Volume 51, No.4 - Winter 2005
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2005 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Žilvytis Šaknys
Lithuanian Institute of History
Vilnius, Lithuania  

In all rural societies there existed within the larger village society separate youth groups with a traditionally defined set of activities that corresponded to calendar holidays and seasonal tasks undertaken in the course of each annual cycle. They were an integral part of rural life for centuries although little is known about their historical origins and activities. According to John Gillis, in Early Modern Europe, in areas where the population was not deeply divided into rich and poor classes, youth groups incorporated young villagers from the age of about fourteen until marriage. While the main groups were primarily male, female cohorts sometimes formed satellite bodies. To what extent membership or participation in these activities was obligatory is hard to determine, but in areas where village unity was still pronounced, it seems likely that almost all unmarried young people were involved (Gillis 28).

Youth groups were also an integral part of Lithuanian villages and small towns, but there is little ethnological data available on their composition and activities. A pioneer in this area of research was Antanas Mažiulis, whose research covers the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, which corresponds with the existence of the Lithuanian Republic during the interwar period. His research was cut short when he left Lithuania as a refugee at the end of World War II and subsequently emigrated to the United States. Some of his findings can be found in the Lithuanian encyclopedias published in Boston in both Lithuanian and English editions. According to MaΩiulis, in major villages in prewar Lithuania youth groups were still well preserved. They were headed by young males. Some groups had their own music bands or owned one or two rowboats, if the village was near a lake or river. They held meetings in smithies or barns and had their own courts of justice that imposed penalties on offenders (and, if needed, disciplinary action on girls). For entertainment, they organized parties, or participated in the parties of another village. Some groups had subgroups led by its smartest and strongest members. These leaders initiated young boys into the community, promoting them to the rank of bernas, that is an unmarried, able-bodied young male able to carry out male work on a farm and assume leadership roles in fights between villages. Females played a minor role in these groups and their monetary contributions were insignificant. Young village girls occasionally held separate meetings, usually in granaries. Young boys (6–14) formed their own group, following the accepted model (Mažiulis 1957:241).

Mažiulis’s fragmentary paragraph in an encyclopedia article raises a number of unanswered questions about the composition, structure, number, work-and-leisure activities and general purpose of such youth groups. It implies that in addition to a heterogeneous group there also existed separate male and female groups, but unfortunately it does not provide any additional information. Nor does it describe for which offenses guys and even girls were subject to discipline. Gerhard Bauer, in his work on Lithuanian and Latvian village community as a social structure, does not treat males and females as separate social formations. According to his research, young males were dominant in the youth community. The girls assumed a passive role, primarily because of societal pressures not to stand out and invite gossip which could be ruinous to their reputations (Bauer 96-97).

The present research covers village life in Lithuania as well as in ethnic Lithuanian territories during roughly the same time period as Mažiulis. The analysis is based on fieldwork data recorded in the Lithuanian Republic before World War II and on oral histories collected during the last decade in Lithuania as well as in Lithuanian ethnic territories outside of Lithuania*. It also includes ethnographic material and investigations from earlier periods.

The term “youth community,” as we use it in this article, means young individuals belonging to a group according to age, territory, common interests, active participation in group affairs, and prescribed modes of gender interaction. Our analysis shows that youth groups played an important part in Lithuanian village life. They consisted of young people of both genders but could temporarily split into same-sex groups for work-related activities. The age at which an individual entered a youth group depended on many interrelated components: physical maturity, seniority in the family, size and type of village, total number of young people and so forth (Šaknys 2001:11).

In a traditional society, girls remained passive, learning to assume the role of hearth keepers early in life, while boys prepared for the active role of carrying out male functions both inside and outside their native village. Our research shows that while youth groups were led by males, the role of females was not consistently passive but rose and fell in influence at specific times of the year. Unlike other communities in the village, which were stable, the youth community had to cope with crises that left it in constant flux. These crises were weddings. Traditionally, most of them took place twice a year (after the harvest season and in the period before Lent) and each time affected the structure and size of the group. Thus the youth community periodically lost its most mature members and had to continuously reconstitute itself by replenishing its ranks with new members and establishing new hierarchies.

