The Church of the Divine Earth

Saulegriza, the Lithuanian (Winter) Solstice


Saulegriza, the Lithuanian Solstice

By Katya  ~  The Pagan Heart  ~  Seasonal Festivals  ~  November-December 2005 Issue

I am a Lithuanian by birth with one grandmother from Latvia. This means my traditions are many times formed from both countries. I cannot always tell which of my heritage I draw from - and this is more difficult because of the strong similarities between the two. Thus, when I talk of Saule, the Sun Maiden, I know only that she is one of the most beloved of our Baltic gods. I do not know how the Latvians celebrated her, or how the Lithuanians paid her honor - only how I do now.

It is important you understand I am not an official member of Lietuvos Romuva. Romuva is the way we of the Baltic States celebrate the Old Ways. Lietuvos Romuva is the formal re-awakened Baltic religion as celebrated by Lithuania. Because I am true to the Baltic faith of my ancestors I too am Romuviai. I respect and honor the dead, venerate the gods, and live in harmony with the land and nature. But I am a solitary practicioner who has never been a member of state recognized Lietuvos Romuva. Please do not consider my words a description of how Lietuvos Romuva is practiced, but only the path of one Romuviai. There are ways in which we do things the same, and ways that are very different. I grew up within the blended religion that is Christianity in the Baltic States as did the other Romuviai. I learnt the same traditions, I read many of the same books, especially those by Trikonas. But I do not follow the formalized way. The common ground is our love and respect for the old Baltic ways and the deities of our Zemyna, our Mother Land.

This is much like the difference between a traditional Wiccan coven and a solitary Wiccan who has never been a part of that coven.

My traditions are also complicated by this physical distance from Zemyna. I left so young it is often times difficult to know what is honest memory and what is book learning or stories my Oma told me. Or even from my studies on this incredible internet.

Let me add to this confusion that we Lithuanians and Latvians are mainly Christians - but with the Old Ways of the ancestors still very alive in our life and our faith. These ways, I should mention, are but a part of the greater Baltic path - although each region has its own peculiar customs. Like other Pagans, we Baltic believers often look to the Christian custom for inspiration in celebrating our own festivals. We are fortunate for the Christians did not try so hard to conceal the Old Ways beneath their new religion. The Old Gods are often still mentioned in the chants and prayers. The old rituals to protect a village or banish evil are almost unchanged. Many of the foods and rituals and decorations are inspired by or even directly taken from our pre-Christian celebrations. The main difference is in who we celebrate. At the winter solstice the Christians honor the birth of their god's son. But we honor Saule and her rebirth with the winter solstice.

But all, Christian or Romuviai, sing the old songs.

Look, holy Kaleda returns
The great Kaleda,
For it is the day of Kaleda
Iron wheels - silk lashes
The great Kaleda,
For it is the day of Kaleda.

This song sings of the return of Saule Motule (Mother Sun)...not of the Christos.

Before I talk of Saule, let me offer you a brief introduction to celebrating Christmas Lithuanian style! Why? Because this is not really Christmas they celebrate, despite what some may say. They are honoring the sun and her renewal. They may call it Christmas and talk of the Christos, but in reality it is the Saulegriza, the solstice. And (as I have said) many of the customs are unabashed in their mention of the sun's rebirth - even the priests will participate in the old customs. Christmas is the quilt worn today by the Saulegriza. It does not take much effort to lift aside a corner and see Saule shining bright.

The earliest sign of Christmas is the mumming. This is a very old custom that brings blessings to the home, scares any evil spirits that may be there, and encourages fertility in the people and the land. Not very Christian if you think on it, is it? Where is the celebrating of the Christos and his birth? Not even the look of the mummers shows the Christian. Our favorite ones are animals (like the bear, wolf, goat, and horse), the people (tall woman, short man, death, walking dead man, and the gypsy), and agriculture (the haysheaf or haystack).

Mummers are most active around Christmas, celebrating and cleansing the place in preparation for Christos - they say, but we know this is the old way from before his time. They are making the place clean and safe, and the land fertile for Saule to be reborn.

