Christmas in Estonia: Traditions and Beliefs

As in other parts of Eastern Europe and the world, Christmas is a holiday surrounded by tradition and rich with meaning in Estonia. If you’ve ever been to a Christmas market in Estonia, you have gotten a taste of what this holiday is like in this Baltic country. Besides its public-facing celebration that has a universal appeal, Christmas in Estonia is also celebrated among family members and with a variety of customs that may not be immediately apparent to a visitor.

A Month of Christmas in Estonia

Christmas in Estonia begins to be celebrated from the start of the Advent season, at the end of November or beginning of December. Advent calendars are used to count down the time until Christmas, and children may put their slippers on the windowsill in the hopes of being gifted a small treat by Christmas elves. The Christmas season continues through December, the New Year, and sometimes right into the beginning of January, when Christmas markets wrap up, Christmas trees come down, and decorations are put away for the year.

Christmas in Estonia's capital city, tallinn, with trees decorated by lights in a city square
Tallinn’s Christmas tree tradition is a long and well-loved one. Photo by Vaido on Unsplash

The Winter Solstice

Talvine pööripäev is what Estonians call the winter solstice, which falls on December 22. Interestingly, this pagan acknowledgement of the shortest day/longest night of the year was marked by the burning of an evergreen tree, which would have lit up the night and provided warmth in a likely snowy outdoor setting.

Christmas and the winter solstice are closely connected in Estonia (a similar tradition is found for Christmas in Latvia). Prior to the arrival of Christianity, this period was a time to celebrate the future lengthening days. While Estonia will still see a couple of months of short days, when your sunset is in the afternoon, even a few minutes of extra daylight are cause for joy. Remember that ancient peoples who initiated the solstice celebrations did not have electric lighting, so besides light given off by inferior forms of light such as fire, they were dependent upon the sun for lighting

Snow-frosted pine forest in Harju County, Estonia
Estonia’s pine forests offer plenty of opportunities for choosing the perfect Christmas tree. Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

Christmas Eve in Estonia

Christmas Eve, called Jőululaupäev, somewhat overshadows Christmas Day in Estonia in importance. Understandably, much preparation goes into the Christmas Eve feast, when families gather together to share in both savory and sweet dishes and sweets. Seven, nine, or twelve dishes are traditionally served. Sometimes an empty place setting is left on the table to remember deceased family members who can no longer join in the festivities.

Christmas Eve is also when Estonians decorate their tree. During the night, Jőuluvana, or Santa Claus, comes to visit to place gifts under the tree.

Some Estonians may choose to go to church or enjoy a session in the sauna during this holiday, as well.

Christmas Day in Estonia

Christmas day in Estonia is called Jőulud. Typically, this day and the following are used for visiting family and friends as well as eating and relaxing among warm company and in homes made cozy for the holiday.

Decorations for Christmas in Estonia's capital Tallinn at night
Estonia’s cities excel at decorations for the Christmas season. Photo by Vladyslav Melnyk on Unsplash

The Estonian Christmas Tree

The Estonian tradition of decorating a Christmas tree combines the above-mentioned tradition of using an evergreen as in pagan times and the tradition brought from Germany. Since the mid-15th century, a Christmas tree has stood in Town Hall Square in Old Town Tallinn during Christmas.

It is said that the first Christmas tree was erected here when members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a merchant association, brought the tree from their designated building and placed it on the square. By some accounts, they set fire to it just like the pagans had done.

A Christmas tree in Old Town Tallinn
Estonia is sometimes credited as having had the first Christmas tree. Photo by Emma Londyn on Unsplash

Estonian Christmas Food

Christmas food in Estonia is a traditional meal of blood sausage and sauerkraut, good, hearty, typical winter foods for this part of the world. However, the dishes for Estonian Christmas are not limited to these two options, as you can imagine. Other Estonian Christmas dishes include dark rye bread, pork and potatoes, potato salad, and smoked eel. Gingerbread is also very popular to have for Christmas in Estonia, though other cookies, cakes, and pies are eaten for dessert as well.

Food displayed under Christmas lights at Tallinn's Christmas market
Whether at Christmas markets in Estonia at someone’s home, be sure to try Estonian Christmas foods when you visit during the month of December. Photo by Anastasiia Ruan on Unsplash

Pagan Rituals for Christmas in Estonia

While some of Estonia’s pagan and older traditions have made it into modern celebrations, others are talked about but may not be practiced or believed in anymore. These include:

  • Bringing Christmas straw into the house
  • Fortune-telling
  • Dressing up in animal skins to go caroling
  • Preparing for “souls” to visit

Where to Celebrate Christmas in Estonia

If you want to get in on the Christmas spirit in Estonia, you can’t go wrong with spending the holidays in Tallinn, where a large Christmas market, a calendar of events, and decorations turn the city festive. It’s one of the best things to do in Tallinn during December!

The Estonian Open-air Museum is also a good place to check out how Christmas has traditionally been celebrated. Here, you’ll be able to get in all the fun people have historically had through the ages when celebrated Christmas in this Baltic country.

For something a little different, visit the island of Kihnu, where traditions local to the island are enacted.

If you visit Estonia for the Christmas season, be sure to be prepared for cold weather and likely snow and ice. Dressing for winter in the Baltics takes some planning, so do consider what you pack before your trip!

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