Does Lithuania Celebrate Halloween? Well, Kind Of.
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Here's something I wasn't expecting to say:
Halloween has arrived in Lithuania.
Yes, Halloween - the spooky, pumpkin-carving American past-time that usually devolves into an arm wrestle over precious candy loot. Of course, Halloween is actually the ghost of the Celt's pagan tradition, Samhain (shocking, y'all!), but Americans have really taken it to the next level with their elaborate costumes, waxy candy corn, and, well... capitalism.
Regardless, I came to Lithuania knowing Halloween doesn't exist as a national past-time, so I've been endlessly amused by the random pumpkins, bats, and skeletons around Vilnius. Some of my Lithuanian friends view it as a fun and new opportunity to gather in costume with friends. And even more interesting: the novelty of Halloween in Lithuania means I experience it as a novelty, myself - this time, from my own American lens. (Am I truly celebrating it for the first time?!)
But, of course, this immediately begs the question: if Lithuanians don't traditionally celebrate Halloween, do they have their own unique traditions? I didn't have to look far, because three (!) Lithuanian friends clued me in with this single amusing Youtube video. The main axis of the video is this: Lithuanians are in touch with the spirit and natural world all year round (Rasos/Joninės, Žolinės, etc.), so there's no need for a Halloween. This checks out with my own past findings, but I needed to know more.
As it turns out, the cultural celebration here is actually akin to the ancestor-honoring Día de los Muertos - and it's a national bank holiday. I've been looking forward to it for at least a month now. Fellow Americans and other nationalities, meet Vėlinės. First, I should explain that "vėlė" translates to spirit or ghost. In the weeks before this November 2 holiday, Lithuanians are busy buying candles and flowers to decorate their ancestors' graves. (Even now, the grocery store entrances are filled to the brim with candles and flowers!) They believe that when a person dies, their spirit - vėlė - leaves their body, coming back to visit family members. Similar to Samhain, the veil is especially thin during Vėlinės. Lithuanians may travel across the country to visit family members and loved ones to pay their respects. Here's a photo from a previous year taken by my friend, Nikki (thanks, friend!):
So, of course, I then had the burning question: was this holiday previously even more expanded? What did it encompass in centuries past? Here's what I found: in the past, it wasn't only customary to light candles and decorate graves during Vėlinės. Instead, Baltic people were feasting with their departed loved ones - as recently as the 19th century. While the recommended Youtube video mentioned creating table space and food for ancestors at Christmas Eve, my research led me to understand that it wasn't a one-time thing - yep, a far more consistent spirit connection.
Romuva - Lithuania's neo-pagan tradition - hints at the details of past celebrations. Traditionally, Vėlinės began at the completion of the fall harvest and originally lasted much longer - so many festivals! - but Christian influence reduced it to one day. At home and in cemeteries, people dined with their ancestors; at home, a traditional cleansing sauna preempted the celebration. Family members not only left food for their returned ancestors as a blessing, but these gatherings also acted as host meals for beggars, or elgeta. Folk wisdom said: "What do you do for an elgeta, you do for a vėlė," really bridging that love thy neighbor gap. Essentially, the prayer acted as both a food and love offering - a wish that the nourishment be as filling as their love and memory for each other. And then, food was eaten in silence. (Fun!) In a similar Jewish nod, wine and a seat is left for the prophet, Elijah, at our Passover exodus celebration. Traditions have a way of weaving into each other, don't they?
And dear reader, we all know by now that my ancestors are Eastern European, so I can't help but get excited by another new way to honor my ancestors. Whether you're celebrating Halloween, Samhain, Vėlinės, Día de los Muertos, or something else, I hope you view these veil-thin days as an opportunity to connect with your own ancestors, whatever this means for you.
Signing off from spooky Vilnius, viso gero!