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What to expect at Christmas in Estonia

Maybe you’re thinking of visiting Estonia over the Christmas period, or maybe you’re a new resident here and you’re wondering what’s going to happen during the latter part of December. Just like every country, there are things that are always the same (Coca Cola adverts in November), and there are things that are done a bit different. Here’s a little bit of what to expect:

It’s the 24th not the 25th which is celebrated.

I’m English. The 24th is the evening when as a kid you were sent to bed early, despite being too excited to sleep, and the 25th when you woke yourself and your parents up at 5am to see if Santa has arrived.

Once that faze of your life is over and you move towards drinking age, then the 24th is the night you go to the pub to celebrate Christmas early, listen to Christmas songs on the jukebox, and on the stroke of twelve, try and grab the nearest pretty girl for a kiss under the mistletoe.

You then spend the 25th feeling hungover, wishing you could get out of bed at 5pm in order to open your Christmas gifts of new socks and ironically, alcohol related presents, before pushing your Christmas dinner around the plate, feeling sick due to the previous nights excess.

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But over here, and I’m told in other Nordic countries, the big day is celebrated on the 24th. I’m not entirely sure why, and it’s one instance where Estonians are actually early for something. I remember when I first came over here and was told that the 24th is Christmas day, and when the time came, I actually felt like I was cheating.

In fact, I went so far as refusing to open my presents until the day after, because it just didn’t feel right. Yep, for the first time, I was actually celebrating Christmas day with snow, but it wasn’t Christmas day was it?  Nowadays, I don’t mind so much, as it means I can celebrate Christmas over two days.

We have an “Estonian Christmas” and then the day after we have an “English Christmas”. It’s also fun confusing my English friends on Facebook, by posting “Happy Christmas” messages on the 24th – not that they’d read them, because they are probably down the pub. My kids are happy too, as this means they get to have presents split over two days, rather than just the standard half hour ripping through the gift wrap.

I still go to the pub – but it’s now become a tradition to go for a lunchtime pint on the 25th (because pubs are open in Tallinn, due to it NOT being Christmas day), and it’s there I bump into all the other British ex pats who are in the same situation as me, celebrating the “real” Christmas day. Only a few beer though, because:

It’s not a boozy, commercial celebration like it is in England.

As I previously mentioned, once you’ve hit eighteen, you really don’t care about receiving the latest Lego creation for Christmas, you are just interested in that brick house called the pub, and all the festive cheer it can offer. Christmas parties start at the beginning of December, and up until the 1st of January, it’s really just an excuse to have a “Christmas drink” with your friends every night.

Pubs are decorated with all sorts of shiny material to entice you through their doors, brewers make special beers with stupid names like Rocking Rudolph and Hoppy Christmas, and it’s impossible not to eat anything other than turkey for a month. There’s a reason why health club membership is practically sold out in January.

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If you manage to resist temptation and refrain from visiting the bars and stay at home, then there’s not much hope for you either. It begins in October. A small trickle of slightly Christmassy adverts start appearing on a Saturday night on TV.  By the end of October, daytime TV is dominated by “celebrity chefs” showing you how to cook Christmas dinner, and during the ad breaks, there’s nothing but toys and electronic gadgets shouting at you to buy them.

Move into November, and the chefs have taken over prime time TV, and the ad breaks are chefs selling you the ingredients you’ve just watched. Every advert is for an iPhone or new television. The reason you need a new television, is because of all the fast moving, bright coloured neon adverts about new televisions being screened  24 hours a day.

When December finally arrives, you’ve already seen the Christmas adverts. Five times. You’ve already been given a list by your kids in October detailing what they want. You’ve already learnt how to raise a turkey from an egg, how to house it, how to feed it, how to cook it and what wine to serve with it. The iPhone they were advertising in October, is now an old model, and due to the fact you bought it because it was in the Christmas sale (in October!), you now face the wrath of the recipient because you are cheap for not purchasing the latest gadget, and you’ve embarrassed them in front of all their friends.

And all of this is probably why the brewers don’t care that they’re not allowed to advertise alcohol on TV anymore. They simply don’t need to, as this three months of stress automatically drives people to drink more.

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Which is why I felt something was missing when I came to Estonia in October 2005. Adverts remained the same, bars and restaurants weren’t decorated, and I wasn’t bombarded by Geoffrey and his Toys R Us brainwashing. It’ll happen in November I thought. But no, still the same. By the time December came, I started to wonder if Estonians celebrated Christmas at all. The only thing I noticed to give me a slight inclination that it was Christmas, was an increase in gingerbread and mandarins on the supermarket shelves, and a heavier scent of sauerkraut and pickles in the air than normal. Christmas eve (the 23rd – how unusual!) was spent in a church singing songs and visiting graves.

I was used to seeing my friends dying of boredom waiting under the mistletoe back in the UK, so visiting some real dead people, and being respectful and quiet at midnight was really something different. Something really unusual was going to bed sober, and something even more unusual, but actually rather nice, was waking up with a clear head on Christmas day looking forward to the festivities. But where were the kids at 5am ripping open Buzz Lightyear? Where was the TV bleating out Christmas messages from Justin Bieber and his cohorts? Where was the smell of the turkey roasting in the oven until burnt and dried out come dinner time?  