The annual cycle of a youth community began with Advent. In an agrarian society, the bulk of work in the fields was finished in late fall on or around Advent. Marriages contracted in autumn after the harvest season thinned its ranks, and this quiet period of the year was a time for the community to regenerate itself, recruit new members and consolidate its ranks. In Roman Catholic countries, dancing and singing were forbidden during Advent. Nevertheless, in almost all areas of rural Lithuania, customs provided young people with opportunities to get together for fun and games on Saturdays or Sundays and sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays both.

The girls were kept busier at this time with daily activities that consisted of spinning, embroidering, sash weaving and feather splitting. According to Auksuolė Čepaitienė, this communal labor brought the girls together in a single location, an important function of which was to attract male attention and provide opportunities for the sexes to meet (Čepaitienė 1997:13).

Males had no outdoor farmwork to occupy them and had much free time on their hands. They made ropes, engaged in woodcarving, or played cards. Their favorite activity was to distract the girls from their work and entice them into socializing by joining in on games. Some of these games were mere fun, but others were quite erotic in nature and provided opportunities for touching, kissing and necking. Needless to say, these gatherings could easily turn rowdy and transgress the norms of acceptable behavior. According to Pranas Juozapavičius, this was the main reason why some parents did not allow their daughters to take part in them (IIE 892:91 Prienai district).

Sometimes the girls took the initiative and organized spinning parties (vakaronės). Although the girls were presumably the hostesses, the young males – more often than not – took over and used such occasions as an invitation for rowdy behavior (Čepaitienė 2001:176-179). One example was the custom for a group of males, sometimes even accompanied by a musician, to crash into a girl’s room, set unfinished tufts of flax on fire and then stamp out the flames with their feet (IIES 1334:39 Švenčionys district). This was done under the pretext of “punishing” a girl for not having finished her spinning on time (IIES 1319:201 Lazdijai district). At other times, however, it was meant to represent a public show of affection for that particular girl, even though for a poor girl it resulted in a substantial material loss (IIES 1998: 5, 15, 20 Lyda, Varėna district). On the whole, manifestations of public courtship were quite crude. According to records by Jucevičius, in 1846, a hard slap across a girl’s neck or an invitation to the local inn for a glass of vodka was unmistakable evidence of love (Jucevičius 253).

After Advent, youth interaction grew in intensity during the festive Christmas season. The Advent evening parties were transformed into dances and other occasions for the young people to get together for a variety of boisterous traditional games and activities. The dances usually lasted for the entire twelve days of Christmas (Kalėdos). Christmas (December 25) was an important religious holiday. On Christmas Eve, the entire family united for the ritual meal, with an empty seat to remember deceased members of the family. Even hired farm hands and servant girls usually returned home from their places of work to be with their families. The spirit of hospitality was paramount and a passing stranger would be invited to partake of the evening meal. Christmas Eve, being the longest night of the year, held additional significance for the young folks (especially girls) as a special time to employ a variety of magic charms and spells to predict their future (Balys 1970: 517). Christmas Eve was also the time for boisterous pranks. Young men would block the doors of farmhouses in which girls lived (the girls sometimes paid them back in kind), or dismantle a gate in front of their house, moving it to another house, or place a sleigh on top of the roof (Kudirka 1997: 38). From the second day of Christmas on, in a rather large area of northeastern Lithuania, guys would dress up as Gypsies and chase the girls around, trying to splash them with water. Wearing masks was a sign of male consolidation (Vaicekauskas 1990:193-194).

