Estonia, Christmas in

Estonia, Christmas in

Estonians trace some of their Christmas customs back to a pre-Christian midwinter festival called Yule. The Estonian word for Christmas, Jõulud, comes from the Scandinavian word Jul, which in turn is related to the English word Yule. Estonian folklorists believe that before Christianity came to Estonia, people celebrated this midwinter festival at the time of the winter solstice. Early Christmas celebrations lasted about seventeen days, from St. Thomas's Day, December 21, to Epiphany, January 6. In coastal areas people ended their celebrations on January 7, which they observed as St. Knut's Day. During this festive period people feasted on special foods and refrained from certain kinds of work. Today most ethnic Estonians are Protestant Christians (Lutherans), but the country also hosts a sizeable minority of Orthodox and other Christians.

Preparations

Like their counterparts in Germany and the Nordic countries, most Estonians observe Advent - a four-week period of spiritual preparation that precedes Christmas - with Advent calendars and Advent candles. The weeks before Christmas may also be filled with housecleaning, cooking, decorating, and shopping.

Christmas straw is an important seasonal decoration in Estonia (seealso Yule Straw). In past times families strewed their floors with straw, which became a playground for the children. The straw reminded family members of Jesus' birth in a stable. In some places people twisted the straw into crowns. Folklorists believe that this custom came to Estonia from Finland. The custom of fashioning Christmas crowns from straw nearly died out in the twentieth century, but was revived in the 1970s.

The Christmas tree is another prominent Christmas decoration in Estonia. Estonians prefer fir trees, but when fir is not available they will also use pine. Christmas trees became popular in the nineteenth century, when Estonians adopted the custom from Germans living in the Baltic Sea area. Some writers claim, however, that Estonian Christmas trees can be traced back to the year 1441, when one stood in front of the town hall in Tallinn, Estonia's capital.

St. Thomas's Day

St. Thomas's Day, December 21, is considered the real start of the Christmas season. Old traditions dictate that householders complete the brewing of their Christmas ale on this day. The men of the household usually took charge of this chore. Folklore recommended that they attend to the brewing in the dead of night, in order to avoid the possible ruin that a neighbor's evil eye could wreak on the brew. People drank so much beer at Christmas time that Estonians nicknamed the season "the beer holidays." Householders readied large quantities of beer by St. Thomas's Day, because tradition required that no further beer be brewed until Epiphany. Certain forms of work were prohibited from St. Thomas's Day until the end of Christmas season. Some say that noisy forms of work, such as driving horses, spinning, and grinding, disturbed the spirits, who were particularly active during this time (see also Ghosts).

Christmas Eve

The president of Estonia maintains a centuries-old ceremony by declaring the Peace of Christmas each year on the afternoon of December 24. In the seventeenth century Queen Kristina of Sweden introduced this custom to Estonia.

Christmas Eve is the high point of the Christmas season. Estonians begin their celebrations by taking a sauna. Then they attend a Christmas Eve service. Sometimes parents give children new shoes and clothing to wear to this service as a kind of early Christmas gift. The traditional Christmas Eve meal consists of a large number of dishes, anywhere between seven and twelve. Sausage, brawn (boiled pork leg), pig's head, or some other form of pork is usually served (see also Boar's Head). Other popular dishes include sauerkraut, pâté, potato and beet salad, a special bread called "Christmas Barrow," gingerbread, and beer. Folk tradition insisted that many powerful supernatural forces are active on this evening, which made it a potent time for fortunetelling, a traditional Christmas Eve activity. An abundance of food on Christmas Eve signified that the house would enjoy plenty of food in the year to come. Another superstition advised that, having eaten seven different dishes on Christmas Eve, the men of the household would gain the strength of seven men. The dead were thought to return to their old homes on Christmas Eve (see also Ghosts). Estonians left the remains of the Christmas Eve dinner on the table all night, in case the spirits wanted to refresh themselves. Estonian folklore also recommended that the fire be kept going all night.

From Christmas Day to New Year's Eve

Estonian tradition calls for families to spend a quiet Christmas Day at home. In past times people spent the day enjoying the company of family members, singing religious music, and reading the Bible. Parties and visits were left until the following day. The first visitor to the house, both at Christmas and on New Year's Eve, determined the household's luck (see also Firstfooting). If the first visitor was a woman, the household could expect a run of bad luck. Estonians traditionally celebrated Christmas through December 27, St. John's Day. The remaining days in the year were viewed as "half-holidays," in which people did some work, but also spent time celebrating with friends and neighbors.

Christmas under Soviet Rule

The Russian-led U.S.S.R. (United Soviet Socialist Republics) occupied and ruled Estonia from 1940 to 1991. The Soviet government forbade religious holidays and tried to persuade the Estonian people to transfer their Christmas festivities to New Year's Day, a secular holiday. Although most people had to go to work on Christmas Day, many continued to attend Christmas Eve religious services. As a means of protesting the government's political ideology and its repressive stance towards religion, people also began to observe the day by visiting their relatives' graves and leaving lit candles there after the Christmas Eve service.

Christmas since Independence

After the fall of the Soviet government, the newly independent Estonian people reinstated Christmas as a national holiday. In recent years Estonian Christmas celebrations have been influenced by those of the Scandinavian countries. The most popular of the recently imported customs seems to be that of the office party, often called "little Christmas" or "pre-Christmas" in Estonia. These festive gatherings take place in the first part of December, and usually feature mulled wine, along with a tasty array of food and drinks. Some young people now leave their shoes out on a windowsill in the weeks before Christmas and wait for the elves to come fill them with treats, a task usually undertaken instead by their parents.

Further Reading

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2000.

Web Site

"Christmas Customs in Estonia," an article posted on the web by Estonia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003