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A Summer that Offers No Respite

Kristijonas Donelaitis describes how the 18th Century Lithuanian spent his summer

By VILIUS RUDRA DUNDZILA.

Kristijonas Donelaitis’ epic poem, The Seasons is divided into four parts, each focusing on a different season of the year. Each part describes the joys, toils and foibles of Lithuanian peasant life at that time of year. In East Prussia, a.k.a. Lithuania Minor, most Lithuanians were serfs or indentured servants, bound to the land that belonged to their German masters. They lived simple lives in life-long poverty.

The Seasons “Summer toils,” begins with the following lines:

Hail ever-changing world, with May days come and gone. Hail men, with the advent of sunny summertime. Hail ye, who’ve seen new buds and smelled of their perfume. All hail, and God grant that you see many a spring, And that each spring may find you in the best of health!

Throughout the poem, Donelaitis depicts the Lithuanian peasants thanking God for the goodness and sorrow of their lives: luck, health, food, holidays, and even the change of seasons. The folk celebrated the arrival of the warm, sunny summer, even though the summer ushered in the hardest work of the year. Work lasted from dawn until dusk. They were famers, working the land, wearing straw hats. Women turn to cooking in outdoor summer kitchens. Children herd ducks, geese, lambs and cows. Only adults can handle the dangerous and powerful bulls. The heads of the households were also the beekeepers, maintaining their special relationship with their queens and hives. How different from our times, when we view summer as a season of relaxation with camping, hiking, boating, outings and picnics of all kinds.

Donelaitis emphasizes human toil and work as a divine gift:

“In sooth,” [Pričkus] said, “a body full of energy Is God’s most precious gift to any mortal man. For he who toils and sweats each day from dawn to dusk, Subsists from day to day on plain and simple meals, And after ev’ry meal gives humble thanks to God, Each night turns to his bed in peace and sleeps at ease. He needs not envy him who wears expensive clothes, But ill at ease each day picks up his spoon in hand.

Healthy work, healthy body, healthy mind. Everyone does what is needed on the farm: weeding, planting, harvest spring fruits and herbs, searching for forest fruits – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries – harvesting the winter flax and rye, fixing tools, etc. After a long hard day at work, the farmhands put away a hearty but simple meal, thank God for their blessings, and go to bed for a restful night of sweet dreams. Those who do not work become sick with all sorts of illnesses. Racked by disease, they can barely breathe. Somehow they can still muster enough energy to find a spoon at meal time. The Lithuanian peasants and the German landlords did not always get along.

Now some Lithuanians, too, behave and act like pigs They vilify the Swiss in their own native tongue, While they themselves behave no better than the Swiss. …

But now we, too, although we are Christian Prussians, Yea, we Lithuanians, we surfeit ourselves too much, And cause the arrogant Germans to sneer at us.

Germans, Swiss, and French lived in or visited East Prussia. They often viewed the dirty, uneducated, unsophisticated Lithuanian peasants with derision. Some took a keen interest in Lithuanian folk songs, dainos, and dances. But that was the rare exception. Sometimes Lithuanians put on airs themselves: the serfs tried to dress or act like their masters. They would wear German clothing, leather boots or wooden clogs. They also tried their delicacies, such as frogs, toads or snails. Their fellow Lithuanians were repulsed by this, becoming sick to their stomachs. Eating toads! Perish the thought!!! For their part, they wore bast shoes made of bark or thick linen moccasins.

We learn a little about the lives of children. During summers, children work alongside adults. They learn the farm chores, and they learn a thing or two about life as they grow older. Unfortunately, youth is wasted on the young and wisdom is wasted on the old. Only when they grow up, do they recognize the opportunities they missed.

For I e’en as a silly lad had lots of brains, And as a youngster got ahead of older men. As soon as I had seen utensils made of wood, Just think of it, I too could make such things as well; So one old bachelor woodcarver envied me, And even ran from me ashamed to show his face.