By the end of the Christmas festivities, after Epiphany or Three Kings Day, began the matchmaking season. During this time, our research does not show any more evidence of female activity designed to attract male attention. This suggests that most couples had already formed and it was too late for a girl to get a bridegroom. Shrove Tuesday, the last possible day to hold a wedding, marked the beginning of a new courtship season. As in many European countries, males staged village carnivals wearing costumes and masks and engaged in deliberately noisy and obnoxious behavior toward young females (Vaicekauskas 1997:8–9). Unmarried girls, including very young girls, were now called “old maids” or “barren females.” The masked males, under the pretext of “buying” one of them as a potential bride, were at liberty to check out their “suitability” for marriage by pressing and pinching them. Another custom was to force a girl to bow down and kiss the ground through her apron, which was a tradition performed by a bride during her wedding. Other pranks included splashing a girl with so-called holy water or bringing a kettle with live coals into the room to smoke the girls out. Sometimes the boys studded their masks with small nails or needles and tried to grab a girl and prick her (Balys 1993:50-56). Such sexually aggressive behavior was not permitted during other seasons, except at flax breaking and to some extent on St. John’s Eve. Without a doubt, it was based on archaic pagan fertility rites that had lost their original sacral meaning and deteriorated into ribald entertainment.

The excitement of Shrove Tuesday subsided during the following monotonous Lenten period. In Catholic Lithuania, prohibitions on dancing and other forms of entertainment during Lent were strictly observed. The young males reverted to correct norms of behavior in the presence of girls. At this time of year, the activities of the youth community were at their weakest.

The Lenten period was a slow one, serving as a time for the youth community to regenerate itself after the weddings. However, as early as Palm Sunday, the young males renewed their pursuits. According to research by Irena Regina Merkienė, in southwestern and central parts of Lithuania, as late as the second quarter of the twentieth century, it was customary on Palm Sunday for groups of guys to chase the girls on their way home from church and strike them with juniper twigs to extract the promise of a decorated egg on Easter morning (Merkienė 1990:2I). Eggs, of course, are old symbols of fertility.

Easter (Velykos) was the most important religious holiday in Lithuanian villages and was celebrated for three or even four days. On the first Easter night and on Easter Monday, young men went from house to house caroling (lalavimas) and asking for treats. Reaching the house of a young unmarried girl, they sang a special song (lalinka), which praised the girl for her beauty and other virtues and wished her a happy marriage. Sometimes a musician or a mock matchmaker attended the procession. In return, the girls treated the carolers with Easter eggs and other Easter dishes (IIES 1380:66). Easter Monday was a day for visiting friends. After the long period of Lent, the young people gathered for dancing and games, especially the rolling of Easter eggs. The third day of Easter was very significant for the girls. In central Lithuania, they had the right to splash water on boys. Boys splashed water on the girls on the second day of the holiday (IIES 1334:49, 52).

According to Jucevičius, on the third day of Easter young people celebrated Mayfest (Gegužės šventė), during which the girls were accorded special privileges. The prettiest girl was chosen queen for a day and was entitled to select three partners with whom she would dance and exchange gifts. From that time on, the three partners addressed each other as brother and sister (Jucevičius 102–103, 544). This unique custom, allowing the girl to chose not just one but three partners, emphasizes her significance and was no doubt another remnant of an ancient ritual bestowing special honors on the female. During the Easter period, the same girls who had been teased and ridiculed as “old maids” on Shrove Tuesday were now honored as potential brides.

This exceptional social elevation of girls is also reflected in many spring-welcoming traditions. According to Teodoras Narbutas and Simonas Daukantas, as early as April, girls became the focus of the village community by performing the sacral ritual of welcoming spring (Narbutas 258-259; Daukantas 359). Their elevated social status is further reflected in the customs surrounding St. George’s Day (April 24). In the environs of Gervėčiai (now in Byelorussia), females had the right to organize a dance and hire a village orchestra. Moreover, on that night they also had the right to choose their dancing partners (IIES 1319:106, 121). Fourteen days after St. George’s Day, the girls celebrated the so-called Tarpjurginės (the interval between St. George’s Day according to the Gregorian Calendar, which is used today, and St. George’s Day according to the Julian Calendar, which was used until about 1915). In northeastern Lithuania, girls and sometimes married women gathered to sing special songs walking toward a hill or sitting up on fences and gates while the young men tried to disrupt them (Balys 1993:164-165; IIES 1334:39 Švenčionys district). Spring welcoming was still practiced there as late as the prewar period.

