Another View: How Students of Diverse Ethnic Backgrounds See Lithuanian Culture



After the Chair for Lithuanian Studies was endowed in the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in 1984, UIC launched a new course under the title “Lithuanian Culture.” Prof. Violeta Kelertas taught the course until 1994. Then I was hired to teach it. During two decades over 700 students had taken “Lithuanian Culture.” Every semester 60 students are registered for the course. Many students of Lithuanian descent have taken the course. But one of the goals of the course is also to introduce Lithuanian culture to Americans and students of other nationalities. The class usually consists of many various nationalities. Materials of the course are also available online at:

Students are asked to write papers about a topic in Lithuanian culture that they like. Very often students encounter Lithuanian culture for the first time. They have a fresh view and different evaluation of Lithuanian culture. Believing that these students’ thoughts about various aspects of Lithuanian culture might be of interest to the readers of Lithuanian Heritage magazine, I would like to offer shortened versions of three students’ works: Jihye Sharon Kang, Shardae Young, and Harish Devineni.

Giedrius Subačius
University of Illinois at Chicago
Department of Slavic and Baltic Languages and Literatures.

2009-01-15-LHERITAGE 2

Uniqueness in the Lithuanian Dresses

Jihye Sharon Kang
American student studying Lithuanian
Culture in University of Illinois at Chicago
(Endowed Chair for Lithuanian Studies)

As every country around the world has its own “something” to show or represent the uniqueness of its culture, the Lithuanian traditional apparel is definitely appealing to look at. In my home country, Korea, the only times I see traditional han-boks are in special traditional holidays, folk dances and sometimes at weddings – as Lithuanians do too. Lithuanian traditional apparel was mostly home- and hand-made and was most frequently worn in the middle of the 19th century, but now it has been replaced by the manufactured garments. This late evolution was probably due to the historically late industrialization in Lithuania when the other two Baltic countries – Estonia and Latvia were already being influenced by the more developed European Lutheran culture. Definitely the Western culture now with popular fashion designers who promote cheaper costs, more variety or styles, and comfort – has influenced internationally the young and the old.

Coming from an Asian culture and learning a new European culture, some questions that popped up in my mind were regarding the special occasions and holidays that required these clothing, the evolution and foreign influences of style, the fashion differences in the country’s various regions, and accessories specific just to the Lithuanian culture. Searching for these answers led to the unfolding of interesting facts about this fascinating culture.

On the Internet, I randomly found the most interesting website for this paper. A man from Sweden was obviously enthralled by the neighboring Lithuanians’ national festivals such as the Song Festival, and took various pictures of dancers, singers, other performers dressed in the Lithuanian’s traditional attire. Definitely the traditional apparel worn by the performers brought into effect the exciting environment to the audience watching, knowing and feeling proud of their national costumes in addition to the upbeat Lithuanian folk music.

Looking through the costumes – especially the women’s dresses – I caught on with the types of patterns used and some of the similarities amongst many. The first idea that struck out was the color red. On every dress (and I have seen about fifty different ones from five different regions of Lithuania), red seemed more like a required color on a dress whether it was mainly or partly red assuring that the color red had some Lithuanian cultural significance.

Within the similarities in its structures and the unifying idea of Lithuanian dresses, there was this aesthetic rule that, “if one article of clothing had an elaborate design, the other was simpler; if one use warm colors, the other had cooler shades.” I’m not sure this would make sense but in these clothes, there is this contrast, maybe more a juxtaposition in the way the women styled their dresses. I guess if both inner and outer garments radiated parallel colors, it would look too simple for a country of women who weave and never fail to make the most beautiful patterns and mix of colors to their dresses.

The differences in style and image of the dresses from five major regions of Lithuania had their reasons coming from each region’s historical background. In a stylistic perspective, Aukštaitija was most conservative because of their oldest history.

Žemaitija’s domination of deep colors of red is somewhat stylistically just the opposite. Clothes in the Suvalkija region are the most elaborate as they are ornamented with many different colors. The color in Dzūkija is grayish – may I say boring color shades. Lastly, in the Klaipėda region, a common color theme would be dark colors such as black mixed with green or red. Given that the Klaipėda region is close to the sea and to Germanic lands, it was most influenced by the Lutheran religion that changed the clothes’ color and their fancy patterns, and became more conservative/less fancy to simple colors. This exemplifies the inevitable cultural exchanges with surrounding countries.

I would in no doubt try on Lithuanian dress if I had the chance. A costume painter, Edward Gisevius (1798-1880), who left about 150 paintings of women and girls of the Lower Nemunas area in formal dress commented, “my whole attention was suddenly drawn to the women and maidens… their very traditional and unpretentious but eye-appealing apparel was a remarkable sight… and their elaborate hairdos…” as he was obviously impressed. I totally agree with what he saw in Lithuanian clothing, except that he just put it in much more expressive words.

