Welcome, medley guests
(on guests, visiting and treating)
Traditions of visiting, receiving and treating guests in Lithuania, as in many other countries of the world, are old and deep-seated. The hospitality, respect for arrivals, benevolence of ancient Lithuanians had often been mentioned by foreign travellers and envoys visiting sovereigns of the State. As Peter von Duisburg (a priest-brother and a chronicler of the Teutonic Order in 13–14 c.) wrote, that though hadn’t served an exquisite food for themselves, “they share everything what is eatable with their guests”, “show best hospitality for visitors, and no dishes and drinks at home remain not served to guests”.
Similar traditions were observed by both ordinary townspeople and countrymen. Researcher Antanas Mažiulis has noticed that the 19th century records evinced the tradition to welcome joyfully every wayfarer and traveller by offering a night sleep and meal without any reward. If a guest had proposed money to render, a Lithuanian would have taken offence.
Hospitality of our nation is not merely a rule, but a value, a pursuance: “lay in a cobble of bridge into a wall and home becomes hospitable”.
A Lithuanian word svečias, svetys (a guest, a visitor) in its primary meaning refers to a stranger, an alien, and only after to an arrival, a visitor. It is an apt expression of one of core contradictions of worldviews: insider/stranger, this world/other world.
Among those - most respectable guests from the beyond - were ancestors. On particular occasions, during the autumnal period of commemoration of the Dead, on the Christmas Eve, in rituals following earthwork and other occasions – Lithuanians used to invite ancestors to be their guests – to visit home, a bathhouse – to treat them to festive meals. Similar guests, as personated ancestors, usually hiding their faces under masks, were characters of Christmas and Mardi Gras celebrations. In olden times (as Lithuanian legends tell) even the God used to visit people hiding under an appearance of an aged man, a beggar or a traveller. People never recognized him, while he looked round his creatures, rewarding the righteous and punishing scrapers and the evil-minded afterwards.
A new-born child in Lithuania was called an arrival, whereas a departed, a sick person and the death itself was referred as a guest. A guest also refers to the last or the first sheaf in a harvest time – the spirit of rye, the deity of earth fertility, which was used to be brought home from fields in all honour.
There is much evidence in extant prejudices and spells testifying a special meaning of treating guests. One would hope to receive guests, if he saw a cat washing itself, a spider coming down a spider-line, a cock crowing on a gate, a magpie flying round the house.
If sleepiness is falling - guests are coming, if someone coughs during meal – strangers are rushing, a cinder flies up from a stove – wait for an angry guest. If a forks falls down while having meal - a woman comes, a spoon or knife – wait for a man. If one receives guests on Monday – visitors will be coming all week long.
Following the tradition every visitor – be it a guest, a close or distant relative, a neighbour, a beggar, an unfamiliar fellow-traveller – were shown hospitality and respect: were asked to take honourable places at a table and treated well. Relatives from remote parts of the country, other guests were usually treated with hearty, selected foods (eggs, cheese, butter, sausages…) and drinks (tea, mead, beer…), neighbours and relatives from closer vicinities – were treated with simpler, usually daily foods (bread, cheese, butter, kvass….)
A distant guest was always bedded in a fresh bed linen in a better part of the house, in a barn and let to rest to wake up by himself….
According to Simonas Daukantas, in olden times “the main concern was to take a guest to a bath and tan well”.
People used to have some food reserves to be prepared to make a quick meal for unexpected visitors. “Stir and bake from dawn till dusk, but don’t let a guest leave hungry”. If scrambled eggs, fresh cheese and dumplings in Aukštaitija (Eastern Lithuania) were served up – guests knew they were loved and awaited, if only dry cheeses, cold potatoes in jackets were put on a table – hosts had no joy of visitors. These used to give as good as they got – all villagers knew: “guests were treated with bull’s milk and cock’s eggs”.
