Victories and celebrations

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1. Vilnius’ victories and victories in Vilnius

In 1514, after a great victory against Moscow in the Battle of Orsha, Sigismund I organised an impressive triumphal march in Vilnius. People celebrated the return of Sigismund III Vasa after the triumph in Smolensk in 1611. As the ruler marched through the city, a large crowd of congregations, believers of various denominations and the academic community greeted him. Vilnius was decorated with arches symbolising victory, the city’s houses were covered with colourful fabrics, and cannons, trumpets and drums sounded. In 1794, rebels led by Colonel Jokūbas Jasinskis freed themselves from the Russian armed forces and successfully defended the capital from invaders for some time. 13 January 1991 became the largest victory of Vilnius and Lithuania in the modern era. Protecting themselves with barricades, songs and determination, the unarmed masses were able to defeat the armed aggression of the USSR in Vilnius. That night, they defended the idea of ​​freedom, an independent state and human dignity. Therefore, the graves of the 13 January victims in Antakalnis Cemetery and the commemorative bonfires remembering the dead are the most important memorials to the victims of freedom in Vilnius and Lithuania.

2. Fairs

As early as 1441, under the privilege of the Grand Duke Casimir, large fairs were allowed twice a year – on 6 January and 15 August. Each lasted eight days. Many merchants from abroad came to the fairs in Vilnius. They brought fabrics, fashionable clothes, spices, paper, etc. Kaziukas Fair has been taking place on St. Casimir’s feast day on 4 March since the 17th century. St. Casimir, the son of Casimir IV Jagiellon, was canonised in 1602 for the miracles that happened at his grave in Vilnius Cathedral. In 1604, as a greeting of the consecrated St. Casimir’s flag, a celebratory procession took place. It attracted a large group of city residents and guests, beginning an annual tradition that has always been accompanied by tradesmen. The fair expanded, especially in 1827 when the city’s merchants were permitted to hold a three-day market in Cathedral Square. The event attracted crowds; even Czesław Miłosz wrote that there was a big celebration in Vilnius on 4 March. This tradition of Kaziukas Fair is alive to this day.

3. Feasts and other entertainment

The wedding of Alexander Jagiellon and Helena, the daughter of Tsar Ivan III of Moscow, took place in Vilnius in 1495. The ceremony was held at Vilnius Cathedral and included both Catholic and Orthodox clergy. In 1562, Catherine Jagiellon, the sister of Sigismund II Augustus, married the Grand Duke John of Finland in Vilnius. On that occasion, a great feast was held at the Palace of the Grand Dukes. The celebration lasted all week long and included dancing, games and tournaments. The noblemen and inhabitants of the city also organised various festivities. In the 17th century, following the example of Western Europe, Vilnius celebrated Mardi Gras with impressive carnival performances. In the 18th century, fireworks shows lasting 3-4 hours became a part of various celebrations. Make no mistake; they did not look like the ones we see today. Usually, it was a dramatic performance with different shapes ignited for each act. It was in 1751, to honour the name of King Augustus III, that distinguished guests gathered in tents on the banks of the Neris River to watch the sun, moon, stars and the coat of arms of the ruler with a crown light up. Vilnius was and still is a city of feasts and entertainment.

4. Opera

The first early Italian opera – The Abduction of Elena – was performed in Lithuania in 1636 at the Palace of the Grand Dukes under the initiative of Vladislav Vaza. The performance took place in Vilnius before it reached the stages of Paris or London. The author and composer of the libretto was Italian Virgilio Puccitelli and the composer was Marco Scacchi. The audience was impressed – the great scenography attracted a lot of attention. The first Lithuanian opera took place in Vilnius in 1906. Birutė by Mikas Petrauskas was performed at the Town Hall. Currently, Vilnius is successfully continuing the opera tradition. We are proud of and admire Asmik Grigorian, a long-time performer of the Vilnius City Opera who has captivated audiences around the world and is regarded as the best female opera soloist. Violeta Urmanavičiūtė-Urmana, another world-famous opera soloist, studied in Vilnius.

5. Song festivals

The Song Festival that was born during the interwar period was paused during the Soviet era and returned after Lithuania achieved independence. The hustle and bustle of the performers, and the city streets filled with joy, songs and dances make the festival a significant part of the various celebrations in Vilnius. When the Day of Songs comes, you stand in front of the stage, you see a lot of people and you wait. The conductor raises and abruptly lowers their hands. And you hear: “Lithuania, our dear homeland…” Even the most indifferent prick up their ears while shivers run down their spines. No wonder the Song Festival is featured the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

6. Vilnius alternative

Even during the Soviet era, Vilnius was not isolated. It was overtaken by various youth subcultures and alternative music, mostly associated with the atmosphere of political revolt. The jazz generation grew in the café-reading room Pelėda, hippies organised concerts (like the legendary Žirmūnai Session in 1972), bohemians walked the routes of the Gorkynė Triangle, and the cult rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was performed. Later, a generation of punks, rockers and metalheads emerged. It contributed to the founding of the Rock March (1987), the punk rock concert in the Alumni Courtyard (1988) and the general revival of the alternative atmosphere. Alternative subcultures exploded after Lithuania regained independence. Some went to the Sepultura concert at the Sports Palace, some chose the punk club Bombiakas on Smėlio St. 33, and some lost themselves at rave parties. Let’s not forget the parties at the Palace of Trade Unions and the stories of the Moulin Rouge.

7. The new rhythm of Vilnius

Vilnius has been living at a new pace for three decades. Its cultural and historical identity is more than a part of Lithuania; it’s a part of the wider region. Vilnius broke the Iron Curtain with its wolf-like strength, crushed the shell of post-Soviet distrust and navigated through the chaotic transition to a market economy to once again become a city of European culture, where both jazz and the bells of old churches sound freely. Vilnius’ return to the world symbolically began in 1994 when the capital’s Old Town was recognised as the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Lithuania. Vilnius gradually remembered the culturally diverse heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the times of national revival. In 1996, Gediminas blessed the city with an extended hand in Cathedral Square and the Saints Stanislaus, Elena and Casimir, who used to protect the city from the heights of the Cathedral, returned to their seats. Urban life suppressed during the Soviet era was reborn with the Life Festival, the Kino Pavasaris Film Festival brought a feeling of spring to the city, Vilnius started reading at the International Book Fair, and even started running in its own international marathon. Over the last thirty years, the city has seen skyscrapers adorn the banks of the Neris River, managed to tame more remote suburbs, loved the relentless joie de vivre of restaurants, cafes, and nightlife, and proudly coped with 2009 when it was elected the European Capital of Culture. Can we say that Vilnius, which is celebrating its 700th anniversary, is now living the best years in its history?
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