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.
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.”
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.