In Estonia, as in the other Baltic nations, Christmas is associated with the winter solstice, which was celebrated before the Christian aspect of the holiday prevailed in importance. While the Advent is observed, Estonians really kick off the Christmas holidays on December 23 and celebrate through Christmas Day. If you're in Tallinn during the month of December, you can celebrate with the Estonians at the Tallinn Christmas market, where even Santa likes to regularly hang out.
Estonians really feel their pagan heritage during the Christmas season, with the winter solstice festivals a reminder of why December was chosen to celebrate Christ's birth. The winter solstice, as the shortest day of the year, is called Jõulud in Estonia. The word also used for "Christmas." The first day of the solstice, known as St.Thomas' Day (December 21), traditionally marked a period of rest after long preparation that included brewing beer, butchering animals, and preparing food. After St.
Thomas Day, activities were limited so as not to scare off beneficial spirits associated with the solstice. An effigy was also made on this day to be passed from house to house to ensure energy and luck for the coming months.
In fact, superstitions and fortune-telling surround this holiday, with certain factors predicting good harvests or weather conditions for the following year. Brooms could be used by demons to spread mischief, so it was important that they are kept clean. Jouluvana, the Estonian Santa Claus, is an elderly gentleman responsible for bringing gifts to good Children during this time. Pakapikk is another "Christmas elf" character that serves the same purpose--to distribute gifts--in Estonian tradition.
Estonia Christmas Heritage
It has been a centuries-long tradition for the leader of Estonia to declare Christmas Peace on Christmas Eve.
Other long-standing Estonian Christmas traditions center around food, which is left on the table for visiting spirits. Blood sausage, sauerkraut, and other foods are traditional for Estonian Christmas, and beer is also drunk as a part of the holiday festivities. For dessert, gingerbread is a popular dish, which is often made collectively by the family.
Some old traditions are observed symbolically or not at all today. For example, covering floors with straw or hay, a practice that used to be a part of Estonian holiday observance is impractical for people living in city apartments with modern floors. Also, Christmas "crowns" are a part of Estonian Christmas decoration. These are made of straw, but the practice almost died out with the waning celebration of Christmas during the Soviet Era. However, the past few decades have seen a resurgence of Christmas customs in Estonia, just as new ones are being established and borrowed from other cultures and world culture.