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On Estonian Christmas traditions

The public Christmas tree at the Tallinn Town Hall Square.
The public Christmas tree at the Tallinn Town Hall Square. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Christmas, known in Estonia as jõulud or talvistepüha, has traditionally been celebrated between December 21 and the Epiphany on January 6.

During the Christmas season, the Christmas holidays have been held on December 25-27, while the most important day of jõulud was and remains December 24, which is when the Estonian Santa Claus or jõuluvana comes and exchanges presents for poems and songs the children have memorized.

In modern day Estonia, December 24-26 are celebrates as national holidays.

The Estonian word jõul or jõulud is probably a thousand-year loan from Old Scandinavian jul, while the December holidays were more often known as talvistepüha (winter holiday) in South Estonia.

In the old days, the Christmas period marked the annual turnover, starting on the winter solstice, and celebrated the beginning of the gradual return to light, food and life. What people did during the holiday season was believed to affect their luck in the new year, while the spirits of loved ones who had passed away were believed to return home at the time and also play a role in how the household would fare.

It has also been suggested that jõulud used to celebrate the arrival of the new year on December 25, as it is the first day that is longer than the one before, which was only moved to January 1 as a result of unfortunate calendar reforms. When the start of the year was moved to January 1 in the 17th century, people apparently called it the New Christmas, while continuing to refer to the Christmas holiday period as the Old Christmas.

Christmas customs

Christmas traditions included thoroughly cleaning the whole house and preparing the richest meals of the whole year. Because it was prohibited to work during the holidays, all the preparations had to be made in good time and usually started on the 21st. The latter included making candles and brewing your own beer which had to last until the end of Christmas. Estonian breweries still come out with special Christmas porters in time for the season in honor of the tradition.

Once the house had been put in order, Christmas straw was moved in, marking the official start of Christmas. Tradition had it that the straw would bring blessings and good health. It also softened the sound of footfalls as spirits were believed to like the quiet. It is believed that the straw was initially used for sleeping on as the beds were made up and left for the spirits of relatives, just like food was kept on the table for them. The light was supposed to be on throughout the night during Christmas time and people were discouraged from going to sleep on Christmas and New Year's nights.

A jõulusokk in the making. Source: ERR / Margus Muld

December 24 was also a sauna day. The sauna was heated up early in the morning and everyone needed to be done by the time it got dark. Families stayed home until midnight, after which boys and men could go around wishing the neighbors a happy new year. If a woman visited on the last day of the outgoing or the first day of the new year, a pair of men's trousers had to be thrown around her neck to keep luck from abandoning the household.

In the morning of the new year, the man of the house threw a handful of salt in the well and drew water from it. The water was poured in a bowl, with a knife and something silver set at the bottom. Everyone then washed their face with the water, which was supposed to ward off disease and all evil.

The spread of Christianity added the significance of Jesus' birth to the ancient winter holiday traditions, and going to the church around Christmas time took root. The custom of bringing in and decorating a Christmas tree arrived in the middle of the 19th century. Sending Christmas cards became all the rage in the early 20th century.

The tradition of jõuluvana and the giving of presents arrived in the 19th century and became widespread in the 20th, while it was the job of Christmas beggars (jõulusandid) to go from household to households carrying good wishes and symbolic presents before that. The job also fell to the Yule goat (jõulusokk) on the western Estonian islands and the western part of the mainland courtesy of strong cultural links to Sweden.

Another newer Christmas tradition is the placing of socks or slippers on the window sill or mantlepiece in which elves drop sweets or small toys for the children every night from December 1 all the way to Christmas Day on the 24th.

Decorating houses with bright and colorful Christmas lights is also becoming increasingly popular, and illuminated and decorated Christmas trees are set up in city and village squares. Christmas fairs and markets where vendors carry presents, hot snacks and beverages, such as mulled wine or glögi are also popular.

The opening of Tallinn Christmas market on November 25, 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The feast

It was believed that households which did not prepare special Christmas food were in for a rough year. Beer, pork (half a hog's head), Christmas bread and sausages were virtually mandatory. Customary Christmas dishes also included (and include) nuts, cabbage, peas, turnips, fish and butter. Sweet saffron white bread was another holiday staple.

Traditionally, Christmas sausages are believed to have been white, made using only grains and onion, while blood sausage is believed to be a later addition.

Christmas bread, beer and meat were kept on the table throughout the holidays and there had to be enough for everyone to eat as much as they wanted. During the Christmas night, you had to eat seven, nine or even 12 times to have strength and good health in the coming year. If a morsel fell under the table, it was not allowed to pick it up, and looking under beds or tables was discouraged in general.

A gingerbread forest. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

In modern days, beer has largely given way to wine and stronger alcoholic beverages during the Christmas holidays, while traditional foods include lingonberry jam (to go with blood sausage), pickled pumpkin and gingerbread cookies. Poultry, such as duck or goose, is often cooked in place or in addition to pork, while cabbage and oven-baked potatoes remain favorites. Tangerines are another modern Estonian Christmas staple, next to mixed nuts.

Christmas is a time of celebrating family and friends, a time of merrymaking but also of quiet reflection and forgiveness in Estonia. Hunters make peace with their quarry and take care to feed wildlife during the holiday season. People are encouraged to forget old feuds and embrace the new year with open hearts and minds.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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