dressed the way that nobody could recognize them: they were wearing particular clothes and their faces were in masks, also they tried to speak in a disguise voice. Toothless masks with crooked noses represented faces of old people (ancestors). Masters were rewarding the guisers that had visited their homes. It was a symbolic equivalent of oblation to be given to the dead ancestors. When leaving, the guisers were wishing the masters a good yield, health and similar. Some time ago these wishes had a power of the spell that at mythological level meant a principle “one good turn deserves another“.

A group of guisers were making a terrible noise: they used everything that could jingle or rattle to create a certain type of “music“. This noise was used for one important purpose – to scare evil spirits. Ritual noise was sounded by the wooden blocks carriers during Christmas and Mardi Gras and by lalauninkai (performers of lalavimas ritual) during Easter. Funerals were also ‚accompanied’ with a certain noise trying to scare a soul of a dead or to ensure its successful trip to ad patres.

Different seasonal feasts were associated with carrying and destruction (burning or sinking) an appropriate symbolic object (the Christmas wooden block, The Mardi Gras blocks, specters etc.). Despite the fact that there was a slight difference in rituals related to the form and the object to be destructed (a log or anthropomorphic creature) all the aforementioned could be treated as rituals of regeneration of the world cosmic existence. The process of the ritual object destruction reminds the main Indo-European myth about the World created of the body parts of the chthonic creature that had been killed (donated).

Most spring feasts are associated with the customs of the nature and earth wakening. Yet during Mardi Gras it was started to go by horse-drawn sledge; it was sledging within the village territory or planted fields. Very often people in sledge were swilled. This custom original sense could be related to the yield ensuring. Water pouring is also associated with fertility and fecundity. In descriptions one can often read about throwing in the snow out of sledge, children tubing etc. All the aforementioned actions are related to agricultural magic and belief that having coalesced with the earth the latter shall be provided with saps of the human being (there was a tradition to roll on the ground during some spring and rye harvest feasts).

Custom related to teetering is also associated with symbolic‚ wakening of nature and agricultural magic. Having started teetering at Mardi Gras people kept teetering during the whole period of spring. It is vulgarly supposed that sledging and teetering are mostly related to flax growing (“the higher you teer the longer be flax-fibre“).

Visiting rye (and other crops) fields started at Pentecost and lasted up to rye harvest was also related to magic actions. Visiting rye in spring-time while singing parugines songs is considered as a component of crop visiting (one of the most ancient and important agricultural ritual).

The primacy and forwardness are the issues to be stressed in most seasonal traditions and rituals. At the New Year people tried to get up as early as possible. In case of oversleeping one shall be a sleeper during the whole year. On the fist ploughing day a ploughman was trying to reach the field as soon as possible in order other ploughmen could not bypass him and choke his future crops. On Palm Sunday morning all people tried to wake up as early as possible to beat the family members with palm-trees. At Pentecost all the shepherds were trying to put cattle to pasture as early as possible (they called all names and made fun of the shepherd who was the last to give cattle at grass).

The newness (neatness) features were of prime importance in husbandmen’s customs and rituals. Men were preparing for the first ploughing day as for a grand occasion: they were washing themselves, wearing clean clothes, a shirt had to be extremely fresh – in this case it was a hope that crops would be “clean”, without drawks. They put on white clothes when seeding flax in order flax-fibre to be whiter.

Within the period of seasonal feasts people were trying to guess future events and predict future yield etc. It was believed that furture telling carried out during great feasts such as Christmas, New Year, Mardi Gras, Easter was true.


For the agriculturalists‘ community the songs sung during seasonal feasts and agricultural works were not treated as usual songs that could be performed at any time and any manner, they were treated as canticles that had a sacral application sphere that could be sung in a particular and impellent way. Even now, ritual songs are still called canticles by old Dzuk singers, they say: the Christmas, Mardi Gras, swing, rye canticle etc. In north-eastern Samogitia archaic polyphonic songs sutartinės are called canticles.

Each calendar feast had its obligatory canticles. These canticles became a kind of particular not-written “songbook” to be handed down from generation to generation. Up to nowadays, Lithuanian calendar canticles were not undergone any considerable changes (it is not allowed to amend ritual melodies). Their melodies are treated as original musical signs of grand seasonal occasions or particular calendar feasts. As a rule, most calendar canticles have their original melodies (melody types) based on which it is possible to sing several (sometimes up to 10) different poetic texts. The melodies mentioned kept safe their typical the tone and rhythm formulas which very often are expressed by a refrain, relevant to an appropriate feast, for instance: kalėda, leliumai (Christmas), jurja (St George), olu; valy volia (Pentecost), kupolėle kupole (St John) and others.

It is possible to state that texts of Lithuanian calendar canticles have not been influenced by Christianity and Christian realities (this statement comes to the front compared to traditions of neighbouring nations: the Poles, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians). The canticles mentioned preserved many archaic relicts. They also contain fragments of cosmogonic myth, cosmogonic images, reminiscence of the post existence conception and traces related to archaic gazing rituals. That is why these canticles are treated as the main source for renewing the ancient Balts‘ world outlook. Some outstanding scientists, such as the semiotic A. J. Greimas, archeologist M. Gimbutienė, mythologist N. Vėlius and others rely on these sources in their books.

A major part of calendar canticles were being performed by a group of performers, sung in unison with slight melodic deviations or by two groups in turns. The canticles do not show any particular melodic richness, ornamentness and free performance style. A strict, sometimes accented rhythm is more common for these songs.

