Say Kucias (coochas) five times fast! You will giggle. It is the funny name of a beautiful Lithuanian tradition. Beautiful because it is rich in symbolism. It is rich in meaning and history too. It is not rich in meat or heat, however, because it is a traditional Christmas Eve feast that consists of 12 cold and meatless dishes. Yum-right?! The honest truth is that my family has celebrated Kucias my entire life, and it is one of my favorite memories.
My dad and his family are Lithuanian immigrants. Lithuania is one of the Baltic countries, near Estonia and Latvia. It used to be part of the Soviet Union but regained its independence in the early 1990’s.
My grandmother was a proud Lithuanian American, and as long as she lived, all seven of her children and their families gathered together every Christmas Eve and shared this special meal. We would begin with a prayer and the breaking of the unleavened bread. Each person had a small piece, and we would go around and give hugs and good wishes to each person. You hold your unleavened bread and simultaneously break off a small piece from the person from whom you are exchanging a hug.
After that, we would take our place at the dinner table. My sister and I were always relegated to one of the many kids’ tables. We had the most fun! The meal was served buffet style and each dish represented one of the 12 Apostles. The cold and meatless component was a small sacrifice for us, so that we could really enjoy the big gift on Christmas Day, Jesus! We would have lots of vegetable salads, lox and bagels, cold beet soup, deviled eggs, cold fish with onions and tomato sauce, and shrimp cocktail. Growing up, my grandmother served smelts and some concoction in this gross gelatin deal. There were a few things I never liked, but for the most part, I loved everything else and we actually looked forward to just seeing the “weird” things on the table.
Now that I am a mother, I reminisce fondly about our Kucias celebrations. I appreciate these traditions that bind a family. I always wondered what it would be like to eat a hot meaty meal on Christmas Eve, and to tell you the truth, it tastes like any other day. The cold, meatless Eastern European dishes are such a part of me now, that I long for those feasts that declare: today is Christmas Eve! Every couple of years, we celebrate in this way in our home. My children actually LOVE the years we do it. There is planning, cooking, bonding, and excitement that goes into organizing the menu.
Jesus came to us as a baby, born in a manger, but he meets our needs daily in the Eucharist. He comes to us now as food! It is no surprise that most family traditions that last throughout the ages are centered around food. In order to nourish our soul, our stomachs and bodies must be nourished. That is what Kucias is to me. It is a precious tradition that nourishes my family’s stomach so that we can prepare our hearts, build memories, and share in a tiny sacrifice the day before we really celebrate Jesus Christ!