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Christmas 2017 and 2018

Although Christmas was long banned in Estonia during its time as part of the U.S.S.R., today, Christmas is making a major resurgence. The holiday, however, combines elements from several streams of tradition in Estonia.

201724 DecSunChristmas Eve
25 DecMonChristmas Day
26 DecTue2nd Day of Christmas
201824 DecMonChristmas Eve
25 DecTueChristmas Day
26 DecWed2nd Day of Christmas
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First, there is the ancient, pagan winter solstice element, from which the Estonian term for Christmas, “Joulud,” derives. In southern Estonia, Christmas is even called “Talvistepuha,” meaning “winter holiday,” which reflects both the connection with the winter solstice and “spill-over culture” from across the Latvian border. For in Latvia, Christmas is called “Ziemas Svetki,” meaning “winter fest.”

There is also, of course, the Christian meaning of Christmas, and many Estonians will attend Christmas Eve church services to remember the story of Christ’s birth. But there are also foreign influences from Finland and Sweden, such as the holding of a “Little Christmas” party early in December, often in offices and with plenty of mulled wine to drink.

One Estonian Christmas tradition stems from the attempt of the Soviets to eradicate Christmas. Estonians began, in those days, to light candles over the graves of deceased loved ones as a sign of resistance to the banning of Christmas. They still keep up the practice to this day.

While Estonian Christmases begin with Advent, when many families put up Advent calendars to count down the days to Christmas and light Advent candles to count down the weeks, the real “action” picks up on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is celebrated too, but Christmas Eve is the main event. December 26th is a day to visit relatives or to relax at home and recover from an eventful past two days.

There are a number of interesting Christmas folk traditions in Estonia, including the following:

  • Christmas Eve is a time for fortune telling, and the weather and occurrences on this day are thought to determine the quality of the next year’s harvest.
  • Some food is left on the Christmas table for ancestors who will visit the house on Christmas Eve night.
  • A sauna steam bath is traditionally taken on Christmas Eve. This is a very ancient tradition, and it is easy to see why it remains so popular, given Estonia’s cold winters.
  • Children may sometimes be given new clothes and shoes to wear to the Christmas Eve church service.
  • Though now essentially extinct, there was long a tradition of covering the floor of one’s house with straw for Christmas. It was also traditional to make a festive “Christmas crown” out of some of the straw.

Since the 1800’s, Christmas trees have become popular due to the influence of the local German population. And Santa Claus, though called “Jouluvana” and accompanied by his elf “Pakapikk,” is now a regular part of Estonian Christmas tradition.

Last, but not at all least, there is the Christmas dinner. Traditional dishes include: blood sausage, sauerkraut, Christmas barrow (bread), homemade beer, and gingerbread for dessert. Feasting is common both on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.

Should you travel to Estonia for Christmas, here are some ideas on what to do:

  • Listen on radio or watch on TV as the president of Estonia “declares the Christmas peace” on Christmas Eve. This is a hundreds-of-years-old tradition, which is widely anticipated by the people. It involves a call to avoid conflict and promote peace during the Christmas season.
  • Go to the “main event” of Estonian Christmases, which is the Tallinn Christmas Market. It takes place in Rotermann Square, though it used to be held in Town Hall Square. Santa will be there, along with a singing Christmas tree, fun games to take part in, weekend performances, souvenir stalls, and a Christmas tree decorating contest.
  • Go to Tartu, in southern Estonia, for another major Christmas Market. Tartu is the second-largest city in the country, and there will be plenty to do. Look for concerts, a Christmas tree in the public square, carolling, street stalls, and more.

The tourist to Estonia during the Christmas season will find many new and different ways that Christmas is kept in this unique land and find a number of major Christmas events in the major cities.