Authentic Christmas Eve celebrations encompass a variety of ceremonies and rituals, some of which date as far as Lithuania's pagan times before the end of the 14th century. Today, Christmas Eve is mostly regarded as an annual occasion to gather family and friends around the dinner table.
Twelve Dishes for the Christmas Eve Dinner Table
Traditionally, twelve dishes are to be served on a Christmas Eve table (symbolizing twelve months of the year) and the dinner is to start once the Western star rises. To date, I am not sure what the Western star is, but the twelve dish rule is generally much easier to observe :)
So what are the typical 12 dishes that you would find on a Lithuanian Kūčios dinner table?
1, 2, 3 and maybe more. Various herring salads
Not even kidding - you will find on average 3 types of dishes containing herring on a typical Lithuanian Christmas Eve table. Herring with beets, herring with carrots, herring with apples, herring with hot potatoes - you name it. I personally LOVE herring and Christmas Eve is a good occasion to get a year's fill of it.
4. Christmas Eve Cookies ("Kūčiukai")
I translated the name of this pastry as "cookies" for the lack of a better word. Kūčiukai (sometimes called šližikai) are crouton-sized dough bits made of plain flour, water and poppy seeds and baked exceptionally for Christmas Eve only. Once baked, they become rock-hard within a day, yet are served as a table centerpiece because of old traditions. What is Christmas Eve without a cracked tooth!
6. Cranberry Kissel Drink
Kissel is found in many Eastern European cuisines, and it is usually a berry or fruit flavoured thick starchy dessert. In Lithuania, however, kissel is thinned down to a consistency of a drink, and its cranberry variety is a favorite in winter and during Christmas season.
Traditionally, cranberry kissel is made by boiling cranberries, straining them, thickening the hot liquid with starch and adding sugar to taste. As a shortcut, you may heat up ready-made cranberry juice and drizzle some starch suspended in a small amount of water to thicken the juice. Voila - you have a kissel.
7. Communion wafers
Catholicism is the dominant religion in Lithuania, and sharing community wafers during the Christmas Eve dinner is common. Usually a wafer is passed around the table, and each family member breaks and eats a piece, whishing the others a good year ahead. Thus it is not strictly a dish, but one of a better known traditions. One usually can buy wafers from their nearest church.
8 and on. The Rest
The remaining of the twelve dishes (and lets face it - twelve is the minimum, rather than the exact count, nowadays) vary from table to table, from family to family. Here a several of the most common ones:
Potato salad - or as Lithuanians call it, "white salad", is a favorite in various celebrations, not only in Christmas season.
Cold cuts - ham, roasts, or beef tongue with condiments. Traditionally, meat is not allowed on the Christmas Eve table due to Advent observances, but this is often no longer the case nowadays.
Aspic - a savoury collagenous jelly made with meat and set in a mould. Served with mayo, horseradish or vinegar.
Tangerines - tropical fruits, of course, are far from traditional, but in the latter decades tangerines in particular became very common on the Christmas Eve table. Grocery stores also seem to stock up on them in December in anticipation of the demand. Culinary globalization in action!
Chocolate and candies - our family's Christmas Eve tradition was to serve a certain Lithuanian candy brand "Griliažas" - something like peanut brittle covered in chocolate.
Peaceful Christmas, everyone!