Today, 22 December 2019, is the shortest day of the year in Estonia and the rest of Europe. Here in Tallinn, we’ll get just six hours, two minutes and 52 seconds of daylight today. That’s two seconds less than yesterday, but then we’ll get a whopping seven extra seconds tomorrow then more every day after that until midsummer.
This day is known as talvine pööripäev in Estonian or the ‘winter solstice’ in English.
Talvine pööripäev is about rebirth — for both the sun and us — and is celebrated with fire. It’s been one of the most special times of year here since ancient times and is the basis for what is now known as Christmas.
Confused about the date? As with midsummer, people around the world often get these dates wrong so I’ll quickly clarify why.
Our calendars don’t fit neatly into the exact time it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun, which is why we need leap days — and also why the exact midpoint of winter varies each year. And it doesn’t just vary each year, but also by timezone in the same year. Americans and Brits, for example, can have their midpoint on the previous day to Estonians — so English speakers are more likely to think 21st is the winter solstice. Finally, there’s an extra 12 hour discrepency based on whether you are marking the shortest day or longer night. Brits (and others) tend to use the midpoints to mark the longest day in summer and the longest night in winter, whereas as Estonians celebrate the shortest night in summer and the longest day in winter.
All clear? Let’s continue.
Talvine pööripäev is rooted in Paganism. This religion is mostly prehistoric, which means there are few written records about it and it has now largely disappeared from where it once flourished across Northern Europe. As a result, we only know fragments of their traditions and beliefs based on what was passed down into our culture.
Estonians are traditionally quite stubborn to outside influence though, which can be a good thing as it has helped them survive, and that’s why Estonian culture is still heavily based on those Pagan roots. This is most notable in the way that Estonians still revere their nature.
In old Estonian tradition, the focus of talvine pööripäev was an evergreen tree that was carried in from the forest and then ceremoniously burnt.
An evergreen tree lit up in winter as the focus of celebration. Sound familiar?
After Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League, arriving German merchants saw this in Estonia and adapted it slightly for their own Christmas tradition. Instead of burning the tree though, they decorated it. That’s why Estonians claim that the first ever Christmas tree originated here in Tallinn. Funnily enough, Latvians have almost the exact same story as part of their claim to have the first Christmas tree. This fuels an international conflict in the Baltic states, albeit festively good-natured, that erupts each Christmas season between our tourist boards.
Christmas today in Estonia is a blend of the ancient Pagan tradition and the modern Christian adaption. You can experience the older version at places like Eesti vabaõhumuuseum (the Estonian Open Air Museum) in Tallinn where they have a Jõulusokk. According to Estonian folklore, the Jõulusokk (which is definitely not to be confused with ‘Christmas socks’) is a person who turns into a slightly scary horned animal during the winter festival using an outfit often made from fur, straw and sauna whisks. There are also variations of this in other Nordic cultures.
Today, both Estonians and Latvians decorate their trees in winter in the same Christmassy way as everyone else. Afterall, if you live in an apartment then it’s not a smart idea to try burning down a whole tree at home. However, we still tend to bring the tree in right before Christmas so around the same time as the ancient tradition — unlike elsewhere in the world where the tree may go up early in December. We’ve also found new ways to keep the tradition evolving using technology to find and chop down our own trees, while making sure we only take trees that wouldn’t be able to grow to full height anyway. You can read more about that here:
Want to cut down a Christmas tree in Estonia? There’s an app for that
Don’t worry though, nature lovers. We only take trees that need to be removed anyway.
As with any special occasion, the sauna had an important spiritual role. This is especially true on talvine pööripäev because the sauna is where we, like the sun, will also emerge reborn for the year ahead.
The sauna tradition is similar to the Christmas tree tradition in that it is also rooted in this Pagan culture with beliefs and traditions around it that we have largely forgotten, yet the practice has survived in this part of the world and as a result is now being adapted and rediscovered by people elsewhere around the world.
How far back in time do these traditions really stretch though? One very important piece of the puzzle about talvine pööripäev can be found not in Estonia, but on the opposite side of Europe in England.
Believe it or not, the oldest sauna ever discovered was from 3,500 BC close to Stonehenge. That’s significant because Stonehenge is aligned with both the summer and winter solstice. These days, people commonly gather there today for the summer solstice, but archaeological research suggests that large celebrations in ancient times actually took place there in winter. For example, a lot of animal bones have been found there, which appeared to be part of large feasts. An analysis of the bones clearly indicates that the animals were slaughtered in winter. That means people who flock to Stonehenge today to pay homage to ancient traditions may be overestimating the significance of the midsummer celebration and vastly underestimating the significance of the winter solstice there.
So when you look at your decorated tree or jump in a sauna over this festive period, think about the incredible heritage of these traditions stretching back through time and around the world.
Merry Christmas and head talvist pööripäeva to everyone reading this in Estonia and around the world. However you celebrate, make it a good one with family and friends. The darkest days are over and it’s time to start anew.
Thanks for reading
The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas. If you are still feeling a bit bleak about winter then check out our article on ‘how I learned to stop worrying and love the Estonian winter’.
Our global online store will be launching soon, but we export to the UK at EstonianSaunas.co.uk and also have two saunas in Estonia that are open to visitors and were created with the best of Estonian design and technology — our Tallinn smoke sauna and our Tallinn Airbnb apartment with an e-sauna. We’re also shareholders in HUUM, Estonia’s top designer of sauna stoves and heaters, and we’re sponsors of the European Sauna Marathon.
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