POPULATION: 3.7 million (total population of country; 80 percent are ethnic Lithuanians)
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Old Believers; Russian Orthodox Church; Lutheranism; Judaism
It is likely that the first people to live in the area now known as Lithuania came from Asia around 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Lithuania and Poland were part of a large empire that dominated eastern Europe. By 1795, Russia had taken over all of Lithuania. During World War I (1914–18), the German army occupied Lithuania. Lithuania was recognized as a sovereign (self-governing) state following the war, but independence did not last long.
During World War II (1939–45), Germany occupied Lithuania, and sent about 160,000 Lithuanians to die in concentration camps. After the war, the Russians returned to Lithuania and claimed it as a part of the Soviet Union. (At that time Russia was one of the states of the Soviet Union.)
When the Soviet Union fell apart in late 1991, the Lithuanians were finally free to govern themselves for the first time since 1940. The last foreign army units left Lithuania on August 31, 1993.
Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, is one of the Baltic States that border the Baltic Sea. It is located in the western part of eastern Europe, along the basin of the Nemunas River. Water travel has long been an important means of transportation in Lithuania. The 2,833 lakes in Lithuania occupy about 1.5 percent of the surface area of the nation. The rivers and lakes are frozen over for about three months each winter.
There are millions of Lithuanians living outside Lithuania, including over 800,000 people of Lithuanian heritage living in the United States, and another 15,000 in Canada.
The Lithuanian language was formalized at the end of the nineteenth century. There are many dialects (variations on the language) spoken throughout Lithuania.
Lithuanian first names for males end in as or us. Typical first names include Algimantas, Jonas, Darius, and Vytautas . Female first names often end in the letter a and include Rasa, Daiva, Laima, Ruta, and Aldona .
Family names reflect gender, and for females, their position. For example: Antanas Butkus is the husband and father. His wife, Birute, uses a feminine variation of his family name—Butkiene—to indicate that she is his wife. His unmarried daughter, Ruta, uses another variation—Butkute—to indicate her status. His sons are entitled to use the name Butkus.
Examples of everyday Lithuanian words include:
|Good-bye||sudiev (literally "with God")||SU-dyo|
The old Lithuanian dainos (songs) are famous for their beauty and variety. The dainos were created by women doing farm work or celebrating festivals. They were also created to mark mournful occasions. Romantic love and leave-taking are important themes.
Many folk songs have been harmonized or used in compositions by modern composers. Folk song festivals and performances by choral groups are an important part of cultural life. Folk music is played solo or by instrumental groups. Popular instruments include kankles (zither), skuduciai (pan-pipe), lamzdelis (recorder), ragas (horn), smuikas (fiddle), birbyne (folk clarinet), and skrabalai (cow bells).
The ancient Lithuanians worshiped many gods and believed that forests and fires were sacred. The most popular gods that they worshiped were Perkūnas (god of thunder), Velnias (the devil, the guardian of wizards), Medeina (goddess of forests), and Zvorūne (goddess of hunting).
About 80 percent of Lithuanians who have religious beliefs are Roman Catholic. Most of the rest are Russian Orthodox, Old Believers (a seventeenth century breakaway Russian Orthodox sect), Lutheran, and Jewish.
Independence Day commemorating the 1918 declaration of independence is February 16. The Day of Independence Restored, celebrated on March 11, commemorates the date in 1990 when Lithuania declared its independence from what was then the Soviet Union.
Easter is the most important religious holiday among Lithuanians. Lithuanians begin celebrating Easter by attending a church service before sunrise with their immediate family. The service is followed by a festive breakfast. Beginning in the late afternoon and on Easter Monday, groups of young men call on their neighbors, singing and asking for marguciai (decorated Easter eggs). It is considered inhospitable to refuse the carolers' requests. General merrymaking on the second day of Easter includes the rolling of Easter eggs, games to test one's strength, and swinging on swings. Adults travel to visit relatives and friends. On the third day of Easter, the dead are remembered and cemeteries are visited.
Traditionally, couples to be married participated in a series of pre-wedding rituals and customs. Most of these placed great emphasis upon the bride's leaving her parents and her childhood home. Customary ceremonial songs, dances, and verse accompanied each of these events. They included vakarynos (the last evening) when the bride's friends braided her hair for the last time. They also sang to her of past happiness and future worries.
Jaunojo sutiktuves (greeting the bridegroom) included the exchange of gifts. During the svocios pietūs (dinner for the bride), the bride's wreath was exchanged for a married woman's headdress. At the nuotakos išleistuves (taking leave of the parental home), the bride kissed the table, the crucifix, and a loaf of bread and bid farewell to her parents and other family.
An old greeting still used in some rural areas of Lithuania is Garbe Kristui (Praise Christ). The traditional response is per amzius amen (forever amen). It was also customary to greet someone working in the fields or in gardens with Dieve padek (May God help you).
Lithuanians have long prided themselves on their hospitality. A visit to a Lithuanian home is sure to include a warm response, a richly laid table, and perhaps storytelling and singing.
The Lithuanian government is developing a new health-care program to improve health conditions. Cancer is the leading cause of death in Lithuania, and diseases related to alcoholism are also common. The average life expectancy for a Lithuanian born now is about seventy-two years, which is relatively high among eastern European and former Soviet nations.
During World War II (1939–45), many Lithuanian towns and villages were completely destroyed. After the war, many standardized housing projects were constructed. They were often built in large sections from prefabricated materials. Many of these units today are in poor condition.
Large families, with ten to twelve children, were historically common in Lithuania. Though traditionally the father was the head of the family, the mother also commanded respect within the family structure. Roman Catholicism was the fundamental force in family life.
