Christmas is by far the most important holiday in Estonia and has been that for thousands of years. Of course, it has changed over the course of time, from pagan worship of winter solstice to Christian celebration, but the time of the year has remained the same, and a lot of traditions have mixed and mingled, creating a unique way of celebrating the season.
Christmas period begins with the First Advent Sunday. This is the time when decorations start going up, candles are lit, and families with small children enter the time of the elves. From First Advent Sunday until Christmas Eve, the children line their slippers on the windowsills, hoping for a little treat each morning from Santa’s little helpers.
Christmas Eve is the most important day. A week or so before massive cooking begins. Gingerbreads, blood sausages (nowadays, of course, mostly bought and not made yourself) with foxberry jam, roast meat, oven baked potatoes, sauerkraut, pickled pumpkins and cucumbers, black and white bread, special pastries of all sorts – all made for that special evening when families come together to enjoy each other’s company and delicious food, the beauty of Christmas tree and visit from Santa Clause or just exchange of gifts that have been placed under the tree. Ideally the day also includes sauna time, but of course, not all modern homes have that luxury.
And yes, the Santa comes that evening. If he has time, he will come for a visit, bringing gifts, and everyone will need to read a poem or sing a song in order to get the gift. If Santa is too busy to come in, he will leave the gift bag by the front door or then has sent the gifts already in advance so that these have been placed under the Christmas tree, and the head of the household will distribute the gifts in exchange of poems and songs (no escaping that).
The following two days are spent visiting relatives and friends. Christmas Eve itself is the time for just the close family.
The few days that separate Christmas from New Year’s Eve are spent recovering from food coma, just to start the joy of overeating all over again. This time, larger parties and gatherings are common, New Year’s Eve is no longer just the family affair.
Perhaps you have also heard that Tallinn has a lovely Christmas market taking place on the Town Hall Square in the historical Old Town. According to Forbes it is one of 10 most beautiful Christmas Markets in Europe and according to the European Best Destinations Tallinn Christmas Market is #1 in Europe! It is tiny and charming and well worth the visit. And the highlight of the market is surely the beautiful Christmas tree standing in the middle of the square.
The tradition to place a tree there dates back nearly 600 years, way longer than in most places in this world. Already from the records of 1441 we can read that musicians got paid for their performance by the tree on Town Hall Square. The origin of carrying the Christmas tree to the square in linked to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, an association of unmarried men, merchants, ship owners etc, a military organization responsible for the defense of the City in the Medieval time. By the way, even the Russian Tsar Peter the Great once helped to carry the tree, while visiting Tallinn during Christmas time.
Of course, the family traditions vary from family to family, each having their own small nuances. Mine, for example, includes baking special gingerbreads from self-made dough, the recipe I created out of need as when I was a child in the 1990’s the dough in shops was not always available. This year I will be making it already for the 25th time.
I guess the main charm of Christmas holiday comes from the traditions, stability and knowledge that each year will give a chance to participate in something that we have known all our lives. That’s the magic of it, in this time and age of rushing and ever quickening pace of life.