Monday, December 12, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 12, a Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas

I’m very excited to welcome Karl Altau today on Day 12 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas! Karl still believes in Christmas and in all its permutations. He works on Baltic issues, likes Livonian order, and is forever alert for elves and Elvis!

Wishing you a Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas

So how does an Estonian-American celebrate the culinary and cultural goodness of Christmas in the 21st century?

Without pretending to be an expert, I think you go with the flow and do what you’ve always done, right? You do the Estonian Christmas thing. Obviously.

Karl's first Christmas, in his father's lap

First and foremost is the food. So, you break out the blood and barley sausages and bake those little meat pastries or bacon buns and ladle out the rich, warm and filling sauerkraut. A ham is also involved, I think. Then there are the cabbage rolls and the meat in aspic. I call it “meat jello” because “aspic” sounds too close to “arsenic.” It also definitely sounds better than sült.  

What’s for dessert? What about rice pudding? I begin to wonder. Is that really “Estonian” or perhaps it’s more Swedish or Latvian? Swedish holiday rice pudding always had one almond hidden inside. The person who discovers the almond in their pudding gets to make a wish. That’s what my mom and relatives made – because they lived in Sweden. Whether this is a Swedish or Estonian custom, I’m not sure. Something gets a little lost in translation, and sometimes it was the almond that was lost. Estonians may know the dish I’m talking about. Maybe this also sounds familiar to Latvians and Finns?

I sense a little uncertainty explaining these food origins. Where do these holiday mainstays and customs come from, and where are they going?

Karl with his favorite Christmas horse

There are shelves of books written about Estonian Christmas customs. Many of the customs have seen light in this very same Christmas blog. By the way, blog rhymes with “bog” but not “glögg.” I like the sound of glögg. It sounds more Vikingish than the very passive and contemplative “mulled wine.” It also rhymes with Christmas “log,” which is also called the Yule log. We’ve now gotten to the root of the dilemma.

There is this theory, which was also promoted for a while by former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, about a Northern European cultural space for Christmas, which included Estonia, and stretched as far as the British Isles. In a distant way, this is related to the American cultural Christmas space. I’ll get to that part later. Simplified, in this northern sphere the Estonian Jõulud are linguistically related to the Finnish Joulut, Swedish Jul, Old Germanic Yule or Yuletide.

When you go back in time, then you’ll find that Estonian Christmas traditions are not really homogenous, but borrowed from other cultures and traditions. A lot of Estonian Christmas is reminiscent of German Christmas customs. The “poster child” of Christmas – Santa Claus – is in Estonia Jõuluvana (Finnish Joulupukki). Since we became acquainted, Jõuluvana has always seemed to me to be more serious, authentic, and venerable than the modern Anglo-Saxon Santa, recast by Thomas Nast in the mid-19th century. This Santa in turn evolved as the Coke-inspired 20th century jolly fat St. Nick, which is more familiar today - a Kris Kringle almost overdosed on Krispy Kremes.  

Thomas Nasts's Santa Claus, source here

Jõuluvana and Santa Claus do share common roots, but have evolved according to how the respective national legends have developed.

During the Soviet occupation, Santa was essentially banned in Estonia. In his place was Näärivana, which became the “official Sovietized” Father Christmas. This creation wasn’t concerned about timing Christmas with the birth of Christ. Näärivana, more akin to the Russian Old Man Frost, could happily help usher in the New Year without all the religious baggage. Children didn’t really mind, as long as he came around and there was the possibility of gifts. Näärid, which indicates the New Year in Estonian, is related to the Swedish Nyår (New Year). In Sweden, the julbock (Christmas Goat) is ubiquitous as a decoration. Estonians will be familiar with a similar näärisokk. But it’s more than just a language connection.

“Santa Claus” was frozen out in Estonia for half a century (at least in public), but came back around 1990 as an import from Finland during the emerging thaw in the Soviet space, first arriving in style to Tallinn on a Finnair flight from Rovaniemi. Estonia’s northern neighbor has poo-poo’d the Santa North Pole myth with a legend of its own in which the Finnish Joulupukki comes from Korvatunturi, a place in Lapland fronted by the “Santa Claus Village.” No melting ice caps to worry about. Why fly on Finnair? It’s cozier to travel that way in December than with a team of reindeer. “Santa” had finally come in out of the cold. As my daughter was born in Finland and spent her first five years there, this new narrative began to take hold with my family.

How then does this mishmash of traditions work for an Estonian-American, whose parents fled Estonia, and settled in the U.S., having also traversed through Sweden? I myself spent years in Finland and Sweden. Customs and tradition have become mixed, as evident in my problems with rice pudding. I’m challenged to understand what elements of my own customs are taken from Estonian or German or borrowed from Swedish or Finnish in celebrating my personal Christmas in America.