The last spring holiday was Whitsunday or Pentecost (Sekminės). Males and females organized potluck parties called sambariai, kupolės, or parugės. Every participant brought his or her share of food and drink; girls were expected to bring cheese, sausage, eggs and a piece of bacon while the guys contributed a bottle of vodka or an equivalent quantity of beer. The parties called kupolės also demonstrate female initiative. According to Antanas Bielinis, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, during the Whitsunday festivities, the young females were more assertive than the males. They made wreaths for the guys they liked and /or presented them with flowers. The guys reciprocated to show their appreciation or their interest in a special girl (IIES 1077: 19-22 Ignalina district).

Records by Balys Buračas from the nineteenth century reveal another Whitsunday custom. Around Kupiškis, girls organized separate gatherings for fortune-telling, during which they wove wreaths and adorned themselves with flowers (Buračas 264). On Whitsunday in northeast Lithuania, the girls drove the flocks to pasture, where they were later joined by the boys in dancing and singing (Buračas 264). Sometimes the group selected the most attractive guy and the prettiest girl as bride and groom and staged a mock wedding in the field. At other times, the guy chose his “bride” himself (Balys 1993:200).

During the period of indulgences (atlaidai), parish churches sponsored a variety of activities that provided the girls with opportunities to demonstrate their physical and social maturity. During springtime, girls were permitted to attend after mass in their own parish and without any restrictions church-sponsored or social events in other villages. The visibility of even very young girls during these events reflected their need to present themselves and attract attention as potential members of the youth community. In prewar Lithuania, this custom gave birth to a very popular innovation called gegužinė, large outside parties for young people with music, dancing and singing. The first gegužinė was often held on Whitsunday (Šaknys 1991:21-22).

Spring was the time for the male part of the youth community to consolidate. The first outside labor of the season was manuring, which was traditionally a collective task. Young males had their first opportunity to demonstrate their work habits and to display their physical strength through wrestling and other forms of competitive fighting. Novices or boys from other villages used this occasion to be noticed and initiated into the male community (Šaknys 1996:122). At this time, the hierarchical structure within the male youth community began to take its shape (Nezabitauskis 119-120). By the beginning of summer works, new hierarchical structures within the youth community had to be in place. It was important for the welfare of the entire village that the village youth, as the most mobile age group, would be able and ready to carry out agricultural tasks in time and in unison.

In some parts of Lithuania, the regenerated youth community was further consolidated on June 24, St. John’s Day (Joninės, Rasos šventė), the last major holiday marking the end of spring. It roughly coincided with the summer solstice, the longest day and the shortest night in the northern hemisphere. Some St. John’s traditions resemble those of Whitsunday. For example, early in the twentieth century, young people in the Klaipėda (German: Memel) region pooled their resources and held potluck parties during which the girls honored every young man named John by giving him a woven sash and a pair of knitted gloves (Pušaitis 83). In southwestern Lithuania, girls presented the guys with wreaths (Balys 1993:222). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the girls were expected to select the location for the St. John’s celebrations (Valančius 261). In the early twentieth century, girls had the right to ask a guy for the first dance (Gaška 72). Remnants of female privileges can still be seen in the custom of decorating a pole called kopolis, which was practiced by the lietuvininkai, Lithuanian residents of Lithuania Minor. A record from Lithuania Minor dated 1832 states that on St. John’s Eve, village girls got together in one location and splitting into several smaller groups walked into the fields to gather herbs and flowers. Whenever one group would meet a group from another village, they exchanged greetings by singing special songs. The special task was to erect a pole (kopolis) near a cornfield and decorate it with flowers and wreaths. The girls then danced around the pole for two nights and a day in order to protect it from the boys (Kudirka 1991:12–13). This was a favorite time for girls to practice a variety of charms to predict their success in love and marriage (Balys 1993:222). In general, in most of Lithuania, both sexes still demonstrated a more or less equal level of intensity, although there also exist reports of occasional male violence. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, in northeastern Lithuania, males were reported to have attacked the singing girls during the night (Kudirka 1991:12-13; Balys 1993:215-216), or tried to have sex with them by getting them drunk on beer mixed with potions fed to farm animals before mating (Mažiulis 1956:6).