Modern Lithuanian families tend to be much smaller, with one or two children the norm. In the 1990s, women outnumber men in Lithuania, leaving more women unmarried than in the past. It typically takes a young couple fifteen to twenty years to save enough money to buy a house or an apartment. A young couple must often turn to their parents for financial help. The number of single-parent families is on the rise, as is alcoholism. Two-income households have become common. The divorce rate has increased as well, having reached about 20 to 25 percent of all marriages. Alimony is awarded to a woman only if the children are minors at the time of the divorce.
Lithuanians dress in modern, Western-style clothes. Traditional clothing is worn only for festivals. A traditional costume for women consists of a woven, colorful full skirt, embroidered blouse, vest, and head-piece with ribbons. Jewelry made from amber found on the shores of the Baltic Sea is treasured.
Food has always been treated with great respect by Lithuanians. It is seen as a gift from God. Until the early 1900s, eating was a very serious and even holy act. The family dinner table was not the place for talking or child's play. In traditional Lithuanian culture, meals were presided over by the male head of the household. He led the family in a short prayer before dividing the bread and meat. Other dishes would then be served by the wife.
Sour cream is an important part of Lithuanian dishes. Varske (curd or dry cottage cheese) is also important. It is used as a filling in such dishes as varskeciai (rolled pancakes with sweetened curd), cepelinai (large, blimp-shaped potato dumplings), and virtinukai (ravioli-like dumplings). The latter two dishes commonly feature a filling of meat and are topped by a large mound of sour cream or fried bacon bits.
A very popular summer dish is the refreshing saltibarsciai, a cold soup of sour cream and buttermilk or sour milk, with sliced beets, cucumbers, green onions, boiled eggs, and parsley. It is usually eaten with a hot boiled potato. Among the large variety of pancakes, potato pancakes form a separate category. Roasts of pork, veal, beef, or poultry, as well as pork chops, are more common on Lithuanian home and restaurant tables than are beef steaks. The seasoning of Lithuanian dishes is mild.
Education starts at age six. There are three types of public schools: elementary (grades one through four), nine-year (grades one through nine), and secondary (up to grade twelve). There are also professional, technical, and specialized secondary schools. Higher education in Lithuania is available at sixteen institutions.
The oldest known folk songs are the dainos, which were sung by Lithuanian women during the Middle Ages. The most popular instruments for playing Lithuanian folk songs are skrabalai (cow bells), dambrelis (jaw harp), kankles (zither), smuikas (fiddle), skuduciai (panpipe), lamzdelis (recorder), ragas (horn), daudyte (long trumpet), and the birbyne (folk clarinet).
Musical elements of the traditional folk songs are often used in modern compositions as well. Choral singing is an important part of cultural festivals in Lithuania. Every five years, Vingis Park in Vilnius is the site of a huge folk music festival. The stage is big enough to hold 20,000 performers. The costumed performers demonstrate ancient Lithuanian folk songs and dances.
In 1706, Aesop's fables became the first nonreligious work published in Lithuanian. Antanas Baranauskas was a famous poet of the mid-nineteenth century, whose lyrical romantic poem Anykšciu šilelis (The Forest of Anykšciai) is a milestone in Lithuanian literature. Lithuanian literature has long been linked with nationalism and the liberation movement, especially the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
During the decades of Soviet rule, the government controlled the economy. The independent Lithuanian government has begun to replace that inefficient system with one that allows businesses and individuals to make their own decisions. However, the transition toward a market economy has been difficult for many workers.
Lithuanians are sports enthusiasts. Riding and hunting are traditional activities. A popular traditional game is ripkos, involving the throwing and hitting of a wooden disk. Over fifty types of sports are practiced and played in Lithuania, including rowing, boxing, basketball, track and field, swimming, hand-ball, and table tennis.
Basketball is the most popular sport in Lithuania today. It was introduced by a Lithuanian American named Stasys Darius after World War I (1914–18). The sport caught on rapidly, and the Lithuanian team won the European basketball championship twice before World War II (1939–45). Today, two Lithuanian players in particular, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, have found success in the American National Basketball Association. Sabonis and Marciulionis also helped lead the Lithuanian team to Olympic bronze medal victories in 1992 and 1996.
Other popular sports in Lithuania include cycling and canoeing. Soccer is also very popular. Most recently, baseball and field hockey have entered the Lithuanian arena of sports as new favorites. Vilnius, Klaipeda, and Kaunas have the largest of Lithuania's forty-one stadiums.
From the ancient past until today, Lithuanians have maintained a love of traditional song and dance. The arts are especially supported in the capital city, Vilnius.
Lithuanians also enjoy the outdoors. In summer, beaches along the Baltic Sea, seaside resort towns, and lakes, forests, and campgrounds in the countryside are visited by vacationing Lithuanians. Health resorts are equally popular. Time spent in a sauna or steam bath is considered a necessary luxury by Lithuanians. World travel for the citizens of Lithuania was forbidden until 1993, but by the late 1990s it had become a popular activity.
Local cafes, movie theaters, and video arcades attract young people, as do nightclubs and rock concerts. Numerous health clubs have opened their doors since 1993 and are gaining in popularity. There are few carnival rides or amusement parks in Lithuania.
Lithuanian folk art frequently involves the decoration of common household items. Bed and table linens, towels, window treatments, wooden trim, and ceramics are objects that are often decorated. Themes in paintings and sculptures typically focus on religion, work, and everyday life.
After Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1993, many large factories closed, creating a sudden rise in the unemployment rate. Young people are often tempted to seek work in other countries.
Crime has increased in Lithuania. Mugging, robbery, car-jacking, and murder have become more commonplace. Prisons and juvenile detention centers are overcrowded.
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Tamošaitis, Anatas, and Anastasia Tamošaitis. Lithuanian National Costume . Toronto: Time Press Litho Ltd., 1979.