Lithuanian Užgavėnės Celebration
I eat breakfast in a small café at my temporary duty location in Vilnius, Lithuania, when I come to the shaky conclusion that something important is happening today. I hear reverberations coming from the main road, but the celebration is already under way when I arrive. A curious little girl with long pigtails and eager eyes stares at me from her spot next to the stage. The smell of smoke lingers thick and heavy in the air, reminiscent of barbecues in the Vermont summertime. To my alarm I notice devils, witches, reapers, goats, and Gypsies flanking the crowd. I eye them a bit warily but nobody else seems too bothered.
I buy a sausage from one of the young boys selling in the roadside stalls. As always, they practice their English on me and I learn that today is the Lithuanian Užgavėnės Celebration or Shrove Tuesday – a festival which escorts winter. The celebration embodies the battle between what’s left of winter and the approaching spring. Two characters stage a battle between each other – Kanapinis (“hempen man”) is wiry, hardworking and prepares for summer where Lašininis (“poker”) is fatty, sluggish and personifies winter. “When they are fighting with each other, Kanapinis always has to win, because the winter has to go,” he says. As for the characters in devil, bear, and witch costumes, they play pranks, act, sing, and try to snatch something before demanding payment in pancakes or money. Užgavėnės traditions like this unify elements of culture and Christianity, as it’s understood that you must eat 12 times on this final day before the fast of Lent.
People of all ages sing and dance in a growing circle overflowing onto the streets past the soviet era buildings and stalls selling handmade jewelry. Traditional drums, fiddles, and accordions play, a rhythmic “jig” sound and stir a sense to skip along. I am immediately welcomed into the procession by a woman carrying her baby on her back. She takes my hand in hers; the child is fast asleep despite all the noise.
The ordeal seems a bit crazy with the whole city alive as we march together under the lukewarm sun. Then again who’s to judge coming from a place that celebrates a fat guy coming into our house in the middle of the night. Kanapinis looks to have the upper hand – at least for today.