Junipers by Johannes Arro

After the beautiful colorful autumn comes the dark and bleak period that lasts until the arrival of snow. A lot of people think of this time as the hardest to endure during the circle of seasons, as your energy level is low, lack of light and sunshine makes you sleepy all the time (hibernation should really be an option for us human beings) and the general mood is obviously not the brightest and lightest. But as with everything else in this life, beauty can be found even in this darkness.

According to the traditions this period includes the time of spirits. And I do not mean the Halloween type or a very religious aspect (though these exist too), it goes way deeper then all that. The roots of celebrating the time of spirits run deep, thousands and thousands of years deep. Of course, over time new traditions have found their place among the old, but the essence is as ancient as the tribal customs of the Ugric people.

“Hing” is a powerful Estonian word that carries tremendous significance. I truly struggle to translate this word, as it includes so many aspects. Hing is something that stands for life itself, the spirit, the centre of all things living. It is an immortal spark, a breath and force of life within us and each and every living creature in the universe. It can also mean a spirit, a soul that has moved on from the mortal existence, hence it can be said that it is the central concept of our world view. „Hingedeaeg“ or time of spirits is where we are right now.

The time of spirits has many customs, some old, some new. What I find most beautiful about this time period is that even though it is the darkest time of the year, it brings with it a lot of light and warmth. The time of spirits is a time for quiet, for putting aside all noisy activities and for spending time with your loved ones, both living and the ones no longer with us. The central concept of this time is that those family members who are no longer part of this world, can cross over during this time of the year and come check on us living. The homes were cleaned, food was set on table for the deceased family members, and they were invited in as dearly loved guests. Families asked for their blessing, support and protection, and tried to make the spirits feel very welcome.

Later came the tradition to light a candle on the windowsill to light the spirits’ way home, functioning as a beacon, guiding the way so the spirits would not get lost. The food that had been placed on the table for the spirits was of the best kind. It was left on the table for the whole night, and when the morning came it was either thrown away or fed to the farm animals, as no living people were allowed to eat from the feast of the dead. When the time of the spirits ended – and the duration of it could vary depending on region from one week to up to six weeks – the spirits were thanked for spending time with their families and asked to leave until the next year.

Obviously, this cold and dark time was too long to spend it only in reflection and quiet. The way of the living demands, well, living. Being merry and happy, not just solemn. So on 10th of November we celebrate St. Martin’s Day. This is one of the merriest holidays in the Estonian folk calendar. On this day children and adults dressed in old shabby coats, smeared their faces with soot or wore a mask, and went door to door singing songs, asking riddles and wishing good luck and happiness to the families. At each door you had to sing a song begging to be let in. Once you were let in, you needed to sing or dance some more, to entertain the people who had admitted you to their home. For your effort you received gifts, usually something edible, like apples or sweets. The visit was ended wishing good luck and happiness to the family, and was often accompanied by tossing grains or dried peas on the floor, especially when wishing good harvest. Messy business, but fun.

Following this the next celebration was on 24th November. In the Estonian folk calendar St. Catherine’s Day marks the beginning of indoor activities. Children and adults, both women and men dressed in beautiful white clothes, with their cheeks painted red with beetroot or make-up in later days. The system was the same as on St. Martin’s Day, collecting gifts in return for songs and blessings, just the songs were different. Also, when St. Martin’s Day meant dressing as shabbily as possible, to look like a beggar, then St. Catherine’s Day meant being beautiful and clean.

And when November ends, Christmas / winter solstice preparations begin, marking the passing from darkness to light, from end to beginning and the mood shifts, even when the darkness is still unrelenting for some months.

Happy November, everyone! Let us enjoy and celebrate the warmth and light of this darkest of months.