2009-01-15-LHERITAGE 3

Kūčios in Lithuanian Culture

Shardae Young
American student studying Lithuanian
Culture in University of Illinois at Chicago
(Endowed Chair for Lithuanian Studies)

For my Lithuanian class it was required that we write an Internet research paper discussing a topic of Lithuanian culture. I decided I wanted to learn more about Christmas traditions in Lithuanian culture. In Lithuania, Christmas Eve is a very important holiday. A special dinner called Kūčios is held on Christmas Eve. There is much preparation for Kūčios. The entire house is thoroughly cleaned and all bed linens are changed. All family members make an effort to attend the dinner. These traditions were not surprising to me. I expected the family to come together for the holiday. However, the custom of abstaining from meat for the entire day was very new for me. My understanding of this tradition is that fasting from meat distinguishes this meal and makes it more important than other meals. These special preparations for the dinner demonstrate to me the significance of the dinner and the Christmas holiday in Lithuanian culture.

In addition to other preparations, the table is elaborately set. A plate with a candle marks the place setting of a family member that has recently died. From these practices, I realized that there is much meaning and deep Christian beliefs behind each custom. The custom of placing a candle to represent a deceased family member seems very solemn to me. For me this custom would take away from the festivity and the joy of the dinner. However, I do feel this is a respectful tradition that causes the family to reflect on loved ones that have passed away.

Kūčios starts when the first star appears in the sky. Again this custom is associated with Christian beliefs because the star symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem leading the shepherds to Bethlehem. I believe this is a beautiful way to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ before beginning the meal. Also, before the meal starts, Dievo pyragas (blessed wafer) is passed around the table to each family member. Each person breaks off a piece of the wafer from the other person. The one who breaks off the largest piece will have good luck in the upcoming year. Being missed in the passing of the wafer signifies future misfortune. My opinion of this custom is that it is very different from the other Christian traditions associated with Christmas Eve in Lithuanian culture. The other traditions I discussed were centered on honoring deceased family members, remembering the birth of Christ, and honoring other Christian beliefs. In comparison, I feel this custom is very superstitious and unique. I would think this tradition would cause much competition between family members to get the biggest piece of wafer. It would seem to create tension among the family and ruin the spirit of the holidays.

Despite this sense of competition, Kūčios continues. There are twelve main dishes served representing Christÿs twelve disciples and the twelve months of the year. Once again this tradition really symbolizes the importance of the Christian faith in Lithuanian culture. I found it very interesting that my feelings towards the twelve dishes of Kūčios was summed up in an article by Adolphe Bernotas where he states, “For meat- and- potato Americans, a platter of beet, egg, and herring salad and a bowl of cranberry pudding washed down by a purple-gray milk made from macerated poppy seeds doesn’t much resemble a Christmas Eve feast. But for me, it reconnects me to who I am…”

I agree with Bernotas’ statement because it is hard for me as an American to imagine a holiday meal without the ham, roast, and duck for Christmas dinner, but for Lithuanians this is a tradition that connects them to their culture. I was interested in the fact that it is also required for everyone to taste all of the dishes, and tradition says that those who skip any of the Kūčios foods will not live to see the next Christmas. This sounded slightly morbid that by skipping any of the dishes someone could die. Finally, after the meal, the table is left uncleared until morning so as to leave food for the souls of ancestors, spirits and gods. I was surprised to discover this, but I understand it as a way to pay homage to family members that have passed. Through my research, I learned Kūčios is a dinner set around traditions that are centered on family and togetherness.

Another fact I wanted to explore is if Santa Claus was included in the holiday celebrations in Lithuanian culture. Families do gather around a lit tree and wait for Kalėdų Senelis, or Father Christmas. The children must earn their gifts by performing songs, poems, or dancing. If Father Christmas does not show up in person, the children still perform because Santa sees all. After presents are exchanged, the children go to bed and the adults go to midnight mass. These traditions are similar to American culture and how everyone gathers around the tree to exchange gifts. However, the fact that the children perform for Santa Claus in order to receive gifts is very new to me. It reminds me of how in American culture children have to be good all year because Santa sees all, and bad children get a lump of coal and good children get gifts.

Christmas traditions in Lithuanian culture are deep in Christian and pagan roots. Many of the traditions combine the two ideologies. There are customs that symbolizes the birth of Christ and customs that deal with predicting the future. All of the traditions are very meaningful and bring the family together. There is a spirit of love, respect, reflection that is present during this holiday. There is much thought put into the holiday. I believe from my research that Christmas in Lithuanian culture is very genuine and meaningful.

