Kūčios: Twelve-Dish Christmas
Well, after a busy Christmas and New Year period, we are now both back to the blogging. Huzzah! And what better way to start than to talk about Christmas!
My family has always loved Christmas and is one of the biggest events of the year in our household. And Hsiang joined us for the first time last year! Our Christmas typically involves a 3-day celebration, largely due to the merging of the typical Western Christmas with that of Kūčios (Pronounced Koo-Chios), a Lithuanian tradition that we celebrate. This comes from my Grandmother, whose family left Lithuania in the 1940s to escape persecution by the Soviet occupation in WWII.
Now Kūčios as a tradition has an interesting history, as I found out once I had done a little research. Like many Christian Holidays it initially began as a pagan celebration, and in this case for the Winter Solstice. It is a meal with family on Christmas eve, consisting of (at least) twelve dishes and void of any red meat or dairy. This means that most of the food is fish, vegetables or pickled goods, such that might be available in the middle of winter without the aid of modern preserving techniques. This is common to many of the Baltic States but Lithuania has a few subtle differences. Each family largely has their own traditions, like any holiday, but I shall do my best to outline what Kucios entails.
Kūčios is traditionally a very important family event, with family members expected to make every effort to come home. People are only absent during exceptional circumstances. If a family member has died in the past year, a place is still set for them, for it is assumed that they still participate in spirit.
Preparations for Kūčios usually takes an entire day. The dishes are prepared, the house cleaned last minute ingredients are bought and the best room in the house is set for the meal. The Kūčios table table is set with a white tablecloth over hay laden with at least 12 dishes, one for each month of the year. The table is also decorated with traditional pagan symbols of life, such as candles and fir sprigs. During the meal one must traditionally eat some of at least 12 dishes, as it is considered very bad luck to eat less. Each dish is seen to sustain one throughout the year, and not having 12 may mean you won’t survive to see the next Kūčios.
The meal begins with the woman of the house breaking bread with each member of the family. wishing them a merry Christmas and happy new year before the meal begins. Usually at this point it is also customary to reminisce on events of the year both good and bad, especially to honor any family members that may have passed on.
Apparently in my reading I have found that the meal is supposed to be eaten solemnly, although I must admit this is not something that we have been known to follow! Kūčios in our family has always been about retelling favourite family stories, most humourous about each other, and much laughter ensues. Another unique family tradition is to roast the pickled cucumbers in the flames of the candles, which apparently my dad began with his cousins when they were younger… much to the dismay of his own Grandmother!
Today Kūčios is largely a Christian celebration in Lithuania due to the influence of the Catholic church, but many non-religious families including my own do not observe the Christian aspects, although the differences are subtle. The event itself is much the same, but the interpretations different. In the Christian Kūčios the twelve dishes represent the apostles, and the hay the stable in which baby Jesus was born, not a symbol of fertile crops.
After the main meal is finished, traditionally, one of the major differences that Lithuanian twelve dish Christmas contains is the ending of the meal with a Poppy-seed Milk.
Now I had known about the existence of this seemingly vital tradition, but not its importance. Kūčiukai or šližikai (bite-sized hard biscuits) with agounų pienas or aguonpienis (a poppy-seed “milk”) is apparently very Lithuanian, and we had largely left it out of our festivities due to an ignorance of how it was made (The only attempt we had left us picking poppy-seeds out of our teeth for the entire new year period). This season, armed with the knowledge of its importance I rushed into action.
On Christmas eve itself I had this revelation, along with the realisation that Hsiang would not be able to eat the customary 12 dishes, as he was allergic to one of tem. Not wanting to have anything less than a truly Lithuanian Kūčios, nor for Hsiang to die before the next Christmas eve, I dragged Hsiang into the kitchen for some last-minute cooking. With Hsiang giving me exasperated looks I piled him with vegetables and ordered him around, supervising him towards whipping up a last-minute Borscht (a very Baltic/ Russian beetroot soup). With him shanghai-ed (I’m sure there’s a very bad pun there I could make) into slaving over a soup, I set about the difficult task of making poppy-seed milk in a couple of hours.
Usually the method for the milk takes at least a week, because there is no dairy at Kūčios you need tease out the poppy flavour into water, which , if you do it right gives it a milky appearance. After a quick research session on the internet I managed a passable sweetened poppy seed milk using nothing but water, sugar, poppy-seeds and excessive use of a mortar and pestle and food processor. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures, but maybe next year I shall invest more time in making the milk a more traditional way and give it a whole blog of its own.
Kūčios is but one night in our family’s Christmas, with the traditional Chrismas lunch the next day and another with the other side of the family on Boxing Day. Add in to our future family a Chinese New Year and it becomes one MASSIVE time of year!
PS: If anyone would like to read more on Kūčios here is the Wikipedia entry on the subject! : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kucios