CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS> YOUTH TRADITIONS
CUSTOMS OF LEAVING YOUTH COMMUNITY
Youth ended with marriage. At the beginning of this century people viewed the end of youth in this way. Several centuries ago the views were different. The book by J.Lasickis evidences customs that existed in the middle of the 16th century. It states that Sūduvian, Kurshian, Samogitian and Lithuanian girls of high descent married at the age of 30 or at least 24, when each of them had several chests filled with the results of many years of handiwork (more recent data give a significantly lower age qualifying for marriage). During the wedding party, in the evening, the brides hair was cut while she danced. Married women behaved like unmarried girls until they gave birth to a son. A century later, J. A. Brandt described a similar understanding of youth age. He stated that women considered themselves virgins until they gave birth to a son. Therefore they still wore their youthful wreaths.
Records made in more recent times witness that the end of youth was connected with the birth of the first child of any gender. An article by E. Gisevius on customs of Lithuania Minor published in 1866 gives that the brides youthful head-dress was replaced by the mature womans head-dress after the wedding. It means that the end of youth was associated with the wedding by the majority of Lithuanian girls. On the other hand, some relics of the ancient understanding could be observed in the interwar period. In the area covering more than a half of the territory of Lithuania, the newly-weds would come to youth gatherings to dance, sing, or play games. This lasted till the birth of their first child, or till the first anniversary of their wedding. They could come to youth gatherings later, but only to watch other youths. They just sat conversing with adults. Men occasionally played cards. However without any doubt the change in the girls status - her farewells to her parents home and her driving off to her husbands home - made people associate the end of youth with marriage already in the second half of the 19th century. Lithuanian wedding songs evidence that this event was very important also in former times. The birth of the first child or son meant only the final irreversible farewell to the world of youth.
Mergvakaris, also called pintuvės, vakaronės, prieveselis, etc. (girls gathering to say farewell to the bride) usually marked the end of youth. The mood of mergvakaris was sorrowful and dramatic. Its chief purpose was to say farewell to the friends of ones youth and freedom. On that day wreathes were woven to decorate the gates and the interior of the house; lanterns were made of red beet bulbs; the so-called sodai (gardens, that is special pendent structures) were made; the young couples corner was decorated. As recently as at the beginning of the 20th century in some places of Dzūkija and eastern Lithuania the bride in the company of one or several bridesmaids went through the village weeping bitterly. She visited every neighbour, begging his/her pardon and inviting to her wedding. At the same time the rite of saying good-bye to a rue garden still existed in some places. After the rite the mother led the girl to an upturned kneading-trough. The girl seated on it, her parents, aunts and bridesmaids unbraided her hair. This meant the end of her youth. Later a wreath was woven for the girl. In Žemaitija and Suvalkija the custom of giving gifts (ačiavimas, money to buy a wreath) to the girl survived all other rites. Mergvakaris dance when the bride danced with every boy of her village was the chief moment of her farewell to youth.
Sometimes besides the mergvakaris special farewell parties were organised. They were held on Saturday or Sunday. Like at mergvakaris, the girl danced with all boys of her village.
Youth however not always ended with wedding. Quite often a funeral marked the end of youth and life. Youth funerals (especially girls funerals) have many wedding elements. Dead unmarried girls wore bridal clothes and wreaths of rue, sashes, and veils (veil is a recent symbol of wedding; it was first worn by Lithuanians only in the 19th century, or at the beginning of the 20th century in some places). Old people born in the first decades of the 20th century could perceive the link between funeral and wedding. They stated that when an unmarried girl (less frequently, a boy) died she was dressed up like a bride; groomsmen and bridesmaids were present at the funeral.
Such understanding existed longest in the south-western part of Lithuania. For example, in the district of Jurbarkas, an unmarried girls funeral attracted very many people. Her funeral was as spectacular as possible. In 1932, a cart was used to carry the coffin. In summer the coffin was decorated with 4 birch-trees stuck into its corners; in winter - with 4 fir-trees. Four men stood in the cart (no matter who was the deceased: a girl or a boy; girls could stand only if the deceased was a child). Coffin carriers had big pieces of fabric tied across their chests. Boys rode in front. The one who rode a white horse had a cross in his hands. Sometimes the cross was woven from rue and fastened to a stick. Crowds of people came to the funeral. Even those who lived 4-5 kilometres away participated in it. If the deceased was married such ceremonies were not necessary. People would say: a married one is cheaper. As recently as at the beginning of this century wreathes were woven and flowers were given only to unmarried persons in many places. When the custom of giving flowers to all deceased appeared, youth funerals were notable for the abundance of flowers.
Young married women were sometimes buried in bridal or light-coloured clothes; sometimes they were buried without any head-dress; sometimes a white shawl, a sash, a wreath or a spray of myrtle decorated their heads. In a similar way older unmarried women were buried. At the beginning of this century people living around Žemaičių Kalvarija believed that a woman who had been widow 12 years kind of recovered her virginity.
An intermediate position between a married woman and an unmarried girl belonged to a girl with child. As recently as in the middle of the 19th century such girls (sometimes together with their seducers) were dishonoured or even punished severely. Around Skuodas, on the occasion of mothers sacrament the girl had to wear a wreath of stalks on her head. A stalk wreath or a straw hat on her head, she was even tied to the door of the church in some places. Harsh punishments were common also in Aukštaitija. Quite often girls who gave birth to a child or even girls of loose morals were put in the pillory located near the church. Sometimes the girl had to repent her sin by lying in ceremonial prostration. She had to be guarded by a beggar with a stick. Quite often both sinners, the female and the male, were punished. For example, in the area around Akmenė, the victims would be dug into the ground up to their waistlines in front of one another. For that purpose special pits were dug and maintained near the church. In Pakruojis district people remembered their parents and grandparents telling them that a tub would be put on such girls head. She would be driven around the pond, the village assembly drumming on the tub with sticks.
Today the meaning of the term youth is vague in Lithuania. Rites that once marked the change of childhood into adolescence or youth have disappeared. The custom of just living together without any formal marriage registration is spreading. On the other hand, the words such as senmergė (a spinster), senbernis (an old bachelor), or merga su vaiku (a girl with child) are still abusive, especially in the country. Funerals of unmarried persons do not differ much from those of married ones. Though in the Soviet period a farewell party before wedding was about to vanish, today it is being revived. This is a result of influence of both local and West European traditions.