2009-01-15-LHERITAGE 4

Lithuanian Basketball

Harish Devineni
American student studying Lithuanian
Culture in University of Illinois at Chicago
(Endowed Chair for Lithuanian Studies)


Before, I used to think that basketball is just a recreation sport, but to one country it is their life. This country that I’m talking about is Lithuania. I think Lithuania’s star basketball players are the ones that first introduced the country of Lithuania to the whole world. I personally have seen many Lithuanian greats play in the NBA. Each player I have seen has a distinct strength accompanied with them.

When I consulted with some Lithuanians in the United States, they spoke as if basketball was their life. Even though basketball didn’t originate in Lithuania, I feel that the players this country produced and the craze that exists for the game of basketball are astonishing.

Some of the Lithuanian players that I adore include Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Jasikevičius. I remember the day when I was at YMCA. I was just shooting around by the basketball courts and ironically a kid wearing the Lithuanian colors (red, yellow and green) came in. He asked if I wanted to play and without any reluctance I agreed. As we were playing I noticed that he shot numerous three point shots with almost a comparative form to Jasikevičius. So I asked him, do you know Šarūnas Jasikevičius, and he smirked back and replied very sarcastically, “OF COURSE! What kind of a question is that?” I also remember seeing a very unique shirt with the picture of Arvydas Sabonis. The shirt read, “he is not yurvydas, he is not myvydas, he is arvydas!” I felt that this shirt showed tribute towards this well known Lithuanian player.

The reason that I adore Arvydas Sabonis is because of his supreme basketball skills. I believe that he is considered to be one of the top basketball personnel to play the position in the NBA. Not only do I like him because of his basketball skills, but his perseverance is what I admire the most. As I read about his journey to getting to the NBA it really inspired me. He had struggled with knee and leg problems throughout his career, but he never gave in. He kept on fighting and always played to the best of his ability. Also, while dealing with the Soviet rule’s distractions and abnormalities he still somehow found a way to succeed and make a name for himself globally.

Another one of my favorite Lithuanian players is Šarūnas Jasikevičius. He is what I call a three point making machine. I first saw Šarūnas play in the Olympics, when Lithuania had beaten the United States. I watched Šarūnas single-handedly beat the U.S.A. dream team by sinking three pointers, one after another. It looked as if he couldn’t miss. I found that he attended the University of Maryland and played basketball there for three years. In addition to his three point shooting ability, Jasikevičius’ perseverance and drive to never give up astonished me. According to some of my friends, Šarūnas is considered to be equivalent to a rock star in Europe. I believe that it is fair to say Jasikevičius almost single-handedly led Lithuania to a victory against the U.S.A.

I wanted to find out which players the Lithuanianborn individuals consider to be their idols. When I consulted a friend of mine and questioned him about his favorite players, he added Šarūnas Marčiulionis to Sabonis and Jasikevičius. When I asked him, why Šarūnas Marčiulionis, he said that Marčiulionis was the first Lithuanian to join the NBA. I found out that he was not only the first Lithuanian, but the first European basketball player to be drafted into the NBA. This was amazing to me. Out of all the European power houses such as Russia, Germany, and France, the first player from Europe to be drafted into the NBA came from Lithuania. My friend also said that Marčiulionis set a benchmark for the rest of the aspiring basketball players in Lithuania. He provided hope for the rest of basketball-playing youth in Lithuania. When I saw that Marčiulionis was drafted in 1987, I realized that Lithuania did not get its freedom ‘till 1990! So, Marčiulionis had to struggle and somehow elude the Soviet power and develop his career by coming to the NBA.

I was in sheer shock – my country of India, which has a population of one billion people, has developed no basketball players, but Lithuania on the other hand, with a population of three million was able to develop seven professional NBA players and more on their way. I just found it amazing how such a small country could produce so many professional basketball players, but a country that is almost a hundred times its population has none.

I believe that Lithuanians are born with basketball skills in their blood. I admit that this might be a little stereotypical or a false statement, but from my experiences almost all the Lithuanian players that I have played with, play as if they have the natural basketball instincts. Some don’t even have the correct form for shooting the ball, but still perform very well; they still score and make points and play the game with basic fundamentals.

Lithuanian basketball is developing, even as we speak. I envision numerous other Lithuanian players to be drafted into the NBA in the years to come. By working hard, Lithuanian basketball is receiving respect from many nations across the world. I feel that Lithuania will soon dominate basketball and become more of a power than it already is. In addition to participating in the Olympics and summer championships, Lithuanian basketball players also play in a local European league. With such exposure to the game and playing at such high competition, I think that Lithuanian basketball players are going to develop their game to a greater extent. I have truly learned a lot about Lithuanian basketball and I support and respect it very much. I have great faith in saying, “Lietuviškas krepšinis yra nerealus!” (“Lithuanian basketball is unreal!”)