My brother and I were raised in Virginia in the 1960s believing in Santa Claus, whom we also referred to as Jõuluvana in the company of our parents, relatives, and Estonian friends. On Christmas Eve, He left some smaller knick-knacks in the socks by the chimney. Presents from our parents and relatives were usually placed under the Christmas tree in the living room and we’d open them with our folks on that hallowed Eve. Then there was also Christmas morning, with more presents beneath the tree. We would leave a plate of cookies and glass of milk the night before for Santa Claus/Jõuluvana, along with some carrots for the reindeer.  Those had usually disappeared by morning. During the 1960s and into the 70s, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer became an important part of this increasingly mixed up narrative for my young mind, so he also got his share of the carrots.  

During those first years – well into elementary school - Santa Claus reigned supreme. We would see him about town already in the weeks before Christmas. He once came to the old hall at the plant where my dad worked – it was quite a big deal. He was a huge VIP. It was the closest thing to “A Christmas Story” that I would ever experience. Perhaps even the biggest deal was seeing him at the grand conclusion of our town’s Christmas parade, which usually took place in early December. For someone busy at the North Pole, Santa made sure to take time from his busy schedule to let the people know that he was soon on the way, with even bigger things in store.  

There came a day, however, when we started to have doubts about the magic of Santa. Once our little fact-checking minds went into gear, certain details in the story began to unravel. How could he get to so many places so fast? How could that beard on department store Santa look so…fake? I believed for a long time. I think longer than many of my other friends. I’m not sure how old I was when I started having doubts - nine or ten? One of my friends who was a year older told me what a fool I was to still believe in Santa. He knew for sure.

Then one night, at some time close to Christmas, I experienced something which was almost transformational. I was in bed sleeping and heard the tapping on the roof. Was that…the sound of reindeer hooves? I got out of bed, or dreamed that I did, and rushed to the window in the early morning light, and saw at a great distance how Santa and the sled and the team of reindeer accelerated upward and away. I don’t know if I rubbed my eyes, or if I had been imagining, but the next day excitedly told my friend that I did after all believe in Santa because I HAD HEARD HIM AND SEEN HIM LAST NIGHT! He must be real. My religious faith was restored and was stronger than ever. My friend told me I was still a fool. Well, that caused me again to quickly doubt my own perceptions. Maybe it had been a dream? I can’t vow for sure what I saw that day. 
Santa Claus run in Vecrīga, 2008

Years later, when I rediscovered my Estonian side, I realized that it might not have made sense for Santa to land with a small herd of flying reindeer onto the roof of our house. Our roof wasn’t small but other roofs were certainly smaller. The point is that an Estonian knows well that Jõuluvana is somehow more civilized or perhaps human, in that he doesn’t rely on magic (mushrooms) or sorcery to perform these amazing feats. Physics can’t explain it. Our Estonian Father Christmas uses a real sleigh, grounded to a horse, or even goes on foot, from door to door, knocking and is invited into the home.

Once there, Jõuluvana is greeted by the family and takes a seat of honor. Maybe he is offered something to eat or drink. The children must then “sing for their supper,” or recite something worthy of St. Nick’s approval in order to receive a present. It seems senseless to have to deal with navigating a rooftop, and then stuffing oneself down a chimney. Who knows if the ashes have been swept out below, or if there is even a fire burning or hot coals smoldering. Not a wise way to sneak in at night.

Instead of having Santa make cursory “pre-visits” in the weeks leading up to the big night, in Estonia, it is the elves (päkapikud) that may be peering in from the woods to make sure that children are keeping up their ends of the behavioral bargain. To placate the elves, some treats are left for them in shoes by the door, or in a stocking. This might go on for weeks, and seems to match the course of Advent.

Karl's 'elf' with a vial of gold...
I never personally had to deal with facing Jõuluvana and being put on the spot by memorizing a poem or singing a tune. The actual Estonian Jõuluvana didn’t actually ever show his face when we were around. It was different in Sweden and Finland. There, among the larger clan, Jõuluvana would always stop by. In two instances, I did get to star as the old man himself. One was in either 1984 or 1985, when I appeared as the twenty-something sweaty fat man for a pre-Christmas gathering of the Naisüliõpilaste Selts (Estonian Women Student’s Society, a sorority) in Stockholm. It was indeed a noble gig. The fact that I was not a real local probably added to my selection and to the mystery, as my face was not quite recognizable under the full and scratchy beard.