Couples were expected to form by St. John’s. This was facilitated by the customs practiced on St. John’s Eve. When the young folks gathered by the bonfire, they still interacted as members of one family. But the old custom of jumping over the bonfire had to be done in pairs. The common belief was that if the jump was successful, the couple would be married by the end of the year (which usually happened). For this reason, a girl had the right to refuse to jump with a guy she did not like. This bonfire tradition was widespread in western Lithuania and in Lithuania Minor (Šaknys 1991:22). The search for the magic fern flower was also done in pairs.

The privileges enjoyed by the females ended after St. John’s. Young couples having formed, males and females were expected to take on the role of adults. The first important joint outside task was the haying. The young folks came to work attractively dressed to impress the other sex. The strongest male began the day by cutting the first swath with a scythe, while a girl would follow him to gather and bundle the cut grass. Girls competed for suitors by being good workers. Guys made every effort to work with their favorite girl (Dulaitienė 279). In the course of the summer, the communal activity during the spring holidays was replaced by each girl’s desire to become the best female worker, to be noticed as such, and to marry that year. Working in pairs was the beginning of cooperation in married life and a test of their future roles as adults. Moreover, paired couples concentrated better on their work. This was the foundation of the economic cooperation necessary in married life.

The rye harvest in eastern Lithuania was backbreaking work for women before the introduction of scythes (dalgis); sickles (pjautuvas) were used, and the cutting was done by the women. The leading female cutter was known as baravede (section head). She set the pace and the rest tried to keep up with her. The introduction of scythes brought a very significant change (Dundulienė 1963:169) because males took over the lead. The first section was cut by the best male reaper, often called pirmininkas (the boss). The young women followed the reapers to bind sheaves of grain into bundles and stand them up in shocks (Dundulienė 1963:177). There was not only competition between males but between males and females as well (Nezabitauskis 121; Antanaitis 85). With a new wedding season approaching, both sexes worked hard to impress each other. A male who fell behind risked being excluded from joint work, which signified a great dishonor (Dundulienė 1963:177). Girls tried just as hard not to fall behind, because the slowest girl was made fun of and teased for being pregnant and expecting a baby out of wedlock (Nezabitauskis 122; Petrulis 108).

The end of the rye harvest was celebrated with solemn rituals. In the area around Marijampolė, the male cutter and the female binder of the last sheaf had to exchange a kiss (Dundulienė 1963: 183-184). There were also many old traditions giving special honors to the female. In southwestern Lithuania, a very elaborate process has been reported: the harvest wreath was carried by the leading female binder, a potential bride, who was escorted by two maidens and six horsemen (Buračas 91). A wreath symbolized not only the successful end of the rye harvest but also readiness for marriage.

The flax harvest, the last task of the season, extended some of the rye harvest traditions. Flax pulling placed young females at the focus of attention. The best female harvester was in charge of the other girls, who responded with mocking songs but showed their respect by trying to work as well as she did and to compete with each other. During the harvest feast, the best harvester was given the seat of honor and rewarded for her good work with a wreath and other gifts. In northern Suvalkija and in the northeastern part of central Lithuania, males would try to seize the wreath. In southwestern Lithuania, the girl would refuse to dance until a guy succeeded in seizing her wreath (Dundulienė 1963:201-202; Vyšniauskaitė 207-219). The girls who had fallen behind or showed poor skills were publicly humiliated.

Autumn was the best time for big parties and most weddings. Marriage was on everybody’s mind and for economic reasons many weddings took place during this season. According to Antanas Mažiulis, autumn was also a time for special rituals in village saunas (pirtis) – Lithuanian bathhouses, where village women got together to determine a girl’s maturity and readiness for marriage (Mažiulis 1961: 59l). It appears to have been part of a girl’s puberty rite after her first bread baking (Šaknys: 1996). During the entire harvest season, girls continued to predict their success in love and marriage with a variety of charms and spells. At flax pulling, however, they became much more forward by teasing the guys with songs about male deficiencies, or by making special bouquets (štoberis) symbolizing male genitalia. A direct provocation was for a girl to throw an empty ladle at a group of males. The guy who caught it could roll her into a bundle of straw (Dundulienė 1963:202; Vyšniauskaitė 212, 217-218). This custom existed in western and northern parts of Lithuania and the purpose is obvious: it provided for close physical contact and invited sexual response.

