Did Someone Say Fire?

As the seasons change, so do we. SALT students are at the halfway point in the Spring 2020 semester. So far it has flown by, and the weeks ahead are filled with travel plans. In just over a week we will be leaving for Russia, which just means we have to accept every opportunity to experience Lithuania, its people, and its culture while we can.

This past weekend was Užgavėnės, or Pancake Tuesday, the perfect time to reflect on what has happened and what is yet to come. Similar to Mardi Gras, it takes place on the weekend before Ash Wednesday, but has deep pagan roots and is one of the oldest known festivals of its kind in Europe. 

On Sunday afternoon in Revival Square, I saw Lithuanians wear masks and interact with each other. They celebrated the noisy excitement of spring that is coming. I was struck by the joy on the faces all around me. The joy in changing seasons from the cold, dark and quiet of winter to the warmth, light and colors of spring is something we all have in common.

I went with three other study abroads, and our first accomplishment was getting there without using the Traffi app for bus directions. As we walked towards Revival Square, we were greeted by the now familiar sight of tents used for market days. We immediately saw the delights that awaited us, like kepta duona and waffles dipped in chocolate and other toppings. But we refrained for the moment, and walked on to the main part of the square.

The Lithuanians mark the change in seasons using fire. They build a large straw woman, an effigy symbolizing Morė, or winter, then set it on fire to scare away winter. The large straw figure drew most of our attention as we approached. We were also entranced by the intricate masks and costumes people were wearing. As I learned later, typical masks in Lithuania are wooden and handmade to depict both joyful and frightening characters.

Despite the distractions, we made it to the straw lady and took in the sights. It was larger than I expected, and reminiscent of a Viking woman. Eventually, we moved on to the rest of the square. The theme for this year, recycling, was immediately apparent. Organized by Klaipeda Ethnocultural Center, we were entranced by the Recycled Ideas Fair. Booths included information about climate change, environmental pollution, and waste management, specifically recycling. Participants dressed up as witches, devils, horses, goats, foreigners, doctors, brides, and many other characters. Though we couldn’t understand the words, it was easy to see the passion and determination of everyone’s efforts.

But the best part of the day was standing with the crowd of Lithuanians, seeing the delight and expectation on every face as the spark caught and the straw began to burn. I saw children and adults alike dancing both alone and together. There was such a sense of community and celebration in the air. It was a time of expectation and acknowledgement of the change that is coming. I am more excited than ever for the rest of our time in Lithuania as we prepare to welcome spring and step into the second half of our lives here. 

-Sylvia Leary

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