It’s that time of the year – everything is covered in lights, cheery music is somewhere in the background, and you have a niggling feeling that you should buy… something. It is holiday season. Every country has their own way of going about this time and perhaps some things pointed out in this post are helpful if you are spending it in Estonia.
Get ready for the darkest time of the year!
Photo credit: Liine Toomse
As Christmas is getting closer and closer the days in Estonia are getting shorter and shorter. Sometimes it might seem that the sun doesn’t bother to rise above horizon at all; this might be reflected in the gloomy faces of locals passing by, dressed in all black as if mourning the passing year, only source of light reflectors dangling on their sides. But wait! Not all is lost, you can cheer the locals up by a fireside with a hot drink. The shortest day in Estonia is the winter solstice on the 21st of December. The day is 6 hours and 3 minutes long or short – depending on how you look at it (I personally go with short but we Estonians are mostly glass-half-empty type of people anyways). With this date the winter officially begins, Christmas gets going, and the days start getting longer.
Practise your Christmas carols!Asbjørn Floden
Christmas might be about the only time of the year when you can be fooled into believing Estonians are religious. Faith is highly personal thing in this country and, as we are wont to point out, not a very wide spread thing as well (the 2011 census in Estonia found that 29% of the population practices religion in a systematic way, 16% are Russian Orthodox, 10% Lutheran, and 3% go in for something else). So what might confuse then into believing otherwise? Maybe the abundance of old beautiful churches all over the Old Town of Tallinn and in the hearts of every city and village of Estonia – a legacy of different times. These places will fill up for Christmas services and there are even services in English. Maybe it is the Christmas concerts in those churches – these events are very popular, music is important for Estonians, and our choirs take any opportunity to show their skills. Maybe it’s the angels and Nativity scenes that pop up as decoration all over the country. Whatever it is it comes with music.
Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree…
One thing that should not bring in mind Christianity is our Christmas trees. There is after all very little Christian basis for this tradition. Pagan and proud of it! Tallinn has the world’s oldest Christmas tree tradition that goes back to 1441 and was started by a local guild – the Guild of the Black Heads. Riga in Latvia set up their first tree in 1510 and decorated it (so all those twinkling lights are their fault). Both cities claim to have the oldest tree and although it should be clear with a little bit of math who wins, we still haggle over it. One day Estonia and Latvia will go to war over this issue. Tallinn sets up a huge tree in the middle of the Town Hall Square and lavishes it with lights but some cities in Estonia take another rout – Rakvere has an amazing glass structure built out of old windows.
Be adopted into an Estonian family
Photo credit: Kalev Külaase
Christmas trees make their way into most homes in Estonia (and so should you!), after all this is mostly a family oriented holiday. It might seem that the whole country goes into hiding from 22 of December and then shows up again after 25th. The three days are expected to ideally be spent gathered around (grand)parents dinner table that is groaning with food. Some families use this time to hash out all the politics of the passing year and to agree on what to disagree on for the next one. Big part of the Christmas time is watching television together – the Die Hard and Home Alone marathons get us all into holiday spirit! We eat and drink more than we should – this is true of everyone. The traditional Christmas dinner is usually slow-cooked pork, sauerkraut, potatoes, meat jelly, blood sausages, and lingonberry jam. After all this there must be room for dessert as well. This time of the year there is no escaping gingerbread – it is just everywhere, big or small, bought or homemade, decorated or not, this snack will get you one way or another. And to make sure we all arrive in food induced coma – cake and/or sweet kringle to top it all off.
Warm drinks for cold nights
Photo credit: Ani
To warm the body and the soul there is hot spiced mulled wine and glögg. Both these drinks can be bought when one strolls through a Christmas market. That is the traditional Estonian way of enjoying this drink – you buy it from a small market stall, you walk with it through the market, carefully not buying anything even if you like something, and then disapprovingly looking at people who actually do buy something. Tried and tested! Ideally of course hot winter drinks should be made at home and some families have their own versions but most of us are too lazy and just buy it. What is the difference between mulled wine and glögg? In Estonia usually mulled wine is wine heated up with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, orange zest, ginger, almonds, and raisins. Glögg is (berry) juice or wine heated with same spices and strong alcohol like rum, vodka, or Vana Tallinn added in.
Shop until you drop
Photo credit: Liine Toomse
Many cities have a Christmas market, the most well known one is Tallinn on the Town Hall Square. Tallinn’s market looks like a gingerbread land, especially when it gets snowed on. The little market-houses are full on handicraft, food, Christmas decorations, toys, and so much more. Even if you aren’t buying anything it is a feast for the eyes. The Old Town market is hardly the only one during holiday season, although maybe the most pricy one. There are plenty of pop-up Christmas markets in Tallinn – an Estonian design market “Home for Christmas” or the Estonian Art Academy’s student market – what you find here might make for a truly unique gift. Speaking of gifts, what are Estonian? Well, in all honesty there is no one thing. As it is everywhere, if it comes from the heart it’s the best possible gift. Estonian design comes in handy here as well and if you missed a pop-up market then no worries there are plenty of good shops to stop by like Tali, Nu Nordik, Estonian Design House, or the whole shopping street at Telliskivi Creative City.
Things to do and places to go
Shopping is one way of spending time but there are more options out there. How about some theatre? Estonian National Opera has a busy holiday schedule and they finish it off with a very popular New Year’s Eve Ball if you are looking for a fancy dress party. No to theatre but yes to music? Tallinn has more concerts than you can possibly attend – so maybe go for something unique like the group Hortus Musicus that plays music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe; or Curly Strings – a popular folk music band (music above). More of a museum person? Well there is plenty to see at KUMU (Estonian Art Museum); the maritime museum in the Seaplane harbour; or to explore the old Estonian way of spending Christmas at the Open Air Museum. If you just want to laze about then spas are the place for you – warm up in a sauna or relax with a massage. For more active people Kiviõli Adventure Centre offers the longest slopes in the Baltic’s. And you can always go skating outside in the Old Town, fair warning – if you are likely to fall bring a swimsuit and a change of clothes – skating can double as swimming on a warmer day. But for something really cool try curling in Tallinn!
Bet on snow with the locals!
Snow is big question of holiday season in Estonia. Will we or won’t we? It is North enough that we should have white Christmas but that is hardly a certainty in recent years. If there is one thing Estonians are happy to talk about than it is our weather. We can harp on about how miserable it really is, how short our summer and dark and gray the rest – we will give the Brits run for their money. Regardless of the weather one should still try to make it out of the city. For one, even if there is no snow in Tallinn doesn’t necessarily mean that the countryside doesn’t, and for two nature has always something to offer – stark bareness can also be beautiful. So maybe take a tour to Lahemaa or Paldiski and see for yourself.
Whatever the weather Estonia has always something to offer and even if you don’t know any locals well enough to crash their Christmas party the holiday time can be fun and eventful in Tallinn.