In the folk tradition of Estonia Christmas has a double meaning: on one hand it is the sign of the birth of Christ, but on the other hand it represents the whole period of holidays celebrated in mid-winter – “Jõulud”. This name has old Scandinavian roots and comes from the word Jul, which has no connection to Christianity.
It is an interesting fact that only in Scandinavia and Estonia a word of pre-Christian origin – Jõulud is used to speak about Christmas. In southern Estonia, another name, talvistepüha (Winter Feast) is also used. It is thought that this name is a direct influence of Estonia’s southern neighbor Latvia, where Christmas is known as Ziemas svetki (Winter Feast).
The holidays fall on a period of winter solstice, when the day is the shortest and the night the longest in a year. According to folk tradition, during that time, the sun lay in a nest and the coming of the day was celebrated as the birth of Sun. Starting on that day, the sun rose higher and higher.
In pre-Christian times, celebration began on the 21st of December (The Feast of St. Thomas). With Christianization, pagan customs intertwined with Christian traditions, and the names of pagan holidays were adopted by Christians.
People began preparing special dishes, the brewing of beer began, and the house was thoroughly cleaned. At that time special crowns were hung from the ceiling and straw was spread on the floor. Despite its connection with the biblical story of the birth of Christ, the tradition of Christmas straw may come from pre-Christian times. In Estonia straw (sometimes also hay) was brought into the house for the whole holiday period. Furthermore the last bundle of corn cut during harvest was brought into the house. In time of Yuletide many games were played on straw. One tradition dealt with predicting if the future harvest will be good. Straw was thrown in the direction of the ceiling and the more of it hung on the perch the better the harvest would be.
According to tradition all work outside the house had to be finished before Christmas Eve. Pigs had already been slaughtered and beer had been brewed. Milling, spinning, geese plucking or horse-back riding were forbidden since they made a lot of noise and could disturb friendly spirits.
During Christmas Eve several meals were eaten to ensure oneself plenty of food for the upcoming year. The table was not cleaned for the night, and all the dishes were left on it so that the spirits of the dead could celebrate the holidays. It was expected that they would show up in the same place which they inhabited while alive. The fire in the furnace was kept going through the whole night. All the curtains were drawn so that the fire’s light wouldn’t hurt the new-grown crops. The sign of the cross was also placed upon the door to protect the home from wicked spirits. On Christmas Eve night animals were also fed bread.
Christmas Eve night was also a time of fortune-telling. Based on the stars and frost next year’s weather was predicted. The size of the harvest in the upcoming year was also foretold.
The Christmas holidays in the peasant communities in inner Estonia differed greatly from the holidays of the fishermen communities from the coast. Christmas Day and Christmas Eve were traditional domestic holidays. Starting on December 26th relatives, friends, and neighbors were visited. On the night of December 27th Christmas was “sent away”. This time was often spent having fun in the local taverns. The time until December 30th was known as “half-holidays” – work was avoided. People visited each other and had a lot of fun.
Nowadays the traditions have changed – Advent calendars are bought and they are used to measure the time left until the holidays. Another tradition connected with waiting for Christmas is the lighting of Advent candles. At that time children put slippers on the window, and elves bring them gifts each day – sweets, toys and sometimes books.
On the Feast of St. Thomas (December 21st) Christmas tree is decorated and put in a place of honor. Rooms are also decorated. Traditionally Estonian Christmas trees are decorated with lights and other ornaments, and they remain as such until the Feast of Three Kings (January 6th).
In comparison with other Estonian Christmas traditions the custom of decorating the Christmas tree is rather new as it was only adopted from a German tradition somewhere in the middle of the XIX century. In cities the custom of decorating the Christmas tree in the home was adopted by Estonians, from the local German populace. This tradition was spread among villagers by the Baltic-German aristocracy. Its members organized special Christmas gatherings in their manor houses during which they gave gifts to their serfs and their children. Soon the custom of having Christmas trees in schools, churches, and peasant houses (along with Christmas straw) became very popular. Evergreen fir was always chosen as a Christmas tree, and only in some regions, where this tree was not present (e.g. the island of Kihnu) fir was replaced with a pine. The tree was decorated in a very simple way with primitive toys and sweets and later candles were lit.
Jőululaupäev – Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve Estonians always go to mass. Before leaving for mass there was a tradition of bathing in the sauna. The tradition of taking a steam bath was common throughout the country. This was also done during the day of summer solstice. In the past children were given clothes so that they could look festive during the evening mass. After returning from church, a large table awaited them, on which there was food and a lit candle. There was also additional tableware which symbolized the longing for relatives who were away or who have departed forever. Food was left on the table overnight for the good spirits, elves and fairies to enjoy.
Christmas in Estonia means traditional Estonian food: pork or goose and Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) with potatoes, blood sausage with lingoberry jam and meat jelly with vinegar or pickled pumpkin salad. There are also fruit and different kinds of sweets and cakes. Gingersnaps are made by the majority of the families, it is part of Christmas festivities. Gingersnaps are made of different shapes – gingerbread men and women, little stars and moons, birds, cats, dogs and bears.
Christmas Eve is a day full of mystery, wonders, and magic. On Christmas Eve gifts appear under the tree, which are placed there unnoticed by Jőuluvana – St. Nicholas (the tradition of St. Nicholas bringing gifts is fairly new but it has already been adopted for good). In some families the actual dressed-up St. Nicholas actually knocks on the door and brings gifts to the children. He comes to Estonia from Lapland on a large sled, with a huge bag full of gifts, drawn by reindeer. Gifts are opened right after Christmas Eve dinner. Children as well as adults must sing a song, say a poem, or dance in order to receive their gift.
On the 24th of December each year, the president of Estonia declares Christmas a time of peace and takes part in a ceremonial service. This custom has a 350-year old tradition and was first declared in the XVIII century by the decree of the Swedish queen Christine.
In earlier times a very popular tradition in Estonia was the making of special Christmas crowns which were supposed to imitate church candlesticks (or it was a tradition connected with the Feast of the Three Kings). This custom probably came from western and southern Finland where it was very popular among the local Swedish speaking populace, especially that which inhabited the island Vormsi. They kept close ties with their relatives in Finland and Sweden. This tradition disappeared at the beginning of the XX century and was replaced with other Christmas symbols. In the 1970’s it resurfaced and became very popular once again.