As Saulegriza (or Christmas) comes closer, people decorate their trees and homes. One of the most common decorations is the woven straw siaudinukai. These decorations can be geometrical or figures like people and animals. Or even garlands. They last forever if looked after - my Oma hangs hers in the closet in her spare room. If you open the door you will see coathangers covered in dry-cleaning bags, and inside are many old weavings my mother and Oma made together over the years. They are beautiful. Aside from these, we also use the evergreen branches and many colorful garlands of tied rags. The clothes I grow out of that could not be reused or passed on my Oma would take and make into tied rag garlands or cushion cases. Oh, and the occasional quilt or throw - she says they were like photo albums to her heart as she recalled seeing me wearing them. Even now she will claim old favorites when she thinks I am ready to thrown them out. It may seem strange in this country of shiny tinsel to use a raggedy collection of old clothes. And I have at times felt that disconnection of the immigrant from the Old Country confronted with the modern world of the New. It lends shame to my own heart so that I look down upon these familiar traditions. But, as Oma reminds me, they are not rags but memories. Ties to the past. And a symptom of the frugality many Baltic people had to practice. They are a part of our heritage. Plus, they are bright and festive and practicality asserts itself here - they can be washed and do not drop the infernal glittery bits all over the house that end up in your soup one night. Can you tell I have a difficult relationship with this tinsel?

Along with the siaudinukai, the rag tied garlands, and the evergreen, Christmas is not the same without the glass ornaments and the pretty lights. And the food. Not just the feasting food, but the decorations. Apples and candies, pastries and oranges - these are tied to the tree and laid out in bowls. At the close of the festivities when the decorations are taken down the children descend upon the candy and pastries and devour them with great delight. I recall this as once I was one of those children. It was so hard to not touch them throughout the holiday - although Oma's wooden spoon certainly helped my obedience to the rule. But that last day I would gorge upon them, hidden away beneath the stairs where I could watch as they packed and cleaned, dragged the tree and dried greenery outside to be burnt. My most loved was Oma's gingerbread. And by evening I was full and sleepy, unable to even twitch as my father gathered me up and carried me away to bed.

Talking of food it has often amused me that the special foods of Christmas are those that are rounded. Sun shaped. Oranges and apples. Gingerbread cookies. Peas and beans. Wheels of cheese. Tokens of the sun - which after all is the reason for the feast, even in this day of Catholic Lithuania!

These are the memories I carry from a Christian childhood into my Pagan adult life. And there is no discontinuity, no sense of changing tradition. For I still raise a tree and decorate it with the siaudinukai and Oma's gingerbread. I wrap gifts and open others. I sit down to a festive meal with my family and there is no falter between how my mother celebrates and how Josh and I observe our day. Only the names of the deity we honour. My mother and Oma join us for Saulegriza and then some few days later we join them for Christmas. There is a blending of faith within our family as we all strive to keep this time sacred rather than controversial. I bow my head and listen in peace as my mother prayes to her god. She accords me the same respect.

And in this I see the true meaning of Saulegriza, the holiday of Saule. For she is the Great Single Mother who risked all to preserve and raise her children in love and harmony. She reminds us that family is of great value and importance and we must sacrifice what would harm those we love. How could I disrespect my mother for believing differently to I? Those moments I feel anger or intolerance at her prayer - and they are not few - it is the presence of Saule that reminds me of what is due. My anger is not at my mother, but at the faceless mass that is the negative side of Christianity in this world. My intolerance rises from my own inability to accept that my path is not the right path for everyone.

So I bow my head and listen as my mother prays. I do not substitute my own words in my mind. I do not block out her voice. I listen - not to her words but her heart. Words are symbols of intent. It is not the word that is harmful after all. What does it matter if she asks Jesus or Saule to love us all? This is not to say that I would pray to Jesus. Aside from my own issues with the masculine - which I am working on - Jesus is not my god. Or my homeboy - that T-shirt is most odd. I offer my adulation to Saule.

For my mother, she sees in me the old ways reborn. Like our village priest in Lithuania, my mother sees no harm or wrong in the meeting of our two faiths - we Lithuanians are a people of contradictions.

