Where do Estonians vanish on Midsummer’s Eve?

​A few days after the summer solstice, on the evening of 23 June, Estonian cities become half empty. Anybody who can do so travels into the countryside, in order to celebrate one of Estonia’s most significant holidays – St. John’s Day. Known also as Midsummer Day, it marks the lightest time of the year, and is associated with a set of customs relating back to heathen times. Thus, during the Midsummer’s Night that precedes the holiday, the few hours of midnight twilight are brightened by hundreds of bonfires lit all over the countryside. People sing and dance around the fires, and when the flames have died down a bit, those who are brave enough leap through them to shake off the year’s evils.

​The other major festival, Christmas, falls in the darkest period of the year and is celebrated after the winter solstice. The Estonian name of the holiday, jõulud, reveals another connection with olden times and the pre-Christian Nordic traditions. Nowadays Yule is primarily a family-centred holiday. Both the old and the young stand by a decorated, candle-lit Yule-tree waiting for Father Christmas. This will usually be the costumed husband of the house, who delivers the presents. The evening continues with a festive dinner which usually consists of roast pork, black pudding with cowberry jam, and sauerkraut with roast potatoes.

​The list of ancient calendar customs still followed in Estonia is longer still. On Shrove Tuesday, in February or March, adults seize the chance to go sledging together with the children, on the pretext of the old custom. On St. Martin’s Day (10 Nov) and St. Catherine’s Day (25 Nov), children in costumes go from house to house, earning sweets with their singing and dancing.

Estonians have also several national holidays. The most important falls on 24 February, when people celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1918. Regardless of the weather, which in February may vary between a mild thaw and a fierce frost, a military parade takes place in the morning. In the evening, the majority of Estonians gather in front of their television sets to watch the President’s reception – if they are not invited to attend themselves, that is.

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