 Santa, with Latvian colleagues (the beard and hat were of plastic bags)

At that event, children lined up to come to me to recite a poem, sing a tune, bow and curtsey, and collect a present. My everlasting memory of the occasion was that of a little boy named Tomas, who was only a new walker. He couldn’t have been more than two. He was led up to the throne-like spot where I was perched. His eyes got wider with every step as he approached me. He had never seen anything like me, rest assured. I said “hello Tomas,” or something like that. I didn’t want to scare him, and he obviously wasn’t going to sing, or remember a poem, or do a little jig. I reached into my bag and pulled out a gift. Slowly, I offered it to him. I remember his arms, stretching out to receive the present. With giant eyes, he somehow managed to say “aitäh!” (thank you) – maybe his first words. It was one of most significant moments of my still-young life. It felt empowering to be able to make such a deep impact on somebody’s even younger life. It was really great to witness someone’s total fixation on and belief in what my character represented. It made me happy. The joy of Christmas!  

The second time I “played” Jõuluvana was at an Estonian Embassy Christmas party back in the early 1990s in Helsinki. I was asked to be Santa Claus, because I think no one else really wanted to get dressed up like that. It was a lot of fun to make your grown-up adult colleages recite a verse, sing a ditty, or dance a little trot for you. I know they knew who I was underneath the holiday layers. The most endearing memory was the consul at the time who offered me a stiff drink to steady my nerves and any stage fright that I might be encountering. Whether that drink happened before or after isn’t really important – but it sure was a nice gesture. I could get used to that.

a chocolate cake, made by Karl's mother

I see that I’ve gotten away from writing about Christmas food traditions. My mother’s recipes for gingerbread cookies and rum balls need to wait until next year.  Moreover, I’ve not even begun to delve into the religious aspects of our Christmas, whether celebrating the birth of Jesus or commemorating the Winter Solstice.

The Christmas tree is another important tradition, and I’ve got to say that wherever the tree came from, the Estonians and Latvians have come to a wonderful compromise and agreed that it comes originally from Livonia. I can live with that.

In my experience, we’ve borrowed as needed from all these different cultures and customs, and places and spaces. We’ve mixed them all up to suit our purposes and our comfort zone. It’s as simple as that.

a hybrid "Esto Claus," according to Karl

Speaking of comfort zone, although it is not a “Christmas food,” I leave you with a little description of the origins of hamburger, which my mother found for me to demonstrate how culturally rich and diverse our traditions are:

Hamburger - The origin of the name hamburger for ground beef is open to speculation, although it was probably named for the German seaport of Hamburg. As on of the greatest ports in Europe, Hamburg had long engaged in trade with the Baltic provinces of Russia. The Balts of Estonia, Latvia, and Finland were fond of red meat, shredded with a dull knife and eaten raw. This dish, today a gourmet affair when made with fine steak, and called Beefsteak Tartare, may have pleased the Balts because of their origin, which connects them with the tribes of Tartary, or Mongolia, great riders, hunters, and meat-eaters all. After the people of Hamburg were introduced to this delightful novelty, their liking for it was great enough to immortalize the dish with their name. Or so the legend goes. 

(Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, Vol. 6, Fawcett Publications, New York, 1966, 3rd edition)

Hamburger fits any holiday or any other day for that matter. It is our common denominator. So the legend goes.

Have a Merry Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas!

college Karl by the tree


Thanks Karl! I am going to have to look into the rice pudding; I know Latvians have rīsu krēms, which my grandmother informs me was my grandfather's favorite dessert. It was not, however, associated with the holidays, nor was there an almond hidden away in it. She mentioned gold rings taking the place of almonds, as then according to supserstition, the lucky recipient would be getting married the following year; but this is possibly a Swedish or Danish tradition? And just like that I've also fallen down the rabbit hole! In any case, I'm a big fan of mixed-up melting pot holidays, and I'm thankful to you for sharing yours... 

Karl can be traced to @kaltau on twitter, and can often be found elsewhere in the Baltic galaxy! Thanks for joining us for this Estonian Christmas medley, and please visit tomorrow for a fun video on Day 13 of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas!


  1. Hi There, You need to publish all of your information talking about a Baltic Christmas... So much information --and so interesting to those of us who know nothing about most of that... AWESOME....

    I published a blog post today about Christmas at our Home--so check it out when you have time.

    Hugs and Merry Christmas,

    1. Thanks Betsy! The best thing about hosting this series is that I'm learning so much about not only the Lithuanian and Estonian traditions, but about the Latvian Christmas culture as well - and it helps to have passionate writers willing to help make this an interesting series. Thank you for your comment, and Merry Christmas to you and yours!


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