Christmas Magic in Estonia

Town Hall and Town Hall Square at night during Christmas

Image of Tallinn, Esonia by tourism

Tallinn, Estonia! Many sources point to this tiny corner of the world as the birthplace of the Christmas Tree traditions.

And yet how many of us actually know very much at all about Christmas holiday customs in Estonia? To remedy that, I have turned to a dear virtual friend, Linda who shares the games played and art made with her sweet little daughter, Anabel. Together they create doll houses, greeting cards, and memory games with nothing more than recycled materials on Linda's blog Mermaids' Makings.

Linda wrote the entire text for this post and provided the links. I added the illustrations found on flickr. I hope this little peak into Christmas in Estonia will stir your holiday spirit as it has mine.

Look into the window!

Peaking into a Tallinn Christmas Market window by Katja Maasing

CHRISTMAS IN ESTONIA by Linda, Mermaids at Play

Christmas  is the most important holiday for Estonians. Estonians trace some of their Christmas customs back to a pre-Christian midwinter festival called Yule. The Estonian word for Christmas, Jõulud, comes from the Old Norse word Jul, which in turn is related to the English word Yule. Estonian folklorists believe that before Christianity came to Estonia, people celebrated this midwinter festival at the time of the winter solstice. Early Christmas celebrations lasted about seventeen days, from St. ThomasÂ’s Day, December 21, to Epiphany, January 6. In coastal areas people ended their celebrations on January 7, which they observed as St. KnutÂ’s Day.

Some old traditions are observed symbolically or not at all today. For example, covering floors with straw or hay doesn't happen nowadays,  although it is still performed in childrens' plays. There are a couple of traditions that some people still follow - taking Christmas bread to domestic animals in the barn and taking bread and hay for the forest animals. It is also common to visit the graveyard on Christmas Eve and light candles at the graves of loved ones.

In the Far North (c.1910)

Old illustration of Finnish sledge by postaletrice

Christmas in My Childhood

Under Soviet occupation (when I was a child), we weren't allowed to celebrate Christmas and many families didn't do so. We weren`t even allowed to talk about it.  I remember having problems at school when I was a teenager for just drawing a Christmas tree into my school diary and writing the word "Jõulud" (Christmas).

In my family, we still celebrated Christmas, but my mum always pulled the curtains of our house closed so nobody would see our Christmas tree. It wasn`t easy to get a tree for Christmas because they started selling them after Christmas obviously. But my parents always managed to get one. Lots of my friends didn`t celebrate Christmas but I am very happy that my parents did.

Visiting church was forbidden but some people still did that too. There were occasions when a person stood near the church to see who went in. 

For presents we used to get practical things- clothes, knitted socks, gloves, slippers.. As I collected stamps as a teenager my best present I remember was a huge envelope full of stamps.And another present I remember very clearly was a kickbike. You know what a  kickbike is, don`t you? We called it a  "Finnish Sledge". Maybe I remember it so clearly because it was so huge it did not fit under the Christmas Tree and my mum asked us to look through the window into the lobby.

Father Christmas - Jõuluvana- is a must at Christmas time. I mean a real one :D knocking at the door, coming in, sitting on the chair and asking the kids: "Well have you been good this year..?" In Soviet times a family member or a friend "played" Father Christmas. Nowadays it is possible to hire  Father Christmas. And on lots of occasions family friends play the part as well. Sometimes it wasn`t possible to have a "real" Father Christmas so then parents just put the presents under the Christmas Tree pretending it was päkapikks (Father Christmas` Elves) who did it.


Pakapikk drawn by Anabel and shared on Mermaids' Making

Pakapikk - Father Christmas Elf

It is very common nowadays for children to put their slippers onto the window sill in the evening to discover that Päkapikk has left some sweets in there by morning. They even do it in kindergarten (for children aged 2- 7). Before having an afternoon nap the kids put their slippers onto the window sill. Yes, children in Estonia have a nice afternoon nap in their sleepwear in nice cosy beds.