Following Lithuanian, especially Eastern Lithuanian, treating traditions the main particularity, necessity and duty of hosts is asking, urging and nudging guests to taste and eat. If one returned home saying: “The table was rich, but not was the asking” – meaning that treating was bad.
Most awaited, best treated guests in homesteads where young girls lived were matchmakers – these were offered most special relishes: sweet berries, nuts, fresh wine.
“At a stove and at a guest| was a characterization for a well-bred girl, knowing how to keep the house and to treat guests. She had to manage to clean up, sweep the floor and clear the table quickly, without delay; otherwise matchmakers would shunt to come. In some folk songs a daughter still living at home is referred as a guest. For she stayed at her “mommy’s” shortly, preparing to move to another alien home of her husband’s family, where a mother of law could say “don’t sit as a guest – you weren’t brought here to visit”.
Some family and community celebrations were not even held without guests, it was indispensable to invite visitors to become impartial witnesses of some events, like christening, wedding, to share joy and responsibility, to infuse further successful life with presents, even more with wishes, nice words and favourable mindedness. Though on an occasion of moving into a new house – comers used to cartwheel on the floor and tumble, so then happiness would roll in and lie in the home, water the floor and walls, sprinkle seeds, toss coins, enjoy meals and drinks, thus wishing a full and rich home, healthiness, prosperity and peace for the family.
There were also special guest-inviting ceremonies with dight barkers hitting the ground with sticks decorated with ribbons and jangles, then giving a refined speech thus inviting each guest personally to a wedding. Festive ceremonies were also attended by self-invited guests; this was customary on weddings or name-day celebrations. On the eve neighbours used to gather secretly for to decorate in wreaths the door of a person celebrating his name-day, thus hoping to be invited for a treat and dance.
As soon as seeing a long awaited guest coming up, one hurried to the yard, at the gate, to welcome him. Not even to mention biggest family gatherings, as for instance a wedding when two or three additional temporary gates far from the house were used to be built for to welcome the groom’s retinue. Guests were welcomed with a loaf of bread and salt. Self-invited guests risked to be jokingly mocked by saying “an unasked guest’s place is on an unhewn bench, under a bench or at a door, no spoon is left, not everyone is served eggs”. However one should not forget that every guest is welcomed by his clothes and seen off by his mind.
A guest should also know how to behave properly. In one publication of 1921 priest Justinas Stungaitis advises: “when a man from other village pays a visit, firstly he should greet all - one after another - starting from the corner. Only then he may take a seat without any asking. It is necessary to take a right place to sit. A beggar or a herdsboy should sit on a bench at a stove, an ordinary young man or woman should sit on a bench in between a table and a dresser, a respected farmer – on a bench at the end of a table. If hosts offer meal, a visitor should keep refusing till the end. If hosts insist, a guest should come up to the table, but unwillingly and continually thanking. One should sit at a table keeping a distance, leaning back, taking food slowly, as if aversely, chewing and swallowing little by little, talking. A guest should eat little. If some home-brew is served to table, a guest should wait for hosts to drink and not hurry to take a glass, still waiting to be urged to. It is no good to drink to the dregs. As much stays as is better…”
If a guest found others eating, it was necessary to greet them by saying “May God sate you”, “Good appetite”, “Enjoy your meal”. If a host responded by saying “welcome”, it meant a visitor was invited to join the family at a table, a response “thank you” meant the visitor was not invited. More witty responses, like saying “May God stay, you take aside”, “If you brought something, come and sate us”, “a spoon after lunch”, could also be heard in Lithuania.
And if a guest comes, then better not empty-handed. Better not to go visit without a pie, a cheese, a bottle of whisky.