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That’s the difference. Christmas is celebrated here for what it is, not what it has been made to be. The kids might have had Buzz Lightyear, but Buzz was waiting for them under the tree, only to be released until everyone had eaten their Christmas lunch and sung a song. Sung a song? Yes – that’s what the kids do. They sing a song which they’ve pre prepared weeks before, and only once it’s been sung can they open their presents. How lovely. The only song and dance most British kids I know do on Christmas day, is one because they got a present they didn’t want.

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The food’s different too. No Turkey, roast potatoes and two hour boiled sprouts over here. It’s roast pork, potatoes and blood sausage with jam. There’s also some other stuff I really haven’t got my head round such as pickled fish and sour cream, some weird stuff in jelly, plus a combination of the two served with mustard and cucumbers. And potato salad of course.

Not much booze. In fact a total lack of booziness. Juice is often served with the meal, and coffee afterwards. The one whiff of alcohol is usually a couple of shots of vodka before the meal. In fact, it’s probably the only time I drink the stuff. Someone once told me that I’m now an Estonian because I’ve lived here for ten years. I then tell them I can’t be, because I only drink vodka once a year out of politeness. The pork and blood sausage though, I’ve really come to like.

Maybe it’s because I know that the following day I’ll be having my version of an Christmas dinner, but nevertheless, pork roasted well in the oven  is more often than not, much more flavoursome than a dried out old turkey. I quite often make it throughout the year, not just at Christmas. And that’s certainly something I don’t do with turkey.

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Of course, as the years have gone by, Estonia has become more commercial. I’ve seen Christmas adverts come a bit earlier than December, and pubs have started to understand this, because they start decorating a month in advance, and some even offer roast pork Christmas style on their menu. But I still like the fact that it’s not all out selling. It’s done in a very Estonian manner, nothing showy, nothing shouty.  The supermarket shelves may have more toys on them during December, but they also have more candles on sale too. Tradition is not forgotten. iPhones are still advertised year round though.

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One thing that is traditional every year, and makes everyone feel Christmas has arrived in Estonia, is:

The Christmas Market

If you ever want to go to a place that looks like the cover of a chocolate box, then Tallinn’s Christmas market is the place to visit.  Set in the town hall square, and dominated by a huge Christmas tree, it’s the hub of festive activity from the beginning of December until the end of January. Situated around the tree, are lots of log cabins selling winter clothing from hats, gloves scarves and jumpers which would definitely embarrass any kids if dad wore them on Christmas day.

There’s also some reindeer to pet, and Santa is available in his grotto to consider any last minute Christmas wishes. It’s a truly magical place, especially when the snow is floating down around you.  Of course, it’s geared up totally for tourists, who come in their droves. It’s advertised in many publications as one of the best Christmas markets to visit in Europe. I guess I’ve become accustomed to blocking out all things touristy, but the Christmas market on my first visit each year, is a certainly a “selfie” moment. Perhaps that’s also something to do with the fact that each of the log cabins also sells hot wine spiced up with Vana Tallinn liquor. It’s the one time I don’t feel guilty for drinking alcohol during the afternoon. It’s Christmas after all.

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And if you’re reading this just after Christmas, and you’re thinking – “damn, I missed out on the chance to visit Tallinn and buy a wonderful Christmas jumper and gloves”, then don’t despair. Because you see, the market is also there in the summer, and guess what? It sells exactly the same things that it sells in the winter. This for me is a bit weird, because I often think who buys these heavy knitted sweaters, gloves and scarves in July? But then I see the hoards of American and Japanese tourists loaded down with bags of the stuff, and I get my answer.

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So I guess this is commercialism hidden under a traditional guise. Some of these garments of clothing have probably been on the same stall for years, waiting for an unsuspecting tourist, confident due to the mulled wine in their hand, that they are getting a bargain. But you know what? It’s all about atmosphere, and the Christmas market has that by the (Santa’s) sackful. What’s wrong with feeling all Christmassy and splashing out on a jumper you might only wear once a year? Who needs adverts shouting at you to buy stuff, when you’ve got a little old lady with some knitting needles in her hand, looking freezing and desperate? That’s hard sell right there (and now you know why they also sell 30% alcohol hot wine on the same stand?).

Reading this back, I’ve realised that Estonia is into Christmas – but in a slightly different way that I’m used to. To be totally honest, I go back to the UK sometimes during the Christmas period, and I find it too aggressive, too cut throat and too rainy. I know speaking to my friends back there, that they are also tired of Christmas starting in October, especially when Easter eggs are already on sale in February. There’s a lot of things I miss about the UK, and there’s a lot of things happening over there that I wish happened over here.

I suppose it’s the same for everyone living in the same old country day in day out, and that’s why a weekend in Tallinn is so attractive. It’s a break from normality and fast moving consumer goods. It’s a chance to spend a few days living in a fairytale without worrying you’ll get run over by the Coca Cola truck.  It’s a chance to spend the festive season with some snow on the ground, doing something alternative, and experiencing different traditions. For a lot of people, that’s something money can’t buy.

Just remember. Despite the fact that it might be freezing cold, there’s no need to pack a lot of woollen clothes.

Have a great Christmas!

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Written by James Ramsden

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