The Redemption Story of Užgavėnės: The Kids Are Alright
Updated: Mar 3
Dear readers, thank you for your supportive messages about Užgavėnės. Multiple Lithuanian friends and acquaintances have reached out to me for hard discussions, as well as friends from around the world. In short, the response has been immense. And I'm glad to bring this darkness to the light - how else do we begin to heal? But it doesn't end here...
If you've been following along at @intotheforestsigo, you know I've visited the Roma exhibit at the MO Museum (as intended), prayed at the altar of Ragutis, and attended an Užgavėnės that gave me hope for the future. Visiting the altar of Ragutis, I silently prayed and thanked the altar for being a safe space to celebrate the turning of the seasons. And truly, I am grateful for it because there were multiple Užgavėnės celebrations over the weekend. Cue: FOMO. But, I channeled that energy into something constructive: prayer and intention.
The good news is that a friend told me about a March 1st Užgavėnės celebration that focused more on animist, ethnographic, pagan rites. To be honest with you, I was nervous to go. I'd watched the (WAY too recent!) videos of people dressing up as Jews and Roma on Youtube. I knew what I was up against. But when I noticed that the group participating had some distant Romuva ties (via ceremonial folk group Kulgrinda), I decided to open my heart and mind, to test the waters.
I walked over to Vilnius's Town Hall Square, half expecting to wince and head home. When I got there, a group of teenagers were waiting around with animal masks, meant to scare away the winter. ... So far, so good. No offensive masks or costumes to be seen. They were holding staffs (my favorite being a white stork), drums, horns... After a few minutes, their ritual began, with drumming and a polyphonic chant called sutartinė. I relaxed in my body a bit, listening to their sacred chants. And then, we all walked down Pilies gatvė (below), attracting curious looks (tourists) and knowing smiles (shop owners). We banged drums (or um, water bottles!) and shook percussive instruments, marching in unison through narrow alleys until we got to Ragainė, a Baltic shop I love. And there, we participated in more traditional singing and theatrics, eating pancakes and burning sage. My friend got there around this time and was able to translate the Lithuanian for me, but truth be told, I didn't need a translator to see that this celebration connected more to the pagan roots and ethnography of the traditions. Color me relieved. Yes, that's what was running through my body: awe and relief.
Does this erase the hurt and discomfort of the Jews, Roma, Hungarians (and other minority groups) over time? No. I've read a story from the 19th century where Lithuanian Jews were afraid to go into town on the day of the "celebration" - that type of pain and ridicule lives in cellular memory. I mean, who wants to see caricatures and stereotypes of their people? (Hey, America! What's good?) My great great grandfather immigrated to the United States and worked as a peddler, one of those caricatures featured in Užgavėnės - so this is personal to the person writing these words. Does this updated Užgavėnės erase the hurt in my Litvak friends' hearts? No, there is a long way to go. But in this moment, I see a small course correction, a shift towards redemption, and I'm grateful for it. My Litvak friends see it, too. We are all watching now. These small changes matter in the long run. More important than anything, these cultural impacts are being made by younger people, giving me hope for future celebrations. This! This is forward movement. The kids are alright.
In an article by Geoff Vasil for Lietuvos Žydų Bendruomenė (Lithuanian Jewish Community), he writes: "Tolerance has to work in both directions, but the larger ethnic host society has to at least understand why the minority is offended by what is seen as a traditional and fun celebration." This, I agree with. In the end, it's up to the Lithuanian public to decide how they'll continue to celebrate Užgavėnės, although hopefully I've at least illuminated it in an international spotlight. Andrew Miksys's Roma exhibit at the MO Museum likewise "invites us to consider how stereotypes applied to entire communities affect the lives of specific individuals" - individuals like me, or the Roma of Panevėžys. Your actions and words affect real people.
And speaking of actions affecting real people, we're still doing what we can to support our neighbors in Ukraine. Because we're closer than my friends and family in the United States, we're able to help with more immediate causes. As an example, the Lithuanian non-profit Blue/Yellow raised 10 million Eur in a matter of 4 days - and that's from a country of 3 million people. The Lithuanian Red Cross has shown up, as well. People here are extremely concerned because they know what it's like, and/or because they have family and friends in Ukraine, and are showing up like so many of you. I've also read some very concerning headlines about Africans being hindered from fleeing along with, to put it bluntly, white Ukrainians. This has deeply disturbed me, so I've researched and found a link that compiles places where you can support BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and Disabled people looking to leave the country during this Russian invasion. Let's use our voices and funds to support marginalized groups who know what othering is like. Isn't that the point of this whole post?
Sending you all love, once again. As others have done, feel free to contact me if you'd like to discuss Užgavėnės or anything else. I'm happy to support where I can.
Until next time, viso gero! Be kind to each other.