Every ceremonial treat had special dishes and drinks. The treating tradition is inseparable from main events of family life. When a child was born and parents announced the news to villagers, women used to visit a young mother and a child bringing eggs. The Christening was celebrated for two days: on the first day relatives and neighbours were offered treats prepared by hosts, on the second day guests used to bring food with them. The tradition symbolized the admission of the child to the community. Most fanciful and selected food was prepared for a wedding: various sorts of cheese, sausages, ham, fried goose, roast pigs, beer and other relishes, and in a very centre of a table – karvojus, a ritual cake. A wedding was celebrated by the whole village. It was believed that thus it helped a bride to pass on the other, alien side of a husband’s family. The bigger was a seeing-off company, variety of dishes and drinks, songs and dances, the happier life would a young family live.
The Christmas Eve treat has kept the main role among calendar festivities. The table was traditionally covered with hay under a white linen cloth. Not less than twelve dishes of fast period each having its symbolic meaning were served up on a table. Most important were kūčiukai, oat pap, poppy-seed milk and fish. A tasting order of all twelve dishes has to be observed. Rich, meaty and greasy foods, necessary pancakes, were served up for Shrove Tuesday. No less rich and decorated table with coloured eggs, sorts of cakes, veal and pork roast was prepared for the Easter. Other calendar festivities, even less important, also distinguished for particular foods, like special rolls baked on Gandrinės (storks-welcoming day)...
Community feasts were closely related to earthwork periods and the natural year cycle. Feasts were held to celebrate the completion of the hardest works often performed collectively. The main were harvest-home feasts distinguished with a tradition to redeem a wreath for dishes and drinks. The wreath used to be hanged in a visible place inside a house till the All Saints Day, then, after the threshing, grain was poured into corn-bins to bring satiety to home.
In spring, when snow has melt, young people used to go to outskirts of a village, a field, a forest singing loudly, clapping hands, shouting “skalsa“, so to waken the nature. On their return all the village feasted thus hoping to shorten the waiting for a real spring to come. Villagers celebrated Jurginės (St. George‘s Day) by visiting corns, entertaining each other, digging a loaf of bread as a donation into the ground thus pleading for a rich harvest. The Witty Sunday treat was special. Yet in the end of 16th c. Jesuit J.Laninski wrote that families used to bring together grain to make drink from it, butcher a sheep and sit together on a river’s shore to regale. Midsummer Day (St. John’s Day) feast was inseparable from a common amusement and ritual treats fating a healthy herd and the protection of ripening corn from storms and hails.
From olden times no treats in Lithuania were held without beer and mead, later on – without stronger drinks. However it was hardly imaginable that one could drink without particular rituals, as appealing to the neighbour urging him and toasting. The tradition comes from ancient ritual feasts when a feasting company used to stand in a circle one by one following the sun and drink from a single scoop, pouring out a drop on the ground beforehand, applying Gods, thanking for presents, asking for the protection in the future and toasting the neighbour. Then and now Lithuanians used to greet guests by saying “to the health“, “be healthful“ and responding with “thank you“. Sometimes remaining drops were splashed up briskly.
Feasts are not merely the welcoming of guests and tasting foods and drinks. Rituals are especially important; however the real festive atmosphere is created with songs now touching, but more often amusing, raising mood and entertaining, as well as with dances and never-ending jokes.
When hosts got bored with visitors - what usually happened on the third day, when they started “smelling as bad as tainted fish“, when all food was eaten, beer and mead was drunk, then time had come to leave. An empty jug could be brought, a broom leaned against a door or at a wall, a juniper‘s branch burned to “smoke guests away“. Certainly, guests should had come to their senses before that and not had stayed for too long: “come when invited, leave when still loved“ – that‘s how an old saying goes.
A guest should be seen off at least to the door, the doorstep, beloved and honoured guests – to the gate of the yard, seldom visiting guests – through the whole village, even through the field, to the crossroad - and necessary loaded with presents for family members that had stayed home. When a guest bided farewell and stepped through the door, a host used to say “I will see you off for not to carry away the day”.
Lithuanians used to say “one is no longer a guest when bread has baked”. “If you stay that long, by the power of bread you are no longer a stranger here.”
Compiled by Vida Šatkauskienė and Nijolė Marcinkevičienė