The flax-breaking season was known for sexual brazenness. Flax breaking took place at night. The exceptional time of flax breaking is no doubt another remnant of pagan rituals encouraging erotic behavior. The guys told horror stories to frighten the girls, demonstrated their physical strength and engaged in rude games which easily degenerated into sexual roughhousing. Unpaired girls had to submit to being manhandled by several guys who tried to remove their aprons, smear their faces with soot, pinch and tickle them, and so on. A favorite sport was the staging of mock weddings or outright brawling by males dressed up as strangers (usually Gypsies, Jews, or foreigners). A strange custom, with obviously deep roots, was the symbolic killing of a goat (symbolizing a barren female), accompanied by obscene gestures and lewd language about each body part (Mickevičius 357). According to Antanas Mažiulis, in Žemaitija, the males forced the females to drink with them until drunk; an old tradition in honor of the goddess of flax, Vaižganta, to ensure a good flax harvest (Mažiulis 1965:511).

Violence was characteristic of the flax-breaking season and was not restricted to male/female abuse. Young males also engaged in male/male competitions in order to prove themselves to each other. The most daring task was the carrying of a straw effigy (kuršis), which was said to represent an evil spirit. A carrier ran many risks. He was pursued by other males and if caught was exposed to public disgrace: he was made to work day and night without compensation, or forced to strip naked – except for his coat – and stand with a pole slid through the sleeves of the coat, or beaten almost to death. Nevertheless, males were ready to undertake this perilous task in order to gain glory and fame, however short-lived. (The origin of kuršis and the meaning of this ceremony still await special study). Another undertaking which often ended in violence was trying to abduct a female from another team (Mickevičius 356-359; Merkienė 147-148).

Our investigation shows that the interactions between young men and women were dictated by custom and determined by the needs of an agrarian culture. The objective was to socialize the young into adult life, prepare them for the duties and obligations of adulthood, instill good work habits and moral standards, and turn them into useful future members of the village community. The ultimate underlying goal was to assure perpetuation of the village population through young marriages. To best achieve it, the youth groups provided an arena within which young people engaged in clearly prescribed play-and-work activities in unison with the annual cycle of seasonal work and Christian holidays. All activities were designed to provide the young people with many opportunities to get to know each other. Courting took place throughout the entire annual cycle, fluctuating in intensity, and it was not only a male prerogative. Females were not passive. They had many opportunities to take the initiative and show their preferences. Around Easter and throughout the spring, girls had many occasions to draw attention to themselves and their skills as hostesses and even display their preferences for a guy by presenting him with a wreath or asking him to dance. A certain equilibrium was reached before and around Saint John’s Day, when the first couples for the upcoming work season were expected to form. Working in the fields throughout the summer season required discipline and physical ability and gave both sexes opportunities to work together, to compete against each other, and to excel as workers. There was a general expectation that after the completion of the work season, many young couples would marry before Advent, that is before the beginning of a new courtship cycle. Thus all interaction between young men and women in their community was determined by the needs of an agrarian culture and dictated by clearly defined traditions. The excessive eroticism during flax breaking was a climax reached before the last weddings of the season. Such a high degree of overt sexual behavior was not tolerated at any other time and is indicative of the urgency to find a mate. On this note the cycle of the calendar year closed – only to begin again, in a much weakened form, with the upcoming Advent season.  

* Part of the material was collected by the author of this article in his 1989–1997 fieldwork. It is housed in the Archive of the Ethnology Department, Lithuanian Institute of History (IIES). Files (b.) 1272, 1318, 1319, 1325, 1330, 1334, 1379–1381, 1383–1385, 1388, 1422, 1442, 1446–1449, 1457, 1534–1536, 1661–1662, 1693–1695, 1997–2000 – more than 500 interviews.  

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