Häid Jõule – An Estonian Christmas Learning Curve

Piers McEwan (One Thinking Man)

Piers McEwan (One Thinking Man)

Christmas, up until the present moment for me, had forever been spent in the United Kingdom.  That’s twenty-seven Christmases worth of John Lewis adverts, chocolate coins, tinsel and rain, to name but a few.  It was with a sense of wonder and excitement then that I recently jetted off to Estonia for my first Christmas away from home.  Sure, I’d seen Tallinn’s Old Town before in the winter looking picture perfect as snowflakes reflected the colourful hues of its architecture, but in this trip I wanted to learn so much more.  I wanted to get to the heart of a real family Christmas celebration; to witness what Estonians my age would have been experiencing for their last twenty-seven years and how that corresponded to everything I knew about this time of the year.

Well, I’ll be honest, as we touched down in Tallinn a few days prior to Christmas, I was worried.  Not a single ounce of snow to be seen from the window of the plane.  But it was not just me who was a little surprised.  Indeed, others I spoke to were similarly confused as to the relatively balmy temperature of 7°C showing on the car’s temperature gauge.  This meant that Estonia’s frequently appearing 26km ice road, between the western mainland and the island of Hiiumaa, was currently nothing more than a set of recurring choppy waves.  A boat it was then to take us initially to the secluded island of Hiiumaa before returning to the mainland some days later where we’d travel to Tallinn and then south of Tartu for the New Year.  Below I document the highlights of that Christmas period in terms what I enjoyed but also in terms of those things so very different to the Christmas I was so used to back in the UK.

1.    The tree.  I was to very soon forget childhood memories of clawing down a fake Christmas tree from the attic on December 1st ready for decorating.  It was December 23rd and here I stood knee deep in boggy waters canvassing the horizon in search of our tree.  And I say ‘our’ tree with good reason; indeed, just a few hours before we had ordered our tree via an app, paid via credit card, and were now here to saw it down for our own.  I loved this juxtaposition of such an old tradition (Estonia is indeed argued to be the birthplace of the modern Christmas tree) being facilitated by the latest technology; a theme I would continue to witness in Estonia, a country persistently lauded (and rightly so) for its technological advances and know-how. 

2.    The food.  Blood sausage (verivorst), pork, lingonberry jam, sauerkraut, black bread (leib) and gingerbread (piparkoogid); all of which will be forever etched onto my longing taste buds.  What more to say, but - delicious!

3.    The day.  Now, this one definitely threw me off a little, for Santa Claus actually makes his stop in the Baltic on what I would term Christmas Eve.  But no, the evening of the 24th is actually much more akin to the morning of the 25th back in the UK.  This is the time when gifts are exchanged, large meals digested and saunas lit.  Indeed, it felt somewhat surreal waking on Christmas day morning itself without the usual ritual of screaming kids running downstairs to see if Santa had popped by.  Instead, it was more Christmas flavoured foods followed by a much needed hike and an impromptu ice-skating session on a clear crisp Estonian morning.

4.    The sauna.  Again, another tradition so far removed from back home but one which I was a great fan of.  I’d already taken saunas on sun filled evenings in the depths of summer, as described in a previous article.  But with icicles dangling outside our window, this was a little different.  It was invigorating to say the least to jump into an icy lake after a quick burst in the offensively hot sauna.  What I loved so much about the sauna, particularly at Christmas, was its way of gathering people together and bonding them.  My UK Christmases would be spent hopping between a place at the dinner table and a sofa.  The sauna provided a new way of experiencing this period, though, and was a fantastic vehicle for conversation, reflection and contemplation.

5.    The elves.  Or should I say the päkapikud.  These little fellows, from December 1st onwards, leave little treats in the slippers of young Estonians across the land after checking on their behaviour throughout the year.  Despite my age, I was lucky enough to wake on my first morning with a slipper full of goodies on my window sill!

6.    The poem.  In Estonia, one must recite a poem, a dance or a song to Santa Claus (Jõuluvana), in order to receive their gift.  Working for your gift was something new for me and again something I very much enjoyed as a concept.  Huddling under the candle light of an outside summer kitchen and in between sips of mulled wine, we came forward one by one as our name was called by Santa.  Yes, a real Santa, who sat there with a sack full of gifts for the whole family!  As a non-native, I was somewhat fearful of both forgetting my lines and/or pronouncing them completely inaccurately.  My practice appeared to pay off though as I recited my short poem to a mini round of applause at the end.  Though only a small gesture, it felt nice that at what can be a time of mass consumerism we were giving something back in exchange for our Christmas presents.

7.    The snow.  Well, the good news is, it did finally snow; once on Christmas day itself and then many times more as we approached New Year and beyond.  It provided the perfect accompaniment to the already peaceful and eye-catching scenery of the Estonian countryside.  But in an urban environment, too, Tallinn held a tangibly more magical feel as snow fell abundantly upon its cobbles and spires.  My first white Christmas and a lifelong ambition thus met!

Christmas is often seen as a time to spend at home with everything and everyone you know so well.  But, in reality, I felt very much at home here in Estonia despite the British passport in my pocket.  And that’s just the type of place this country is.  From the people to the customs and from the traditions to the scenery, I could not have asked for a more magical Christmas, a different Christmas, a truly Estonian Christmas.