Thursday, 11 December 2014

Estonian Christmas – Past & Present

Christmas in Estonia is without doubt the highlight of the year. It is the most anticipated, cherished and sacred day, one which has filled people's homes with joy and merriment for centuries. Like other important holidays on the Estonian calendar such as Jaanipäev (Midsummer's Day), Mardipäev (St.Martin's Day) and Kadripäev (St.Catherine's Day) the Estonian custom is to always celebrate these special days on the eve rather than on the day itself. The celebration of Christmas in Estonia has its roots in pagan traditions. In fact, many of the traditions we now think of as 'Christmas' were originally pagan and subsequently 'Christianised' as the religion spread across Europe. Estonia and the Baltic region in general was one of the last areas in Europe to succumb to the Christian religion, doing so in the 13th century. By that time Christianity had already existed in England for six hundred years.

There are many ancient Yuletide traditions in Estonia, many of which are no longer practised today. One of the most popular ones was bringing home Christmas straw and spreading it around the floor. It was a great favourite for the children who never tired of playing games on it. Another popular tradition that ceased last century was the making of special Christmas Crowns, they were designed to look like church chandeliers. Today, Estonian children practise a relatively new tradition of placing a slipper on the window sill at night time. The cheerful Christmas elf Päkapikk waits until the children are asleep then comes and fills their slippers up with sweets!

The Christmas season officially starts in Estonia on Advent (1st December). This is when people start opening their Advent calendars and lighting candles at home. People also visit cemeteries at this time of year and place lit candles on the graves of departed loved ones. Entire cemeteries become illuminated with candles during the Christmas period, quite a beautiful sight to behold!  

One of the oldest traditions on Christmas Eve is the President's declaration of Christmas Peace, a practice that has taken place for the past 350 years. This custom began during the time of Swedish rule upon the orders of Queen Kristina.   Attending church on Christmas Eve is still very much practised in Estonia despite religiosity being  a fraction of what it once was. 

Although Christmas in Estonia is no longer focussed on the religious aspects as it once was, its focus is very much on family and friends coming together, exchanging gifts and eating copious amounts of food. No Estonian Christmas dinner table is complete without blood sausage (verivorst), pork, potatoes and herrings prepared in every way imaginable with sides of sour cream, mustard, and sauerkraut. And to wash it all down there is always beer or mulled wine. For a sweet treat you would be hard pressed to find an Estonian home without piparkoogid - Estonian gingerbread.   Everyone loves it!

In recent years the Tallinn Christmas Market has earned the reputation of being one of the best in the world. There you can find a treasure trove of delightful handmade goods ranging from knitwear, candles, toys, traditional Estonian food and drink in addition to items made of leather, wood and iron. The Christmas markets are open until the 6th of January which is the last day of the Christmas season in Estonia.