Easter in Estonia is a sweet time of year that, in addition to celebrating the Christian Resurrection, acknowledges the changing of the seasons and anticipated warmer weather ahead.
How do Estonians celebrate Easter and what traditions make this holiday special?
Names for Easter in Estonia
Estonians have various names for Easter. Some names reflect the Christian nature of the holiday, while others pay homage to the Baltic pagan origins of this springtime celebration.
Some of the Estonian names for Easter are purely regional and not used universally throughout the country. All are derived from significant aspects of this holiday.
Ületõusmispüha: Refers to the Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection. Ülestõusmine means “resurrection” in Estonian.
Munadepüha: Focuses on this holiday as one that centers around decorated eggs. In Estonia, Easter eggs are called pühademuna. Muna is “egg” in Estonian.
Lihavõtted: This word refers to how Easter is the end of Christian Lent and that meat may now be eaten. Liha means “meat” in Estonian.
Kiigepühad: Refers to how swings are a part of this holiday in the Estonian Easter tradition.
Paasapühad: A word used by the Seto ethnic group that refers to Passover and the Estonian Easter dessert pasha.
Estonian “Spring Holiday”
Spring Holiday is the week leading up to Easter. Estonians have traditionally used this week to prepare for the Easter holiday as well as the season ahead.
In Estonian folk tradition, the weather during this week could predict the nature of the weather for summer. People thought that a week with plenty of precipitation predicted a wet summer. Fog, on the other hand, indicated that a dry summer was in store.
Suur Reede (Big Friday), or Good Friday, in Estonia is a day of rest. On this day, people may not even leave the house—it is an Estonian national holiday, after all, so working is also out. Good Friday has also typically been associated with silence or quiet, and observant Estonians chose simple foods for meals on this day.
In the past, Estonians associated Big Friday with witchcraft and superstition. For example, a child born on this day may have been predicted to grow up to be a criminal. And because this day was so closely associated with magic and spells placed upon others, visiting friends or family was avoided.
Easter Sunday in Estonia
Easter Sunday is the biggest holiday of the Easter period in Estonia. In contrast to the quiet, simple, at-home nature of Good Friday, Easter Sunday is a day for feasting, playing games, and gathering.
As in many countries, the Easter meal is the central event on this day in Estonia. Veal is a popular main dish, but eggs and dairy feature strongly as well. In fact, the mild spring cheese produced during this time is due to the increased output of milk from cows.
Pasha—an Essential Easter Dessert
An essential element to the Estonian Easter table is the pasha, a sweetened cheese dessert that may remind people of a similar dish for the Easter table in nearby regions such as Russia.
Estonian pasha is made with dried fruit, liqueur, butter, sugar, and of course, soft cheese. Some chefs add spices and nuts. A base of dark bread may give it a crumbly crust. This sweet and creamy dish is the perfect end to a heavy meal!
Estonian Easter Eggs
Easter eggs, like many Easter traditions around the world, are integral to the Estonian Easter celebration. So it isn’t surprising that Easter is often referred to as “Egg Day” in Estonia.
In the past, Estonian Easter eggs were dyed using colors from nature. People used onion skins to give eggs a warm golden or brown color, for example. They used beets to give the shells a pink color. Steeping eggs in dye made from birch leaves offered a yellow shell.
In another use of nature, Estonians might compress flowers or leaves against the shell to leave their print or outline upon dying.
A quick polish with butter would make the colored eggs shine.
Easter Egg Games
Games with eggs a popular Estonian Easter tradition. For example, egg rolling, where eggs are rolled down a slope, used to be a popular game.
For those without a handy slope for egg rolling, egg cracking may be a more accessible game. It can be played right at the Easter table. As in many traditions, two people face off by cracking their boiled eggs together. The player whose egg’s shell remains intact is the winner.
Other Uses for Decorated Eggs
Easter eggs had other uses. They were given as gifts to family, friends, and even godchildren or godparents.
Furthermore, Estonian children often enjoy a nice Easter egg hunt with colored eggs.
Other Estonian Easter Traditions
Easter may be celebrated in various ways in Estonia depending upon religious context, area of the country, or family traditions. Some beliefs and rituals associated with Estonian Easter date back generations and may now be all but relegated to folklore, others are strongly embedded in the holiday celebration, and still others are newer contributions to the Easter holiday in Estonia.
Pussy willow branches, as a symbol of spring, have long been cut and brought into the house. These branches have traditionally been taken to church to be blessed or used for friendly “switching.”
In other Easter traditions around the world, eggs and Easter palms are taken to church to be blessed—such as in the Lithuanian Easter palms called verbos—and the pussy willow branches are a nature-made analog to handmade palms.
People switching each other with branches as a part of springtime or holiday fun is a practice that has its roots in the pagan focus on fertility and occurs in various parts of the world, such as the Czech Republic.
Masking and Mumming
In the past, masking and mumming was a part of the Estonian Easter week rituals, as it was for other holidays throughout the year. In some parts of Estonia, people dressed as birds bringing good fortune.
Another character was the Meat Woman, who watched to make sure people observed the meat-free period of Lent. She would severely punish anyone found breaking the rules of this period.
As mentioned, Easter in Estonia is also known as Kiigepühad, or Swing Holiday. Why swings?
In Estonian folk tradition, swings were a part of village life. Unlike the single-person swings we may immediately imagine, Estonian swings were meant for two people or more and were constructed using large wooden frames. Located centrally in the village, they were for communal use.
Swinging is associated with the warm-weather months, so it’s no surprise that swinging was incorporated into the celebration of Easter as a welcome to the change from winter to spring.
Swinging is such a significant part of Estonian culture that it’s been turned into a sport!
A Note about Religion
Estonia is famously one of the least religious countries in the world, and many aspects of Easter have become secularized in Estonia.
Different Christian Religions
The majority of those who affiliate themselves with religion in Estonia define themselves as either Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox.
Therefore, Easter is celebrated on two dates in Estonia depending upon the person’s religious affiliation. Those following the Christian calendar of Western religions, such as Lutheranism, celebrate Easter earlier than those who belong to the Eastern Orthodox religions.
A Difference in Calendars
The difference in dates is due to the difference in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Orthodox Christianity uses an older calendar, the Julian calendar, even as other Christian religions adopted the Gregorian calendar.
The Gregorian calendar is an updated version of the calendar that eliminates bloat added to the calendar in Roman times.
Furthermore, Easter in Estonia—as in other parts of the world—cannot escape its pagan roots. Dying eggs, switching with willow branches, and superstitions and beliefs about the year all sprung from the pagan belief system that was present in Estonia before the arrival of Christianity. Christmas in Estonia also has elements of the pagan way of life!
Where to Celebrate Easter in Estonia
Major cities such as Tallinn (the Estonian capital city) – with Old Town Tallinn stuffed with events venues – and Tartu, a major university town, host Easter-related events. Visitors can also attend Easter Sunday church services.
For a taste of traditional Estonian Easter, head to the Estonian Open-Air Museum. Here, you’ll be able to experience Easter traditions the way the Estonians do.