Were We Not Strangers in the Land of Lithuania?

by Geoff Vasil

Shrovetide is the Catholic period of confession and repentance marking the transition from winter to spring in the calendar year. In Lithuanian it’s called Užgavėnės, which is how the Lithuanian language used to indicate the period before Gavėnia, or Lent, the period leading up to Easter. Both the English and Lithuanian names are rather obscure—the English name almost sounds like “shroud” and to shrive is an archaic verb for confession and absolution by the Catholic priest—but the holiday is immediately recognizable to people around the world in its more popular names Carnival, Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday.

Tuesday is really the last day of the Shrovetide period and represents European pagan/Catholic syncretism, the mixture of pagan bachanalia and saturnalia-type celebrations with the Christianity emanating out of Rome. The excesses and parties of Carnival have always been condemned by ecclesiastical authorities and yet have continued to the present. Carnival in many ways mirrors Halloween, which precedes All Saints’ Day, and in Lithuania there is a tradition of Shrovetide “trick-or-treaters,” children in costume going door to door seeking pancakes.

These costumed characters are a reflection of earlier and larger Shrovetide processions in Lithuania. In the post-1990 period of Lithuanian independence great efforts have been made to revive what was for all intents and purposes a dead tradition, public Shrove Tuesday events. The Soviet regime consciously sought to extinguish the tradition as a religious manifestation, but doing away with the traditional holiday was accomplished in different ways in different locations. The most effective manner of getting rid of the holiday was co-opting it in a more general Soviet “Ushering-out of Winter” holiday using a cast of costumed characters slightly more acceptable in Soviet society, but even the best-laid plans of the Soviet methodologists never really did away with the mischief inherent in the celebration and against which the Catholic Church had fought unsuccessfully for centuries.

While the modern Lithuanian Shrovetide celebrations are a revival or reconstruction of the earlier tradition, there are still people living who remember the pre-World War II public celebrations in Lithuania. There are at least three problems using them as informants to reconstruct some sort of “authentic” Shrovetide carnival for the present time. First, those who are still alive and remember were very young before World War II and cannot be expected to have grasped the meaning of what they witnessed. Details can be remembered out of context, the general context can be missed and the fuller nature of the celebration can’t be expected from eyewitnesses who were toddlers. Second, these living memories come from a time when Europe was suffused with a strong anti-Semitic sentiment. This informed writings in the press and public events. Third, Lithuanian Shrovetide celebrations in the interwar period were themselves a reconstruction of lost traditions in the general trend of the Republic of Lithuania to elevate what was perceived as authentic ethnic village culture to the national level, often in surprisingly distorted and pathetically humorous ways.

Furthermore, there were regional differences in Shrovetide celebrations in Lithuania, most markedly in Samogitian (Žemaitijan) traditional celebrations.

Given that the celebration is a reconstruction of a reconstruction, there is no reason why Lithuanians in the current day cannot decide to put aside offensive and stereotypical portrayals of Jews and Roma. The Jew, the Gypsy, the Witch and the Devil are traditional characters but there are no rules on how they should be presented. Just as in Halloween, the core concept is to represent the Other, whether they be spirits from the Other Side, or the Other in the sense of foreigners or strangers in the land. Lithuanian ethnologists and ethnographers who talk about the Shrovetide characters representing chthonic deities are not incorrect and the mirth attendant in both Halloween and Shrovetide costume play is a sort of other-worldly release from social strictures and conformity. As has been pointed out by many Lithuanian scholars and researchers, the characters “aren’t real,” they are representations of Otherness using characters at hand in the late Middle Ages/early Modern period. They are in a sense a liberation from social constructs, exotic, perhaps evil in the sense of being outside the norm, and the stereotypes attributed to the characters by the actors says much about the actors themselves and very little about the ethnic identities involved.

The problem is, of course, that there are almost no Jews left in Lithuania. They have all been murdered, or at least about 97% of them were, mainly at the hands of ethnic Lithuanians. Anti-Semitism in Lithuania today is like beating a dead horse, or more like a phantom, invisible horse, since most Lithuanians have still never met an actual living Jew. Using stereotypical Jewish masks from the 1930s in public processions has to offend Holocaust survivors, who can’t help but see the masks as an extension of Nazi propaganda gracing the pages of Der Sturmer ca. 1936. Not to understand this is just culturally insensitive. It’s not enough they murdered us all, they’re still parading around making fun of us after death.

Tolerance has to work in both directions, but the larger ethnic host society has to at least understand why the minority is offended by what is seen as a traditional and fun celebration. And likewise with the Roma, who were also the victims of genocide in the Holocaust. It would be nice to think Borat-like ethnic stereotypes in a spirit of humor might help break down barriers between peoples, but if one side is constantly ignored and feels ridiculed, it simply won’t work out that way.

In the end it’s entirely up to the Lithuanian public to decide how to celebrate Shrovetide, pseudo-traditionally or authentically, to decide which characters to dress as and how to portray those characters. In a free and democratic society with freedom of speech people are allowed to do and say as they like, even to make racist and chauvinist statements of various kinds. There is no freedom of speech without offensive speech, and hate-speech is protected by the Lithuanian constitution, even if some of the current laws ban the portrayal of Nazi and Soviet symbols. There is no middle ground with freedom of speech and the press, it’s either there or it isn’t, a binary proposition. Still, a great nation can show its greatness by bending to the will of its weakest members, by protecting, honoring and respecting those who have been less enfranchised, less the focus of the general thrust of society and progress, in the past. That’s the secret meaning of Užgavėnės, both repentance and a celebration of the Other.