When I was a child I did not have this Päkapikk tradition. I did a little survey and found out that lots of people of my age had this, so I can say that the tradition is about 40 years old. At this time Päkapikks used to come just before Christmas. Nowadays they usually come on the first of December, or on the first day of advent. Of course there are some people who don`t like those kind of stories (they call it lying) but the majority of families accept these little creatures.

Bringing sweets (or small gifts) is not the only responsibility for Päkapikks.. they also need to check whether the kids are good or not. So they can tell everything to Father Christmas. You can imagine that all the children in Estonia behave very well in December :)

AA/ Tartu Architecture, Estonia University town

Estonia University Town by Jannus Silla

21 December - St. Thomas Day

People know about this day but usually don`t pay much attention to it. In the olden days all major work in the fields was forbidden - only cleaning, tidying and preparing for Christmas was allowed. 

They also made "Ash Thomas", made out of rags and hay. It is basically a big doll put outside neighbours' doors and people were expected to take it to their neighbours and so on. Otherwise they would suffer laziness and slovenliness all year.  It is a very old tradition, still performed today in childrens' plays.

AA/ Tartu Architecture, Estonia at Christmas

Christmas Tree in Estonia by Jannus Silla

Christmas Tree

The custom of erecting a Christmas tree can be historically traced to 15th century Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) and 16th century Northern Germany. According to the first documented uses of a Christmas tree in Estonia, in 1441, 1442, and 1514 the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their brotherhood house in Reval (now Tallinn). At the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square,  where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.

In homes the Christmas tree is brought in a day or two before Christmas and normally it is a real one. The tree is up until  Epiphany on the 6th of January. People like to have real candles on the trees. Decorations are often simple and trees are not overcrowded with baubles and tinsels because people like to appreciate  the beauty of the tree itself.

Northern lights in Finnish Lapland

Father Christmas' Lapland home by Visit Finnland

Father Christmas

Everyone in the family waits for Santa Claus to come from Lapland with his sleigh pulled by reindeer. The local people believe that Santa comes with a huge bag of gifts. Both young and old people have to sing songs, chant verses or perform dances.

The Main Courses

Traditional Estonian Christmas dinner Main Course by Trinn Noorkoin

Christmas Dinner

Estonian families celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, starting with a very large meal - pork, blood sausage (with cranberry sauce), sauerkraut, cooked (or oven baked) potatoes and meat in jelly.  According to an old tradition, seven to twelve different meals were served on Christmas Night.

In my childhood, mandarins were very Christmassy. They were  difficult to get, so it was a real treat for us. Nowadays mandarines are still seen as Christmassy, even though the selection of fruit is a lot larger.

gingerbread house

Gingerbread house Tallinn, Estonia by aginorz

For dessert people usually have gingerbread or piparkoogid, as they call it. Baking gingerbread is a complex process, as all friends and relatives gather together to bake the fancy figured gingerbread men, while having a chat and drinking mulled wine. There is also a tradition of exchanging self-baked gingerbread with family and friends.


Mulled Wine in Tallinn restaurant by andycarvin

Mulled wine is a traditional drink during the Christmas season. This is made by heating up red wine together with spices, raisins and nuts. The smell of mulled wine always makes me remember  Christmas in Estonia.

Another tradition is brewing beer.  According to legend, the beer has to be brewed at night, so the evil eye would not spoil it. Nowadays breweries prepare a special Christmas beer each year.


Christmas Market, Tallinn, Estonia by Pavel Trebukov

Thank you, Linda, for sharing childhood memories of Christmas in Estonia.

This is so wonderful !!! I am

This is so wonderful !!! I am always surprised what kind of religious freedoms were or were not allowed in soviet block countries. Which is a historical topic in itself. Thank you PAM !!!

P.S. I can't get to any of the posts through the main site only if i click by numbers. Your main site (for me) still shows christmas in japan.

This was fascinating! I just

This was fascinating! I just interviewed a man who's from Estonia, so it was really fun to have a glimpse of its traditions. Thank you, Pam and Linda!

I loved reading this! Thank

I loved reading this! Thank you. :)

Thanks, Pam :)

Thanks, Pam :)

Wow very interesting, thanks

Wow very interesting, thanks for sharing these customs.