Witches and windmills in Žemaitija
After a day spent in Geneva, visiting my cousin Danute and her family, eating delicious raclette (it involves scraping melted cheese onto roasted meat and vegetables) and posing with living statues in front of the Jet d’Eau,
we flew into Vilnius for a week of #LT100 celebrations. And right away, the country lived up to its name by greeting us with the downpours and drizzles we’d managed to avoid the previous week (one of the legends of Lithuania’s name claims that “Lietuva” comes from the word “lietus,” which means rain).
Nevertheless, we very happily took a long walk through the Old Town, stopping for traditional meat dumplings, cold beetroot soup, and acorn coffee (it tastes deliciously caramel-y) at the underground Forto Dvaras on Pilies gatve (Castle St.) before making our way to Rotušė Square for the first concert of the week. It was a celebration of World Lithuanian unity, called “100 Lithuanian Faces.” Groups from all over the world performed various polkas and other folk dances, followed by a finale featuring pop star Andrius Mamontovas singing his ode to the colors of the Lithuanian flag.
The following day, we took an especially personal side trip to the northwest region of Lithuania, known as Žemaitija (Samogitia), where my ancestors are from. Specifically, we drove to the county of Šiauliai, where my family still owns land.
The fields are quiet now; the house is gone, but there is still a small well, and a monument placed in 2014 to honor my family and their neighbors.
We also made a pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses, one of Lithuania’s holiest sites, a monument where people have planted thousands of crosses of all sizes, and continue to place new ones each day. Soviet tanks used to bulldoze the hill and destroy the crosses by day, but Lithuanians would keep planting new ones by night.
Our contribution. Of course it would be covered in amber 😉
We finished the day with an early dinner at the Šeduva Windmill (also known as the Devils’ Windmill), which sits in a small park filled with wooden sculptures of witches and woodcutters and demons that reminded me of the fairy tales I read earlier in the year. Inside were more witches leering at us as we ate (maybe I was messing with the proper order of the seasons, ordering the turkey with cranberries and sweet potatoes, and thus prompted the witchly glares).
In any case, it was a full and emotional day for us, and it was good to get back to Vilnius to rest before the festivities really began.
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A singing Lithuania is unbeatable
The first of the three major festivals was Ansamblių Vakaras (Ensemble Night), performed in the amphitheater of Kalnų Parkas (Park of the Hills). Dancers would act out the rhythms of daily life — birth, marriage, housework and fieldwork, prayers to the gods and goddesses, and just a simple appreciation of Nature — but all set to music that made every facet of life seem epic and mystical.
My favorite part was the fire-lighting ceremony at the beginning, because it felt the most ancient and mythical, honoring Lithuania’s pagan beliefs, with the performers invoking the name of the fire goddess Gabija as they carried the holy flames. The full fire rite also invokes the goddess of destiny, Laima; the thunder god Perkūnas; Mother Earth; Mother Sun; and Father Moon.
Overall, this was my favorite of the three festivals, and you can watch it in its entirety here.
The second night was a more traditional dance festival, which took place in the Vilnius soccer stadium. The dancers performed various polkas, circle dances, quadrilles, and more, all organized around the theme “Orbits of the Sun,” with each dance representing some facet of seasonal life in Lithuania — the rising of the morning star, the arrival of the first birds of spring, the growing of our daily bread, the passage of childhood and youth… You can watch the full program here.
And, finally, the third festival was Song Day, “Let Unity Grow,” in Vingis Park. Over twelve thousand singers took to the stage and performed, with plenty of audience participation, beloved pieces such as “Anoj Pusėj Dunojėlio” (On the Other Bank of the Dunojėlis), “Turėja Liepa” (A Linden Tree), and “Lietuva Brangi” (Dear Lithuania). The last one is considered our unofficial national anthem, a solemn and very emotional song based on a poem by the early 20th century poet Maironis (who I discussed here), a song that often prompts the audience to stand.
This version was performed by Merūnas Vitulskis for the “I Sing Lithuania” contest back in December.
But the culmination of the whole festival was the singing of the official national anthem, “Lithuania, Our Fatherland,” at 9:00, together with Lithuanians all over the world. And that, I believe, is one of the best things about this festival — its affirmation and validation of ALL Lithuanians, of all different colors, all different parts of the world, all part of the great Lithuanian family. This was the message expressed during the Song Day speeches and presentations, and it felt like a deliberate counterpoint to the isolationist and racist policies we’ve seen in certain other countries. As President Dalia Grybauskaitė said in her speech, music has the power to unify us and make us powerful. When we sing together, we are unbeatable.
The (almost) full Song Day recording is here. Sadly, it cuts off just before the national anthem. Good thing I recorded that moment myself!