Lithuanan customs and traditions

Shrove Tuesday – Uzgavenes
(or "The Winter Farewell Festival - Pancake Day")
by Dimo Dimov

The tradition of the masked rites can be seen as a part of nearly every local and regional culture in Europe. Of course, the most popular among them are the Alpine masked rites in Austria, Southern Germany and Southern Tyrol, known as Perchten. In a previous text of SVARGA we described the masked rites of Bulgaria, the Kukeri and Survakari.
In a far more northern region, in Lithuania, a land still keeping the buds of its long traditional heritage, also exists such a rite - the Uzgavenes, although much has been lost and the precious heathen customs are in a state of arising from the ashes.

It was very difficult to find reliable texts and sources about this topic, however I was able to collect some very informative scripts from the Baltic culture. The last day before the start of Lent is called Shrove Tuesday. The following day, Ash Wednesday (Pelenu diena), starts the long, solemn and lean period of Lent (Gavenia).

In the past, abstinence was very strict: no meat at all could be eaten for seven weeks and milk could only be used occassionally; adults ate only three times ad day and only once a full meal.
Parties, dances and song were forbidden by tradition. As a result, people tried to be merry and noisy on Uzgavenes and to eat much rich food.

The main dish for Uzgavenes is pancakes usually made of flour, apples and berries. In Samogitia it was customary to feast on pease-pudding (siupinys). A piǵs tail is cooked in this and the stuck in the middle of the bowl.The person who gets it in his or her dish, will be luck all that year.

It is not inadvisable to drink water – this will cause severe thirst all year long.

[…the bees would be industrious that summer, would fly far and gather much honey…]

Swings were hung from barn rafters for the young and also for adults. Men wanted to swing high so their steeds would be swift and fleet; the women swung so the flax harvest would be good, the flax tall and the fibers long […kad linu derlius butu geras,…].

To ensure a bountiful harvest the following summer, water was splashed on all comers: revelers wearing masks, neighbours going for a ride, uzgaven carousers and guests crowding into the yard. Preparations for this water ritual were made in advance, pails were filled, at times even fortified with snowballs.

It was customary to take “bees” for a ride. A barrel or tub of water was placed in a sleigh, several merry girls (the “bees”) came on village road shouting “Water, water!” (“Vandens, Vandens!”). Bystanders tried to pour water on them but were unable to approach the sleigh because girls ladled water from the tub and splashed it on them while the driver poked everyine with his whip. Sometimes teenage boys got into the barrel or tub and shouted, “Water, water!”. Everyone tried to pour water into the tub while those on the sleigh had to keep everyone from approaching it.

The costumed and masked revelers are an integral part of the Uzgavenes festivities. Uzgaven carnivals (Mardi Gras) are famous in other countries.
Yet the lithuanian Uzgavenes costumed revelers and the masked people of other nations have their origin in the battle between spring and the demons of winter, a pre-christian concept.

The Uzgavenes mark the beginning of spring – not the spring whose first signs are sprigs of green, birdsongs and blossoms, but the spring that conquers the forces of winter, lengthens days and augurs the growth of a new harvest. With diverse rituals, prognostication, masks and the battles waged between these masks, the people tried ti help spring defeat winter, speed its arrival and to gain favor to the forces of nature for a good harvest.

Masks for Uzgavenes were homemade. They were very imaginative, although created from ordinary materials like tree bark, fur, flax, wheel rims, lumber, tow.

Face masks were made from tree bark. They were started in the summer. A suitable piece of bark was removed, holes cut for the mouth, nose and eyes and the dried well. Thread, moss or fur were glued on for the beard and hair and twine added to secure the mask for the head.
The persońs nose was blackened with coal or whitened with flour. An old hat was shoved on the head, oversized tattered clothes, an inverted fur coat and a rope around the waist completed the Uzgavenes costumes.

Masks, especiall devil masks, were carved directly from soft wood. A long, hooked or pointed nose, horns and protruding chin were sculpted. Holes were fashioned for the eyes and mouth. Sometimes a piece of hard leather belt was attached to the lower lip – the was the tongue sticking out. Hair was made from flax, fur and hemp.

A mask can also be cut from an old shearling coat by shaving the wool from the forehead and cheeks and leaving only eyebrows, a beard and sideburns.

Tall hefty men often dressed in womeńs clothes. They made a doll, a “child” from rags and went about offering to tell fortunes and read palms.

Favorite costumes used were beggards, gypsies and jews. Others were mythological beings like devils, witches and Death. Animals like horses, goats, monkeys; birds like cranes.

Uzgaven Horse costumes:
Sometimes a horsés head was sewn from cloth, a mane added, buttons for eyes and the neck was arched. This head was mounted on a stick which a man straddled and “rode”.
The man wrapped himself in a cloak or blanket so that only his feet and the “horsés” head were visible. The uzgaven “horses” kicked, jumped and run wild and produced much laughter, but they also needed to be lead and controlled by several attendants.

[The same with “goats” and cranes (Kranich)]

Death (Giltine) wears a white floor-length shirt, whitens her face, draws black circles around her eyes and has long sharp teeth. She carries a scythe and aims to cut down and carry someone off to after-life.
Death is the Deviĺs sworn enemy, but they are also allies: whatever Death cuts down, the Devil (Velniu) carries of to hell (Pragara).

[Death fights the Devil over another reveler – usually a Drunk)

The revelers go from house to house, along the way they are feted with Mardi Gras food and drink and doused with water. Their procession is very noisy, with bells, music, laughter and dances. Finally everyone assembles at a house where the hunt concludes with refreshments – only until midnight.

- Kotre
- More
- Ciucela

A wheel is attached to a sleigh and turns when the sleigh is pulled. A womens figure is made from twigs or straw and placed in the wheel; Brooms, flails or sticks are tied to her dangling arms. As the sleigh is pulled, the wheel turns and the women/Kotre turns with it.
[And again here is an aequivalent to Frau Perchta from the Alpine traditions!]

And all the attendants sing among:
“Giving Ciucela a ride for the sake of a good flax crop.”
(Atrodo, kaip tikra ciucela)

The hunt ends where a huge fire has been built. Kotre is added to the fire and burned (or hung or drowned) !

= The destruction of the winter demonic creatures.

The last Uzgaven characters are very funny:
- Mr Bacon (Lasininis)
- Mr Hemp (Kanapinis)

They burst fighting thorugh the the door just before the party is about to end!

Mr Bacon is stout and fat, covered with sausages = Symbol of the happy, fat Post-winter period.

Mr Hemp is lean, sickly looking with a rope pulled around his waist. He wears herring heads and a crust of bread. He represents the Lenten fast. (Fastenzeit)

Every time Mr Bacon loses! He is chased out the door and the devil gleefully follows behind. Then Mr Hemp takes a whip, scattering the revelers and knocking the food from the table – it is the end of the Uzgaven festival.

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