The Dark Side of Užgavėnės: Where Do We Go from Here?
Updated: Mar 3
To be honest with you, I haven't been looking forward to writing this post. Its words have been disassembled, jostling thoughts passing through my mind for a week now. But, here we are.
If you're one of my subscribers, you may remember an email I sent out earlier this month sharing how excited I was to go to an end of winter celebration called Užgavėnės. For the rest of you, here's the gist of what I understood at the time: it's Lithuania's version of Mardi Gras; at its heart, an old rite occurring near the Spring Equinox that honors vėlės (souls, ancestors). People dance around in joyous celebration and wear playful masks to "scare the winter," marking an eventual return to Spring, and then a straw woman morė effigy is burnt to cap off the ritual. Unsurprisingly, Christianity took its pagan roots and ran with the content in a different direction (shocker).
But the newer elements of Užgavėnės are actually what's causing me so much grief, my friends. I learned about this celebration from a wonderful virtual gathering of Romuva practitioners, and to be clear, I want to celebrate what they're celebrating. I'll get more into that later. As I started to investigate more into Užgavėnės (and an international Lithuanian tipped me off to its controversy), I discovered some pretty unsavory images and information.
These "playful" Užgavėnės masks can often feature insensitive and racist caricatures of Jewish and Roma people. Looking at some of the images from past celebrations, my heart just dropped. How could people not understand? Lithuanians have done an incredible job acknowledging their hard past towards Jews and others, even though I know it's uncomfortable for them. So, why this? And if it's hurtful for me, I couldn't even imagine how upsetting this feels to my Lithuanian Jewish friends. So, I asked one. This friend stated that they experience the same complaints and frustrations every time Užgavėnės rolls around, noting how deeply unsettling it feels. In their words, "it's aided to a whole generation of Jews continuing to feel stigmatized and reduced to a caricature. It certainly didn't add to my confidence growing up and it certainly doesn't make any other Jews feel welcomed here."
Y'all, that's heartbreaking. And this friend is right - it doesn't make me feel welcome namely because it's such a joyous celebration. It's like a big Halloween party to them. What type of gaslighting, embarrassing crap is that!? It's not that I would go to this celebration and fear for my life - it isn't that type of antisemitism. I felt so validated by my friend's words, but even more so, horrible for them, for other Lithuanian Jews, for Roma people, experiencing these sensations every year. Every year.
To be clear again, I think many Lithuanians don't understand how this might be offensive. To most of them, it's just been a celebration marking the end of winter. But once I explained why it was so hurtful and insensitive to a few friends - and why I've been wrestling with going to this event altogether - these same friends got it immediately, shouting expletives and denouncing the ignorance. (The "Fuck Užgavėnės! That's horrible!" expletives were a common thread - they were genuinely upset.) Another Lithuanian believes this would have happened even without Christianity: as the idea of Užgavėnės is to scare the winter away, what's scarier to a conservative culture than the "other"? That's an interesting thought, and I've given a lot of thought to it. What happens if this current tradition is dismantled? Who would be the next "other?"
According to ethnologist Libertas Klimka, these offensive stereotypes date back to the 19th century - when my ancestors lived in Panevėžys. Talk about making it real. Prior to that, the characters were more animist and natural, like totems or animal spirits, people singing dainos, spiritual songs - and this is similar to what Romuva currently practices. So, why continue with the ridicule?
Image by Fotobankas
I'm disappointed and angry. If the world learned about this, they would probably be as horrified as my Lithuanian friends. So, once again, here we are - I'll be the whistleblower. To quote one of my sweet American friends, "we must not be afraid to look at the dark, the horrific, the ugly." Where do we go from here? This raises so many questions. Removing and dismantling offensive caricatures wouldn't lessen the festivities, make them less fun. What's stopping you, Lithuania? What's with the Lithuanian version of blackface? Do I even want to celebrate Užgavėnės now? It tastes dirty and metallic now, stained by unknown and unacknowledged racism.
In that same Romuva gathering, they mentioned a few ways to celebrate Užgavėnės on your own or with others in a smaller celebration. This is closer to what I'm interested in, anyway, and I may use this time to visit a holy altar of Ragutis, the beer god, in downtown Vilnius. This same Litvak friend mentioned hearing that Užgavėnės potentially used to be called Ragučio šventė, a celebration for this same god. As I have done many times before with Judaism, I guess I'll be creating my own meaningful version. Beyond the celebrations, the effigies, the "playful masks," the Christianity, this is a time to celebrate the turning of the season's wheel. I'll drink to that! But also, to be more pointed, I echo my friend's sentiments. I'm encouraged to learn more about the Roma people who have lived in Lithuania, starting with a current exhibit at the MO Museum here in Vilnius. So, I'll be making that commitment next week - because I know they must be more than these hurtful stereotypes. This isn't just about Jewish people - this is about othering as a whole.
Feel free to share if you have any thoughts. I'll very much welcome the conversation.
And a note: thank you to those of you who have been reaching out to make sure The Scientist and I are doing okay with Russia's war against Ukraine. We're unsettled by all of the unfolding events, but doing our best to support Ukraine in their time of need. I'm sending love to them, and praying for humanity as we know it.
Until next time - viso gero, my friends. Please, be kind to one another and be kind to yourselves during these times.