Historically, Lithuania was an agricultural country. Most of the population lived and worked on farms. During months when there were no fresh flowers to decorate their homes, Lithuanians created their own decorations from straw, plentiful on every farm. In Lithuanian these straw ornaments are called “šiaudinukai“ [approx. pron. sheow-dih-nook-ay].
Originally, straw ornaments were used as mobiles to decorate homes not only for special occasions, but any time, because they added beauty to the home. In some regions of Lithuania, green branches hung with straw ornaments formed an attractive backdrop for the bridal party at a wedding feast.
A large, chandelier-type composite mobile, known as a “sodas“, would be hung above the bridal pair, symbolizing fertility, goodness and prosperity. At Christmas, evergreen branches, garlands and evergreen trees decked with smaller straw ornaments were the holiday decorations of choice for the home.
“The most common ornaments decorating Christmas trees are star-shaped. The birth of Christ is often represented by a manger at the foot of the tree, and his sacrifice and resurrection by a cross at the top. The crosses may be simple or ornate, even miniature replicas of the popular wayside crosses.”
– Izolina Gylys, Lithuanian Straw Art
Straw ornaments are made from wheat, oat or rye straw. Their forms reflect designs and motifs found in other types of Lithuanian folk art, such as woodcarving and weaving.
They are constructed by stringing different lengths of straw on thin twine or thread, or by the applique method – cutting and gluing small pieces of straw into various geometric or organic shapes, or a combination of both. Some are very simple, others – very intricate, depending on the ingenuity and patience of the designer.
Basically, strung ornaments are constructed of triangles, squares, or rectangles. To give a third dimension, they are built into pyramids, cubes, or combinations of these to form cages. Numerous different cages can be constructed by merely varying the number of sides on the pyramids and the length of the straw pieces. These pyramids, cubes, or cages can be tied together to form chains or multiple ornaments, or mobiles.
These same forms can also be joined so that they have multiple common edges or planes, thus creating more complex ornaments, such as three-dimensional stars, spheres, ovals, or diamonds.
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In Lithuanian straw art there is a specific category called sodai in Lithuanian, meaning “gardens”, commonly translated as “chandeliers” in English.
The straw chandelier art tradition has been designated as a Lithuanian Intangible Cultural Property by UNESCO, and is one of the oldest forms of folk art in Lithuania. In this exhibition, the folk artist shows the harmony of tradition and creativity.
In traditional culture, the large airy construction strung or woven together with thread is also called a spider, candleholder (lantern being a more accurate image), wasp, chandelier, heaven and even paradise. Since ancient times, sodai are made with the addition of intricate details, such as birds, garlands, and a variety of delicate ornamental fringes.
As symbols of good wishes for prosperity, sodai were gifted to young couples and hung above the wedding table. They were also celebratory decorations made for birthdays, and at Christmas or Easter. In the Klaipėda region, traditionally sodai woven from reeds or straw decorated the classrooms of students preparing to receiving the sacrament of confirmation, or hung in the home for a daughter’s birthday.