It is necessary to draw one‘s attention to specific features of performance, voice intensity, color and the ritual conception related to calendar canticles. Rituals and customs include all kinds of human voice: whoop, singing, mourning, laughing, speaking, and as a result, they are attributed to symbolic or mythological meaning and are used for magic actions. A voice, as inborn human function, symbolizes “this”, the round world being opposite to “other“, the afterworld, where there are no voices. Ritual voice compared to natural one, is intensive. It is obviously directed outward, often toward the afterworld area.

One of the main objectives of calendar rituals and canticles is the opportunity to make impact on the nature. A canticle (together with relevant ritual) had to ensure the yield, addition and similar. It is notable that most canticles are being performed by a forced “open sound“, suitable for a field. Up to now it is possible to hear in Lithuanian folklore some fragments, reflecting loud performing of spring songs (starting at Mardi Gras). M. Stryjkowski compared a singing manner, related to songs of XVI c. performed to glorify gods at the ploughing start feasts, to the wolves‘yawl. The same way this Lithuanian manner of singing was characterized by T. Lepner in XVII c. (their voices are so clear “like of those wild animals that are killing sheep“). It is supposed that it was spoken about singing in the fields that was far different from German evangelic canticles performed within the indoor area. A loud performance of spring songs is, first of all, related to wakening of nature and fertility stimulating (“They were singing at Mardi Gras… Riding horses decorated with jingle-bells, they were crying as loud as possible to stimulate flax growing…“). A wide, intense, “extended“singing manner is common for the rye harvest canticles: “the rye songs should be performed in a plangent, wide manner“. Spring gazing songs were being performed in an intense voice as well: warblings, oliavimai (shepherd’s warblings with refrains ola, oli olia, vativola etc.) etc.: “voices were quavering so loudly that were heard in neighbouring villages and the voice could be moved with a hand“. These songs were aimed to protect animals against calamities, to stimulate their fertility etc. Vociferous voices are also common for an ancient mourning tradition (it was written in historical sources that mourners, gathered next to graves, were “crying”, “screaming“ loudly and similar).

Verbal sound (the magic of words) is extremely important in calendar rituals. Oracies spoken during different feasts while wishing a good yield and all the best. Words (characterful spells) increase the suggestion of some calendar canticles and strengthen their magic functions, for instance: “Grow flax, take the roots…“; “Grow, an apple-tree taller than estate, take the roots outside the estate, grow the red apples“; “Jurja, take the key, unlock the earth, free the grass…“ and others.

Earlier, refrains (or loud sounds) of sutartines and various calendar canticles, performed at the end of the text line, as if confirming the thought expressed, could have the magic sense: kalėda, tatato, lelimjo, siudijo, ratilio, dauno and others. Unfortunately, the essence of most refrains mentioned cannot be perceived nowadays, despite the fact that even now they are affected by their unusual sounding.

Calendar folklore in Lithuania cannot be found everywhere in Lithuania. Mostly it could be met in south-east Lithuania (Dzūkija), especially during the period of Advent and Christmas, Lenton and Easter. Sutartinės (the Mardi Grass riding, the Pentecost rytelis, spring swinging, the Pentecost paruginės, St John kupolinės and others.) were sung in north-eastern Lithuania (in Aukštaitija – Higher Lithuania). A wail for dead tradition is still help up in southern Dzūkija. It is being mourned during funerals and All Soul‘s Day. Much of the Penticost ritual folklore survived in south-western Lithuania, in Suvalkija (shepherds‘ oliavimai), paruginės (hymns were performed while walking, visiting thr spring rye) in eastern Lithuania. Most the Mardi Grass, St George and Easter swinging canticles were recorded within this territory.

According to opposite features, calendar dances, games and ritual actions are reflecting the two main semantic cycles: summer and winter. The main motive of the summer cycle is connected to the ring and actions, stimulating prolificacy and vitality, such as vertical jumps, trampling, clapping, pousseting in pairs, turning around, reeling off the “osier“ way and others. The winter cycle choreography reflects a contraposition, the transformation condition, of which the most important symbol is the choreography figure consisting of opposite rows (groups) and opposite movement in general. It is coordinated with singing in turn and the dialogue text structure, various probation actions, playing different roles. Guisers, playing the roles, related to exclusively syncretic nature, are common for the winter cycle only. These different the seasonal choreography features are more concentrated in central parts of the cycle and within the side parts (spring and autumn seasons) the ethnochoreographic signs of both cycles are being entwined.

Musical instruments in calendar feasts had two the following functions. The first is related to making the ritual noise. During Christmas (Evening of blukis) they were playing the tamburine or drums, during Easter it was played the drums (vats); during the period of Christmas, (between Christmas and Epiphany) and within Mardi Grass they were playing “false instruments“– kitchen utensils: pots, covers, vats, clattering pig bladder, scraping the “fiddle“, musical bow, beating with a whip (they were beating with a whip during St George as well) and similar. The second function: the ritual canticle background performance of ritual works or simply hitting it up. During Easter lalauninkai were providing music to folk songs and church canticles playing the kanklės (Lithuanian type of zither), dūda (bagpipe), fiddle, cimbolai (dulcimer) or harmonicas. In spring (especially during Pentecost) they were performing oliavimai, raliavimai, ridavimai and other similar works by a voice or various wind musical instruments (the Pentecost horn, wooden horn, lumzdelis (a kind of longitudinal flute) and others) that in ancient times had magical application. Within different calendar feasts (Christmas, Epiphany, Mardi Grass, Pentecost, St John and others) there were arranged various entertainment activities and dancing, background to which were provided by all the musical instruments known to Lithuanians: fiddle, cimbolai, kanklės, basetle (bass), dambrelis (Jew’s harp), dūda, skudučiai (multi-pipe whistles)and others.