Having said this, I should tell you who Saule is.

Saule is one of the most beloved of our deities, held in great honor. She battles the darkness and the cold to keep us alive and well. Her four important festivals are the equinoxes and the solstices. They each mark a specific solar event in the life of Saule. The Saulegriza, or winter solstice, is both her death and her birth. In awareness and celebration of this Lithuanians hold festivities through the end of December and the first days of January. We call this time Christmas and "Advent" now, but, as discussed above, it is tied to Saule and her rebirth more than they are about the Christos.

Christmas covers two days called Kucios and Kaledos. This is the most important part of our winter and was once the time from sunset before the solstice, the next day and evening through to the following sunrise. But Christianity shifted our Kucios and Kaledos from Saulegriza to the 24th and 25th of December as a way to change the faith towards the Christos. Yet the majority of Saule's ritual and observation remained without any real effort to mask them as anything other than what they are: a mourning of Saule's death, and acknowledgement of the cycle of life, and a celebration of Saule's rebirth. Kucios is the first day. It marks Saule's death. Beginning at sunset, Lithuanians engage in a number of activities that honor the dead ancestors and unite them with the living family. Foods and activities that symbolize rebirth and regeneration, stories, and a number of rites to banish evil fill the evening. The next day, Kaledos, Saule is reborn and we feast and celebrate.

Why is Saule so important to us? Obviously, as the sun she is crucial to our existance. But it is deeper than this. We people of the Baltic States have a long history of strong women, influential mothers and wives, and powerful female deities. Much of this goes back to Saule. Where other matriarchal people lost their strong goddesses as patriarchy swept over them, we did not. Our Saule Motule (Mother Sun) never became a Father. Our Mother Earth was not raped or torn apart by a god to make humanity. Our goddesses reigned powerful, and even with the advent of patriarchy they kept this power.

Saule is the original single mother - once married to Menulis (the Moon), she divorced him in a great rage upon finding him with their daughter. For Menulis was a fickle god, interested in dalliances with other women. One evening, when Saule came home to see her daughter Saules Meita (Sun's Daughter - the morning star) she found her missing. Menulis had stolen her away and raped her. Depending upon the legend you read either Saule or Dievas (the Great God) hunted Menulis down and slashed his face with a sword. This permanent scar is still visible upon the moon's face. I think it likely Saule did this and more recent, patriarchal stories changed this to Dievas.

Salue is the epitomy of a strong woman of honor. She rises each day to perform her duties. Cares for all equally - her light is withheld from none. Warms the earth so that life can grow. She protected her child even against her husband. She is the mother who gives us life.

"Oh, Saule, my amber weeping Goddess who creates light like thread.
Saule Motule, you daily bless your thankful world with light."

When we celebrate Saulegriza we follow a way that is as old as our Zemyna. On the first day of winter Lithuanians cut a branch from the cherry tree (or as I have no cherry tree I use a willow) and place it in a jar of fresh drawn water. Placed inside the home, this branch begins to sprout showing Saule's promise of new life after the winter. It reminds us that what may seem dead is not - Saule's spinning wheel will turn, new light and life will flood Zemyna, and rebirth will change the dead to the living.

The mummers travel around chasing evil from the villages and bringing Saule's fertility back to us. The priests bless the soil and the people. The homes are decorated. The feasts prepared. The people play games and tell stories that are about the cycle of life. Logs of birch wood are collected for the fire.

When the sun sets on Saulegriza, darkness covers us all. Saule has died and the world is dark and cold, a place of death and sleep and endings. Kucios is the end of a cycle of death that began with the festival of Velines (somewhat like the Samhaine of the Celts). This time of death is not one of sorrow - it is when our ancestors visit us and the bonds of family between living and dead are renewed. By honoring the dead and the gods we uphold our end of the cycle of life. Death is important and does not mean the end of all things but just the change from one state to another.

The living family prepares a place for the ancestors so they may partake of the celebration. A small symbolic grove is constructed with a mobile of birds and the sun above it. Many candles are set about for these provide a path for our ancestors so they may join us. A table for them is prepared with special Kucia upon it. The Kucia is the food of new life. There is also rye bread, which is a holy food, and salt - this shows honor and hospitality in the sharing of salted bread.

