Tag Archives: Estonia

Jõulu Vana – The Estonian Santa Claus

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following description of Estonian Christmas celebrations growing up, and more specifically her experiences with Jõulu Vana, the Estonian version of Santa Claus. Her Email was lengthy, but I decided to include the full text so as to preserve her performance of the traditions she grew up on.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: Estonian Christmas — “Jõulud”, which comes from the Swedish “Jul” (Old English ‘Yule’) — is a pagan holiday, a celebration of the end of the year. When I was growing up in Canada, a first generation immigrant, with two Estonian parents, our holiday celebrations began at the beginning of December, with Advent calendars, and continued to New Year’s Eve, when we melted candles and poured the liquid wax into buckets of cold water, where it became solid again with intricate shapes that were supposed to tell our fortune during the coming year. But the most important day for me and my brothers was the day that North Americans call Christmas Eve, December 24th, because it was on the evening of that day that Santa Claus (Jõulu Vana) would come.
I loved everything about Christmas as a child because it happened so slowly. We woke up in the morning to the delicious smell of the special Christmas bread my mother was baking (“pätsi sai”, a white bread made with raisins and almonds and flavored with cardamom that my mother ground in a special grinder). We went to the living room to admire the Christmas tree. When we were very little, my brother and I sometimes crawled under the tree to look up at the ornaments and the lights which we thought were magical. (When we were even younger, there were real candles on the tree.) After breakfast our parents gave us each one small present; the other presents would be coming from Santa.
The excitement grew during the day until we could hardly stand it. Finally, it was evening. My father, a doctor, announced that he was on duty at the hospital and had to leave. This happened every year, and I never wondered why. Awhile later my mother told us that we should go to the window to watch for Jõulu Vana. We could see him coming from a distance, through the snow, pulling a sled piled high with presents. Sometimes he would seem to get lost, approaching one of the other houses. (We were the only children on the block except for one other Estonian family who lived in the apartment directly below us.) We would knock on the window and call out frantically ‘’ “this way, Jõulu Vana!”
Before he gave us our presents, we had to each sing a Christmas song for him. We had been practicing these songs for weeks, but I remember still being nervous and even a bit scared. He always clapped and told us that we were fine singers. (Singing is a very big tradition for Estonians.) And then, finally, he handed us our presents.
As a child I did not really believe in God – most Estonians are pagan at heart, not Christian. (My mother once told me that she found it odd that Canadians go to church so often, every Sunday. In Estonia, she explained, there were only four occasions for reasons for going to church: to be baptised, to be confirmed, to be married, and to be buried.) But my faith in Jõulu Vana was strong. I must have been a gullible child. I never wondered why Jõulu Vana always came straight to our apartment, rather than the apartment of the Estonian family below us. I didn’t even wonder when I noticed, one year, that their Jõulu Vana was shorter than our Jõulu Vana. And when my Estonian friend told me: “You know, there isn’t really a Jõulu Vana; it is just our fathers wearing costumes from the hospital”, I looked her right in the eye and said: “Maybe your father pretends to be Jõulu Vana. But we have the real Jõulu Vana.”

Thoughts:

I’ve always been fond of childhood beliefs in Santa Claus or other versions of the figure. While discussion can be brought up of the commercialization of Christmas by the US, and by companies like Coca-Cola (who created the iconic imagery of Santa Claus we all know today) there’s something very pure and wholesome in the participation on the parts of parents in the myth of Santa Claus. Parents claiming that the presents under the tree are from this jolly red figure is a wonderful example of letting child’s imaginations run wild, and nurturing those imaginations by playing along with them, and I’ve never really understood claims that telling your children Santa Claus is real is actually cruel because they’re going to “discover you were lying” or something. Childhood wonder and magic doesn’t last forever, and I think rather than stamping it out, it’s something that should be protected, loved, and cared for by parents and other adults. I remember when I was a child my father would put on a big boot while we were asleep and cover it in soot before stomping around the house so that in the morning it would look like Santa came down from the chimney and had a wander about the house. Real effort was put into making Santa feel real, and I can see now after reading this from my mother, why that mattered so much to her, and the magic from her own childhood that she was trying to recapture for us in ours. The Estonian tradition of Jõulu Vana, where the father dresses up as the jolly red figure, is a perfect example of how putting in effort into creating this myth and captivating a child’s imagination can lead to wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

The Valge Laev (The White Ship) Of Estonia

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: “This myth dates back to 1860 when a peasant preacher declared himself a prophet and called on his followers to leave Estonia to resettle in the Crimea in southern Russia. He went on ahead and promised that a white ship – the “Valge Laev” — would come to take them to this Promised Land. Several hundred families gathered on the beach to wait for the white ship, but it never came. Most Estonians were serfs, living under extremely harsh conditions, basically slavery, until 1811. Even after serfdom was abolished, life for the peasants was very hard, and there were several unsuccessful revolts against the German nobility who still owned most of the land. The White Ship was a symbol of hope, of escape to freedom and a better life.”

Informant’s Thoughts (Written Over Email):

M: “My mother was a young girl in Estonia during World War II, surviving two occupations, the first by the Red Army in 1940, the second by Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1944. In the late summer of 1944, as Germany was losing the war and German troops were leaving Estonia, the “Soome Poisid” (“Finnish boys” – Estonians who had volunteered to fight with the Finns during the Winter War with the Soviet Union) came back to Estonia, ready to make a last stand for Estonian independence. My mother’s brother Rein was one of them. The situation was hopeless; the Red Army was closing in. But Estonians remembered that the British had come to their aid during the War of Independence (1918-1920). And so the myth of the White Ship returned.”

