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24 December - Winter traditions

Christmas is the holiday most dear to us, awaited both by children and grownups.

In Estonian folk-tradition, Christmas has a double meaning: on the one hand, it is marking Christ's birth, on the other, it marks the whole period of mid-winter holidays.

In the traditional folk calendar, Christmas tide began with St. Thomas's Day on December 21, and lasted until Epiphany on January 6.

Christmas Holidays were celebrated between December 25 and 27, the most important event being the festive Christmas Eve on December 24. There were three culminations of the Christmas season in the Estonian folk-calendar:

  • Christmas Eve (December 24),
  • the First, the Second and the Third Christmas Holidays (December 25 to 27);
  • New Year's Eve and New Year's Day
  • Epiphany

The Estonian word jõulud (Christmas) is of ancient Scandinavian origin and comes directly from the word Jul and has no real connection with Christianity.

At Christmas the day is the shortest and the night the longest. According to folk-tradition, "the sun was laying in the nest" and the day was celebrated as the Sun's birthday. From that day on, the Sun started to rise and move slowly to the north again.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Night were the most sacred times of the season. With the help of the stars and the frost, the weather for the coming year was predicted. Christmas food had to remain on the table and the fire burning in the fireplace for the whole night. It was believed that both good and bad forces were on the move on Christmas Night.

In terms of Christmas and New Year's Eve traditions, the habit of taking a bath in the sauna is a very old and important tradition. It was a custom to go to the sauna on Christmas Eve after preparing the house for the festive evening celebrations. The sauna was traditionally visited before the Christmas Eve service in the local village church. As the first Christmas surprise, the children were offered festive new clothes and shoes to dress in for the evening church service.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were traditionally domestic holidays.

Christmas symbols

One of the most important Estonian traditions, was the habit of bringing home Christmas straw. In Estonia, straw was taken to the house for the whole festive season. It became a playground for the children.
Also a very important tradition was making the special Christmas crowns from straw.The habit came to Estonia from Finland.

The Christmas tree tradition is rather recent and came here from German culture in the middle of the 19th century. Soon the habit of having Christmas trees in schools, churches and farmhouses became very popular. The Christmas tree was always an evergreen fir-tree. The Christmas tree was decorated in a simple manner with primitive small toys and sweets and later candles were lit on the tree.

The tradition of Santa Claus bringing Christmas presents is also a new habit, but has become very populare.

Christmas food

It was customary to eat large meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Night. To have plenty of Christmas food at home symbolically meant enough food for the whole coming year. According to an old tradition, seven to twelve different meals were served on Christmas Night. Traditional Estonian Christmas food was pork with sauerkraut, white and blood sausage. A special Christmas bread called Christmas barrow was baked. On the holy night, the domestic animals in the barn were also offered Christmas bread.



31 December – New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is the best time for fortune-telling. This is the time to ask spirits what the following year will bring: who will get ill or die, who will need to move house or go travelling.

Eating on New Year’s Eve is the same as at Christmas; food is not taken off the table.

If you went outside after midnight, the sounds you hear would help you foretell what the following year would bring: bell ringing stands for wedding bells; hearing a child cry means a baby will be born, and so on. A man dressed-up as a ‘New Year’s Eve goat’, whose horning brought good luck in the following year, could come over as well. New Year’s Eve is such a special night that sleeping is just not worth it.

6 January – Three Kings' Day

Epiphany is the last day of the beautiful Christmas season, commemorating the visit of the three Kings from the East to the Baby Jesus. This is why some people impersonating the three kings used to visit homes, singing. This is when the holiday season ends and everyday work must be done again. It is a joyful day for children who are at last allowed to eat up edible Christmas tree decorations: candies, apples and gingerbreads. Today the tree absolutely has to be taken out, and the room must be cleaned from fir tree needles. 


Candles Day in Estonia

Candles Day (Küünlapäev) in Estonia, that falls on February 2, is the celebration of breaking the winter in half. According to the folk calendar, its the first women's holiday, when they can set aside their work, have fun and drink wine.

It is said, that the backbone and heart of winter are broken on Candles Day. Different rituals, including cooking food, are common for celebration of the holiday. Porridge and pork are cooked as ritual meals. Another tradition is making the candles. According to belief, the candles made on this day burn brightly.

Candles Day is the first major holiday for women. They can go to the pub and relax, while men stay at home and do house chores. Women also should drink any red drink, like wine or red juice. It's believed, that drinking red drinks will make women look healthy.

Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday (known in some countries as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake day) is a day in February or March.

In the past this day was related to entertainment and anticipation of spring. According to the Church calendar Lent started on the next day. People went sledging and danced in the evening. Sledging was important – the longer the slide, the longer the stem of flax would be in the fields during the next summer.

Humming tops were made of bones of pigs’ feet and there were competitions for the best humming top.

It was forbidden to light a fire or to spin lamb’s wool. It was advisable and customary to comb and cut hair.

Traditional food was a soup of peas and beans, boiled pigs’ trotters.

Nowadays children in Estonia enjoy the day outdoors on Shrove Tuesday, mainly sledging.

Children are taught to make humming tops using big buttons. Buns with whipped cream are eaten, also pigs’ trotters with pea or bean soup.