The living family shares this meal as well, beginning with the breaking of bread. My partner, Josh, will be taking the role of household head this year at my mother's request. This is a big honor, showing that she believes he has the integrity and strength to help guide our family. He shall break the bread with the old invocation to the household god and to the Mother Land:

"Zemepatis, many thanks we offer you for this bread you have given us. Help us to fulfill our labor and to bless you with our efforts so that Zemyna will continue to be fruitful.
"Zemyna, many thanks we offer you for this, the fruit of your body. May it nourish us so we may have strength to work and bless you through our efforts."

After he does this, he will offer the bread to us all and we shall offer thanks and ask that it give us nourishment. Once we have all tasted the bread we share some beer. I am not fond of beer but its significance is important and so I drink it at every festival in Saule's name. Beer is made from the hop plant which is sacred to Saule, and through its life cycle shows the Wheel of Life in action. The hop grows very quickly to 25 feet or more and then dies back to ground level all within the year. There is a daina to Saule that refers to this:

When we have all taken some beer, and poured out a few drops for the ancestors, the meal begins. The main food is Kucia which is made of cooked grains mixed into a gruel with honey and water. The grains may include barley, beans, hemp, poppy, and rye - all traditionally considered to represent renewed life. Along with the Kucia there should be 12 other dishes. Each dish represents a lunar month in Saule's year. None should contain the meat of land animals or dairy. Seafood is acceptable but not as appropriate as other options. This meal should be focused upon Saule and what she gives us. We are mourning her death and feasting on her bounty in her honor. The produce of the land grows because of her light and heat, so dishes that are made of grains, vegetables, nuts and berries, and fruits are all good.

A few issues ago I sent in some traditional recipes, Kiselis, Slizikai with Aguonu pienas, Bardeiai su Grybais, which are often served for the Kucois meal. Apple Salad, Ginger Tea, Josh's Bulghur Wheat with Garbanzo Beans and his Lentil Salad, Catherine's Baked Beets, and Anne's Apple-Pumpkin Soup (with vegetable stock instead of the chicken boullion, and no sour cream) are also very much in the tradition of the meal. After the meal sweets such as my Applesauce Cookies, and apples are considered beneficial in ushering in a good new year.

The left over food will be shared with any animals of the home (traditionally the farm animals but these days it is my cats) later that night or early the next morning. And the ash from the fire (the burning log of birch) is spread about the land to fend off evil, cure disease, and bring fertility to the soil.

After the feast the family gathers about the fireplace and tells stories. There is an old tradition of bringing luck to the family through grain sowing in the fire. Very symbolic, it involves the sowing of Zemyna's fruits in Saule's flames. I believe this is a form of complimentary magic since the grains are taken from the year's crop. Each one that is sown within the fire brings purification and blessings upon hearth and farm for the coming year. The next crop will yield stronger, plumper grains. The animals will be fatter. The family hale and hearty.

For those who have faced sorrow or hardship the ritual of burning offers an additional opportunity to change their luck. By telling their troubles to small twigs that are then thrown into the flames they offer up their troubles to Saule to burn away leaving them with a fresh start in the new year.

After a cozy evening about the fire, the family goes to bed. Kaledos comes with the dawn as Saule is reborn. This day is a joyous day - life has returned and Saule has awoken. Winter, while still deep and cold, is on the turn and soon spring will be here. This is a day to greet all with well wishes as the power of this day guarantees the power of those wishes. People sing and dance and celebrate, visiting their friends and exchanging gifts. Feasting takes place again - with milk and meat in the dishes. This is not the time to try and lose weight if you are Lithuanian!

The birch log is also dragged home today. Many villages probably shared the log, having a central fire and a party at night before going home. The log dragging is a custom that seems linked to the European and Saxon custom of birching - beating with birch twigs to drive out evil spirits. My people drag the birch logs about to beat evil from the land so she is pure and free of the ills that have gathered over the year. The day finishes with a festive meal with family and the knowledge that a new year is starting filled with promise and happiness.

Winter's Blessings to you

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