Monday, 8 August 2011

Estonian Culture, Customs and Traditions

A few years ago I was on my way to dinner with my family in Tallinn's Old Town when we were approached by a group of young women celebrating a hen's night. The bride-to-be was all dressed up and carrying a basket full of pastries which she was selling to people she met in the street.  She told us it was a wedding tradition and considered good luck. I was not aware of any such tradition and was dubious as to whether it was genuine but we bought some pastries from her nonetheless and wished her well with her upcoming nuptials.   

Like all countries Estonia has its own unique cultural identity, a set of traits and characteristics as well as its language which distinguish the country and its people from its European neighbours. Some of Estonia's customs and traditions may be similar to those of other countries but there are many which are uniquely their own.

Here follows a list of notable and often surprising Estonian customs:

Estonians like privacy and space. More than 80% of the population own their own home and those houses built in the countryside are deliberately built far apart from each other so people can keep to themselves. Estonians prefer to keep a low key existence and frown upon pretense. Unlike other cultures where its people like to boast about themselves in order to feel greater self worth, Estonians do the exact opposite, they are more likely to criticise themselves than to inflate their own ego. 

Education is highly valued in Estonia and people have a deep respect for books.  Children start school at age seven and learn at least two languages. In class Estonian students rarely interrupt their teachers and never reveal their thoughts unless asked.  School graduation is a major event in an Estonians life. It is celebrated with a huge 'coming of age' party which has the same significance as celebrating a  21st birthday party in other countries.

Military service is compulsory for men aged 19 - 28 years and usually lasts 11 months.

When invited to someones home it is customary to bring a gift, usually wine, chocolates or flowers. You should never give a bouquet of white or an even number of flowers because they are associated with funerals. It is customary in Estonia to look after the graves of beloved family members and place candles on them for birthdays or any other important anniversary. 

Estonians generally don't wear shoes in their homes and prefer to wear slippers. If you are a guest in someone's home you will probably need to remove your shoes at the front door so ensure you are wearing clean and intact socks.

Up until WWII it was customary to be married in your home by the local vicar and then have a party afterwards. Today church weddings are still unpopular with people preferring to get married in a civil ceremony and hire a reception venue. With any invitation it is always customary to politely reply as soon as you receive it.

It is a tradition in Estonia to name a child after a grandparent when he or she is baptised - which accounts for the fact why there are so many Alexander's in my family!

National pride is strong in Estonia. Despite all the years of occupation and oppression the Estonian language managed to survive and is beloved to all Estonians.

Birthday traditions may vary from family to family. Traditionally when a child wakes up on the morning of their birthday they go running to the living room where they find their presents and birthday cake displayed on a table. They look upon their gifts in awe but are not allowed to touch any of them until their parents are present in the room. The gifts are traditionally not wrapped. Today I have slightly altered this tradition in my family, I still display the gifts on the table but they are always wrapped, the birthday cake is the centre piece and I always take an official birthday photo with the birthday person sitting behind the table. I always like to buy my family many gifts as a measure of my affection.

Christmas Eve night is when Estonians celebrate Christmas. It is the time when families gather, sing songs together, exchange gifts and eat, drink and be merry.  In my family we often celebrate Christmas twice because I have one parent who is Estonian and other who is Australian. So on Christmas Eve I would be singing " Oh kuusepuu" with my father's family and on Christmas Day "Oh Christmas tree"  which is the English equivalent.