Monday, December 19, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 19, Christmas with the Ancestors

Catherine Nurmepuu is a first-generation Estonian-American. An attorney, award-winning essayist, healer and history teacher, Catherine lives in an 1840s home in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. She was recently able to reclaim her grandfather’s ancestral land in Estonia, and seeks to be a bridge for her family traditions on both continents. Happiest outside, she enjoys bog trekking in Estonia as well as playing on the heights of the Appalachian Trail… Please help me extend a warm welcome to Catherine today on the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas!

Christmas with the Ancestors

Holiday time at my Estonian grandparents’ home in Appalachia was marked with all the usual regalia -- the tree, the handmade straw ornaments, the tiny knitted mittens, the curious smells in the kitchen, and of course, the dead people.

Yes: The dead people.

Tiny faces and places in smudged black and white or sepia tones, smuggled out of a war zone and now tucked into five-for-a-dollar K-mart picture frames, marched out at Christmastime onto bookshelves and end tables. My grandparents had fled their homeland of Estonia during World War 2, and presumed most of their family to be dead. Born in 1970s America, I could not understand much of this, but I understood the pictures were stories: of people, places lost, but still loved dearly.

So I learned about Tallinn’s towers covered in snow, about farms hidden in deep forests, about sleigh rides and songs, and most of all, about the people lost but loved. My grandparents’ happy family memories of far-away and long-ago became the holiday legends of my youth, as cozily traditional as Charlie Brown’s tree or Rudolph’s great quest.

As it turns out, the idea of bringing one’s ancestors nearer during the winter holiday is far from new.

In old Estonian folk calendars, the “Souls’ Visiting Time” was often attributed to a variety of holidays throughout the late harvest season, when the days grew shorter and shorter, commencing around November 1 and lasting through Christmastime.

Modern folklorists describe an ancient understanding of family ties stretching beyond the grave. In some parts of Estonia, deceased relatives were thought to continue working the family’s farm, for good or ill. If a farmer truly wished for a successful new growing season, it was important to ensure one’s ancestors felt appreciated!

A common practice involved setting out food for the spirits of ancestors, often in unusual places, like high in the farmhouse loft. A mark of good manners was to let the spirits’ plate sit a while, allowing unseen guests to have their fill before the living would join the feast. (I cannot help empathizing with the children of this period, who must have been driven quite mad by all the delicious smells wafting about the home, and the rule of waiting -- and waiting -- and WAITING -- to eat!)

As the only Estonian (so far) in my small Appalachian village, things can feel rather lonely at times. Intentionally keeping our family memories close, especially at holidays, is a cozy antidote! Photos are an excellent prompt for sharing stories: my son is very curious to know about the people and places pictured, just as I was!

This year, we’re bringing our ancestors into Christmas by making photograph ornaments.

Small photo frame ornaments are often available at dollar stores, or can be cheaply made with popsicle sticks or twigs gathered from outdoors. If you want to be really fancy about it, here is a tutorial involving resin, which I have found quite easy to follow.

I would suggest using copies of actual relatives’ photos, if possible, but these can sometimes be difficult to locate, or to reproduce at high quality. Another suggestion would be to use photos of places or symbols associated with your relatives: a famous building from a city, the church someone attended, a tree or key feature of the land where they lived, a tool used in their livelihood or hobby. Estonian family names often refer to things in nature, such as a tree, animal, or river, providing additional inspiration. Have fun with it!

Thank you Catherine! We are so grateful to have this beautiful post included in our 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas - what a wonderful way to include our ancestors in present day celebrations... Follow Catherine on Facebook at or on Instagram at ResearchAllTheThings, and please join us tomorrow for the Vilnius Christmas market on Yet Another Baltic Christmas Day 20!


  1. Loving how the memories are kept close of the ones who have passed over....gone but never forgotten!


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