Thoughts:

I think this myth makes total sense given Estonia’s troubled history. The frequent invasions and occupations by foreign forces throughout Estonian history have no doubt led to many myths and tales created with the intention of spreading hope of freedom for the Estonian people. The fact that this myth was able to survive and be retold a century later speaks to Estonia’s dependence on folklore as a means of maintaining its cultural identity, and to the need for hope and resilience during it’s many occupations.

“Kes hiljaks jääb, see ilma jääb.” – Estonian Proverb

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following.

Translation:

  • Original: “Kes hiljaks jääb, see ilma jääb.”
  • Translation: He who is late, will go without.

Informant’s Context:

M: “My mother used to say it all the time when we were kids and taking our time about coming back inside when she rang the dinner bell to summon us to dinner. She sometimes added an extra line of her own – “ja raua rohtu saab” – which meant “and will get cod liver oil” (a vile-tasting medicine that used to be given to children as a vitamin D supplement).”

Informant’s Thoughts: 

M: “This is harsh, but reasonable in some circumstances. Even though she often said it, I can’t remember my mother ever actually enforcing it. She understood that we were busy playing and that we had often wandered quite far away from home, so it took time to get back.”

Thoughts:

This seems like a pretty standard proverb to me. It gets across a lesson, in this case in the form of a warning, about being punctual, most likely aimed at children, as seen by it’s use in my mother’s example. It also contains a threat, that if one is not punctual one will be denied something, in this case food. Denial of food was a fairly common means of punishment for children throughout history, and even in some stricter households to this day, so this makes sense as well. In this case it seems more like a light warning intended to get the message across without really intending to enforce the punishment.

“Ära hõiska enne õhtut.” – Estonian Proverb

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following.

Translation:

  • Original: “Ära hõiska enne õhtut.”
  • Translation: Don’t shout for joy before night.

Informant’s Explanation:

M: “This means not to celebrate good fortune too soon; there are many ways things can go wrong; wait until you are sure. Until then, keep that icy face.”

Informant’s Thoughts: 

M: “This speaks to the Estonian temperament, which is the product of centuries of hardship and a cold northern climate. Estonians are a “glass half-full” kind of people; they are naturally pessimistic, always seeing or fearing trouble on the horizon. This is understandable, but I disagree. When you have good fortune, you should rejoice. You can rejoice without taking it for granted, without counting your chickens before they hatch (to quote another proverb). “

Thoughts:

I think my mother did a good job of explaining this one. Her comparison to the English proverb “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, is a very good comparison as the two proverbs essentially carry the same meaning, although the message is conveyed through different imagery. Furthermore, I think that the night takes on a different meaning in colder climates, such as that of Estonia, where nightfall can actually be a dangerous and bleak time due to the cold.

Children’s Folk Tales in Estonia

Background: The informant is a 48-year-old woman who was born in Estonia and immigrated to the United States, and currently lives in California. She still participates in Estonian traditions by attending the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community located in Los Angeles.

Context: The folklore was collected during a scheduled zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who currently live in Los Angeles and who are close friends.

Main Piece: “A huge part of my growing up was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’ and in the Soviet Union we had the series ‘Saia rahva lood’ or ‘tales of a hundred nations’, I read them, we enjoyed them very much. But what the Estonians had was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’, Estonian ancient tales, and one very big part of it was a farmer called ‘Kaval Ants’ fighting an evil called ‘Vanapagan’. It’s not called Satan, but it’s, you know the one who came from down. And this witty farmer, poor witty farmer always outsmarted the evil ‘Vanapagan’. ‘Vanapagan’ is ‘old pagan’ but it actually means ‘devil’. So ‘Kaval Ants’ and ‘Vanapagan’, those are the tales of my childhood, we read them and it’s a big thick book of Estonian fairy tales, where always this poor boy or poor girl was working, slaving for a master and at the end he or she got justice. Not always, Estonian fairy tales are not always very happy endings, but not as grim as you may think. And many tales had animals, like instead of people. Usually there were foxes and wolves, and the foxes outsmarted them.”

Interpretation: The first thing that caught my attention was the distinction the informant made between Estonian folk tales and the more “official” stories that the Soviet authorities used that were called ‘Saia rahva lood’. While the informant did not go into too much detail about the narrative and plot points of these tales, many of the common themes in Estonian folk tales are made very clear here. Furthermore, this serves as further evidence that Estonian tales are completely different from what was seen in the more Western nations. Many tales from the West center around royalty and fantasy, whereas Estonian tales are very grounded and have a peasanty humbleness to them. The characters are often farmers or animals and they have to use their wits, not sheer strength, to outsmart their opponents. Another thing that really caught my eye was how ‘old pagan’ is synonymous with the devil in the tale of Kaval Ants. This provides some interesting insight into the more religious realm of Estonian culture and how pagans were seen as devils and evil doers in the eyes of the Orthodox Christian Estonians. There is a lot of interesting history surrounding Estonian religion that ties to many of the themes seen in these tales.

For another version of this tale read:

Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. Eesti rahva ennemuistsed jutud. Avita, 1996 (first published 1866).