Celebrating Christmas in the same way year after year can become rather tedious so why not visit Lithuania for a festive period filled with traditions of a very different kind?
Kucios as it is known in Lithuania is a very important festival and families from all over the country gather to celebrate in style.
Since 2009 Lithuania has hosted its own Christmas market in Vilnius and although it is a comparative newcomer, its reputation has grown to make it one of the most sought after markets in Europe.
A Guide to Vilnius Christmas Market
Despite the Christmas Market only recently being launched in Vilnius, it has quickly grown in stature and is renowned for its innovative celebrations which are firmly rooted in the folklore of the region.
In 2012, one of the highlights is a 4D projection show, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe. Magical Christmas will be shown against the Cathedral wall three times every day up until 30th December, allowing visitors of all ages to be swept away by the sights of 1100 square metre screen. And if the 3D technology shown in giant form is not enough to captivate, you could find yourself drifting away to an enchanting Christmas landscape by the sweet and spicy Christmas aromas which will be wafted through the crowds during each performance.
The show is described as a mixture of folklore, modern life and the history of Vilnius and perhaps that is a good way to describe the Christmas market too.
A true escape from the commercialism of Western Europe, the market has something for everyone young and old. Santa Claus, or the Old Man of Christmas as he is known in Lithuania, has a house in the centre of the market for children to come and visit.
The market focuses on the main square in the Old Town, which is transformed into the perfect winter wonderland. Usually covered in snow, there are around 50 churches in the area and the soft sounds of traditional Lithuanian Christmas music combines with the twinkling lights to leave everyone filled with plenty of Christmas spirit…quite literally if you partake of the potent gluhwein or alcoholic teas on offer!
Like many of the other European Christmas markets, the emphasis is firmly on tradition and festive celebrations rather than technology or goods you would typically find in your local shopping centre.
Hand crafted gifts and Lithuanian souvenirs can be found on every stall, offering the opportunity to snap up some truly unique Christmas presents for family and friends back home.
Visitors may be baffled by the prevalence of straw figurines. However, straw plays a very important part in Lithuanian celebrations. Households traditionally scatter straw under the tablecloth before they settle down for their Christmas feast on 24th December – not the 25th – as a tribute to the Baby Jesus. Family members also pull straws from the bundle to see how long they will live – although this tradition has been also attributed to foretelling how long a younger family member will remain single for!
At the Lithuanian Christmas table, eggs, meat, alcohol and milk products are all banned but visitors to the market will not be expected to go without. There is a proliferance of local Lithuanian delicacies on offer, with the festive treat Kucia – poppy seeds, honey, grains, hemp seed and pulses – a particular favourite.
Top attractions in Vilnius
Whilst visiting the Christmas market, make sure you set aside some time to explore one of the most beautiful cities in the Baltics.
Vilnius has many beautiful churches featuring both Baroque and classicism architectural styles but perhaps the most important religious site is the Gate of Dawn.
Originally one of nine gates built to defend the city, the Gate of Dawn is the only one which remains and has a sacred reputation. The Chapel in the Gate of Dawn has a painting of the Virgin Mary which is said to be miraculous, and is certainly unusual as it features the Mother of Mercy without a baby in her arms. Said to punish doers of evil and grant miracles to those who ask, the Gate remains a popular pilgrimage site with visitors travelling from many countries around the world.
If you fancy something completely different, the open air Park of Europe would certainly fit the bill. An unusual fusion of art and nature, visitors can experience contemporary sculptures in stunning natural surroundings which celebrate the passing of seasons. More than 100 different art exhibits from 34 different countries are on show, including the famous Guinness Book of Records LNK Info-tree (a labyrinth made up from more than 3000 old TV sets!).
Hotels and Accommodation for Vilnius Christmas Market
Vilnius has a range of beautiful upmarket hotels right through to good quality hostels and everything in between. So whether you are looking to escape to Lithuania on a budget or want to splash out to enjoy a top-class break, you are sure to find what you want.
The Shakespeare is one of the hotels in the ‘exclusive’ bracket and is no quirky tribute to the English Baird. A boutique hotel in the Old Town, it offers sumptuous rooms amid romantic surroundings, and with discreet and friendly staff, those who have stayed they say it thoroughly deserves its luxury reputation.
The Apia Hotel in the heart of the Old Town is a perfect place to stay for families. With everything you need right on your doorstep, this 12-roomed hotel is big enough to have plenty of amenities but small enough to offer a personal service.
Transport connections and getting to Vilnius
Vilnius International Airport is just a mere 6km south of the city, and with AirBaltic, Wizzair and Ryanair all travelling from various airports in the UK to Vilnius, international travel to the Christmas Market is very simple.
From the airport visitors can either board the train, a journey which takes approximately 8 minutes with trains departing roughly every 45 minutes or they can catch a bus. The number 1 and the number 2 bus both travel to Vilnius city centre and depart around every 10-15 minutes. However, visitors should be aware that they may only take one piece of hand luggage per seat – for larger suitcases a separate seat ticket will have to be purchased!
Alternatively, if visitors don’t want to stand around waiting or brave public transport whilst carting their luggage around, it is possible to get a taxi. However, the taxis at the airport will charge 2-3 times more than if you book by telephone and visitors should never be tempted to climb into one of the unofficial taxis in the city.
Once you are there, foot is probably the easiest way to explore the Old Town as despite its size, it is very easy to find your way around. Renting a car is not advisable as at peak times the roads are gridlocked, with huge jams in every direction. Official taxis, buses and trolleybuses all also operate in the city and offer a cheap and easy alternative to save aching feet.
Although it may not be the most well-known Christmas Market in Europe, Vilnius is truly a treasure. With the best in handcrafted gifts, delicious food and a stunning historical setting, Kucios in Lithuania will make a welcome break from turkey sandwiches and Jingle Bells!