Children learned all crafts and handiwork needed for farm life. They also developed responsibility, protecting the animals in their care. Some were more successful than others, a situation that sometimes lead to envy and strife.

Donelaitis felt a compulsion to teach Lithuanian women a thing or two. He would resort to comparing them to German women.

And you good women folk, have you too gone astray? Why don’t you run along and gather your dried flax? Aren’t you ashamed when the industrious German wives, Having threshed all their flax and laid in the meads, So sneeringly deride your wanton laziness? Oh ye Lithuanian wives, do you not feel ashamed— Do you not blush or flush—when zealous German wives, With their superior work abash you constantly?

Of the Germans, only the women are occasionally praised for their hard work and diligence, while the German masters were almost always depicted negatively. They were rich, cruel, and fat; they made their living off the backbreaking work of others; and—worst of all—they hardly showed any piety or respect for God.

Then as now, “happy hour” followed work. So when we weakened or began to moan at work, Your servant hastily for us brought bracing drinks.

In the original Lithuanian, the servant literally brings a barrel. What did these Lithuanian ancestors drink from that barrel? One would guess beer, right? They made beer from hops or wheat. They also drank mead, a fermented beverage from honey, as well as kvass, a fermented drink from sour rye bread. To celebrate holidays, they also bought white wine from the Germans (Lithuania is north of the grape-growing threshold of Europe) or „brangvynis,” lit. “expensive wine.” That is a folk etymology of the German Branntwein or brandy in English. Song and dance would accompany their drinks. Their musical instruments included cymbals, pan-pipes, fiddles, and reed-pipes. They sung folk songs and danced native dances. The Germans and others sometimes took an interest in these Lithuanian cultural expressions. The Lithuanians also had learned German and French dances such as quadrilles and waltzes.

What did the Lithuanians eat? The two most often mentioned foods are šiupinys and kisielius. Šiupinys is a traditional dish of Lithuania Minor. It is made from pig head stewed with various spices, such as pepper, garlic, laurel leaves. The meat is mixed with potatoes and peas. You might know kisielius from Christmas Eve: the red, thickened cranberry pudding. That is but one version of the dish. More frequently, Lithuanians made kisielius from oats: it was a thickened, unsweetened oat stew. In the summer, they ate kuršoles, now called šaltibarščiai or cold beet soup:

Yes, we Lithuanians, borscht and savory mixed-mass [šiupinys],

Cooked tastily with pork, praise highly as we eat; And sausages, prepared in good Lithuanian style, Whenever we have them, we still enjoy full well; Not only we enjoy, we still crave for more.

Meat was a rarity in the peasant diet. Pork was most abundant, especially heads, snouts, hooves, tails. The better cuts of pork went to the German overlords. Daily fare included barley, beans, buckwheat, oats, peas, cabbage, carrots, turnips, red beats, rutabagas, mushrooms and nuts. For that special flavor, some bacon would be added to enhance the aroma and taste. They cooked soups, stews and porridges daily. The Seasons continuously emphasized that the Lithuanians always ate prayerfully thanking God for their blessings.

Lest we forget that he was an ordained minister of word and sacrament, Donelaitis finishes The Seasons with a beautiful, humble prayer that still preaches to the modern world.

But without Thou aid, our Father who’rt in heav’n We cannot reap the wealth the summer tenders us, …

All that we undertake or do will come to naught, Unless Thy hand divine doth bless our earnest work. Thou, O God, sustained us in all the year gone by And thou wilt succor us in all the years to come. What the next summer will give us, we can’t foresee, But though already knowest how great our needs will be. …

Therefore, O Father, take paternal care of us And all our needs, when the summertime doth come, Aid us afield, when we again shall toil and sweat.

In the original Lithuanian, Donelaitis lovingly and sweetly invokes God with the familiar “tėtuti,” dearest daddy.

Donelaitis finishes each section of The Seasons cycle with the same word, “Gana,” enough. Thus I finish this article as well