As the year draws to a close, Country Walkers loves to explore holiday traditions around the world. This year, our new Lithuania & Latvia: Vilnius to Riga Guided Tour has us celebrating the holidays in traditional Baltic style: with peace, hope, and the promise of good fortune in the coming year. As many Country Walkers guests can attest, the immaculate cities, peaceful countryside, and boisterous welcome of the local people makes a walking tour of the Baltic states a stand-out adventure.
As the December winds buffet the Country Walkers office in northern Vermont, we can picture the pristine Baltic forests—so green and lush in summertime—transformed beneath a blanket of fresh snow. During this time, Lithuanians and Latvians, like our guides Kristina Sadauskienė and Valdis Ceics, devote themselves to cleaning out cupboards and under rugs—chasing away the detritus of the past year to make way for the traditional kūčios holiday feast. On this special day, Lithuanian families fast during daylight hours and watch the skies for the light of the first evening star—and the start of this magical holiday celebration.
A Table Set for Good Fortune
To prepare for kūčios on December 24, the table is strewn with a layer of clean hay—giving the dining room the fresh, earthy scent of the nativity stable. A white linen cloth is laid over the hay and decorated with candles and garlands of fresh pine. Place settings are carefully arranged—including an extra setting for family members unable to attend. The traditional kūčios meal consists of 12 dishes—representative of the 12 apostles, or perhaps the 12 months of the year, depending on whom you ask. Dishes containing meat, eggs, and dairy are typically avoided—and food is traditionally served cold. Pickled herring, or silkė, is a common kūčios appetizer. Other delicacies include smoked eel, cranberry pudding, and kūčiukai—a dish of round crackers soaked in poppy milk. Fruit compote, cranberry kissel, and kalėdų pyragas, a Baltic fruitcake, round out this special meal.
During the feast, family members take turns drawing straws from beneath the tablecloth to predict their fortunes for the coming year—the rule is, you can’t look before you pull! You must take the first straw that comes to you. A bent straw foretells a turn in life’s path, a long straw anticipates a long life, and a fat straw predicts wealth. If jolly old Kalėdų Senelis decides to make an appearance, it will likely be during the meal (Father Christmas has notoriously good timing when it comes to dessert, you may have noticed—both in the Baltics, and beyond.) It’s bad luck to leave the table before everyone has finished—and it’s also bad luck to clear away the feast. After the guests have departed, the leftovers remain on the table all night to welcome the spirits of departed ancestors.
A Rich Kaleidoscope of Landscapes
While the winter months are rather chilly for long walks in the Baltic region, our summertime Lithuania & Latvia: Vilnius to Riga Guided Tour was one of Country Walkers most highly-rated tours in 2022. “As always on Country Walkers trips, the guides were really good, and it was great having a Lithuanian guide and a Latvian guide. Between the itinerary and the guides, we learned a lot about these countries,” says Carol Bell, a 2022 Country Walkers Lithuania & Latvia traveler. “The nice thing about the tour is that every one of our walks was a little different.”
With her family connections and deep, insider knowledge of the region, Travel Designer Katerina Bacevicius got the inside scoop on walks that showcase the regions natural biodiversity—and events that highlight the vibrant culture. “The Curonian Spit was really special,” says Gretchen Arnold, another 2022 Country Walkers Lithuania & Latvia traveler. “It’s very diverse, with lots of old fishing villages where they fish for cod—which we ate on the beach while we were there. We went up the Hill of Witches which has a lot of totems. It’s very forested there, with dunes as well.” Amid beaches and dunes, forests and bogs, this vibrant countryside offers something new each day—and the peaceful atmosphere provides the perfect milieu for shaking off the hustle-bustle of daily life.
Time for Some Good, Clean Fun!
While the Baltic traditional holiday celebration starts with a deep cleaning of the home, it’s evident that reverence and respect for the environment are key characteristics of Lithuanian and Latvian culture. “There was no homelessness, no indigence, none of that. They have over 50,000 Ukrainian refugees over there, and it was clean and orderly—cleaner than other places I’ve visited,” says Gretchen Arnold. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have experienced a profound period of economic growth, sometimes referred to as the “Baltic Tiger.” Evidence of the strong Baltic economy and high standard of living are evident throughout the Lithuania & Latvia: Vilnius to Riga Guided Tour in the quaint, tidy cities and pristine country estates.
And what better way to experience the warm Baltic culture than with a bit of song and dance? “Our first night in Lithuania and Latvia we had local traditional dancers and musicians. They did that over cocktail hour and those are just so much fun,” says Carol Bell. “One of the musicians would pick a guest and just start swinging them around.” It’s impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of revelry in the lively Baltic music, vibrant folk costumes, and welcoming smiles that greet you at every turn.
So, Linksmų Kalėdų to one and all! See you next year—on the trail.