Annual circle

The other cycle restricting man’s life, the circle of time (or the annual circle) repeated itself over and over again. The same things happened over again: leaves appeared on trees, days became longer, etc. Also the word 'aasta' [year] is a derivative from the words 'ajast aega' which evidently means 'from a certain period of time up to the same period of time'. Thus the circles of time accumulated on top of each other and apparently a spiral was formed.

The annual circle based on nature was divided in two according to the gradual growth in nature in spring and the dying out in autumn. The dates dividing the year in two according to the calendar of plant life are Ploughing Day (April 14 — also known as St Tiburtius's day) and October 14 (the day when yellowing leaves fall from the trees). The names of both of these days pre-date Christianity. (In the case of holidays of the popular calendar which are related to the changing of the seasons, it is important to know the drift of the calendar: the nearly two-week lag of the old calendar as compared to the solar calendar was done away with in 1918.)

The economic year was divided in two as well, according to the work around the farm — the warm summertime suitable for working in the fields and grazing cattle in the pastures, and the cold wintertime, when fields were frozen and the cattle were in the barns. Summer began on St. George's Day (April 23) and ended on Michaelmas Day (September 29). Thus the period of summertime was shorter and lasted for five months, whereas winter lasted for seven months.

The principle of dividing the year in two excludes spring and autumn and these were considered to be only transition periods from winter to summer and from summer to winter.

The names of the calendar months were probably not taken into popular use until the first Estonian language calendars were printed. The earlier system of chronology had been on the lunar calendar. Time was counted from the appearance of a new moon up to the next new moon (the length of such a month is 29.5 days). Popular religion devoted a great deal of attention to the Moon. The waxing and waning of the Moon gave rise to a general belief that the period of a new moon is a time favouring all forms of growth, while the period of an old moon is a time unfavourable for growth. The names of the months used in Estonia were mostly based on natural phenomena and certain important days (April — sap month, May — leafing month etc.).

The last subdivision in the system of chronology was the day. By the 17th century at the latest, Estonians had become familiar with the sundial and the division of a day into hours. In everyday life on farms, however, that was of no practical importance and a more general division of the day was more expedient. It was the meals that divided the day into parts. ‘Söömavahe’ (the time between two meals) used to be a generally acceptable unit of time; for example: ‘it will take the time between three meals to mow this field’. In general, in the 19th century Estonians had two substantial meals a day in winter and three in summer. Thus, in winter and in summer, daytime was divided differently. Following the course of the sun enabled people to divide their day much more flexibly. A written record of the Estonians' division of the day dating from the beginning of the 18th century contains 20 subdivisions. However, it was not until the 19th century that the earlier subdivision of the day based on the time of light and darkness and meals was replaced by the notion of ‘hours’.

The annual cycle based on the sun was divided in two by the winter and summer solstices. The days started to become longer after Christmas time and shorter again after Midsummer Day. These two turning points have also been the most important holidays since ancient times.

The most important festival for old Estonians was Yuletide. Here the blending of Christian customs with the pagan ones is most evident. The focus was not on the celebration of Jesus being born on December 25, Yuletide included a longer period of time from St. Thomas' Day (December 21) until Epiphany (January 6) and this period was celebrated by Estonians long before Christianity reached the region. Yuletide which involved prohibitions on several types of work and excessive eating was seen as a period of rest in the middle of the long dark winter.

Yuletide began with St. Thomas' Day or, in other words, the working year ended with St. Thomas' Day. By that day all the work of that year had to be completed and debts paid. On St. Thomas' Day the house was given a thorough cleaning, even the stones on top of the stove were washed clean. Yuletide dishes were cooked and Yuletide beer was set to ferment. From this day until the end of Yuletide only urgent jobs like tending the cattle were done.

Christmas Eve and the following night were the holiest time of the year. On that day, rooms were decorated with yule-crowns hung under the ceiling and yule-straw was brought in. The Christmas tree replaced the straw only during the last quarter of the 19th century. There have been various attempts to interpret the initial significance of yule-straw but obviously they can be most closely associated with the cult of ancestors. Yule-straw itself was sacred and beer was poured onto it as a sacrifice. At noon on Christmas Eve members of the family went to the sauna, clean clothes were put on and Christmas peace began.

At that time all the gates of heaven and hell were open and people had to protect themselves using all means available. In order to prevent evil spirits from entering, magic signs like crosses, pentagrams or wheel crosses were made on all openings such as doors and windows. The spirits of ancestors returned home regardless of the signs and dishes were left for them on a separate table in the threshing room so that they could also have a Christmas feast. Feasting was generally of special significance during yuletide and magic powers were connected with it. Ordinarily the peasants' food was rather scanty but at that time everyone could eat as much as they wanted to. If men ate seven times during Christmas night, they were supposed to have the strength of seven men the following year. Christmas bread was eaten and fed to the cattle on New Year's Eve, some of it being kept in a feed chest until spring when it was given to the shepherd and fed to the cattle when the cattle were led out to pasture. It was believed that cattle can talk on Christmas night and bread was fed to them in the shed. Lights had to burn constantly on Christmas night, which was supposed to be a remnant of sun worship but was also an effective measure against evil spirits. On Christmas night the future could be predicted and it was easier to shape one's future as well.

January 1 was New Year's Day according to the popular calendar; the customs, however, were more concerned with New Year's Eve. The customs, beliefs and dishes largely coincided with those of Christmas Eve. Unlike yuletide customs which centred on the entire family, customs observed on New Year's Eve had more to do with single members of the family. Whereas yuletide was seen as a quiet and holy time, on New Year's Eve there were lots of merry games and predictions which were not to be taken too seriously.

Yuletide ended with Epiphany (January 6) or St Knud's Day (January 7).The latter was rather wide-spread in coastal regions. By that time yuletide dishes had to be eaten and the beer drunk. Young men went from farm to farm and drove the holiday out with long whips made of straw. Beercasks were turned upside down and their plugs were taken away. The next circle began.

While Christmas offered winter respite, Midsummer Day (June 24) was an ancient summer holiday according to the popular calendar, the most important festival besides yuletide. A bonfire was built on top of a rod or on higher ground on the evening of Midsummer Day. The bonfire had a purifying effect. It was believed that on Midsummer night, like on Christmas night, good and evil spirits were gathering and therefore it was deemed to be a good time to practise magic; thus the herbs gathered at Midsummer night were credited with special might. But for the most part people would have fun, swing on the large village swing and dance around the bonfire. Young men took birch trees to the windows of their sweethearts and girls used herbs to predict who would come and propose to them. By Midsummer Day, work in the fields was finished and hay-making began.

Between these two celebrations, there were more than 80 holidays in the popular calendar of old Estonians, although some of them were known only regionally. Time had to be calculated also in olden times, and the popular custom was based on counting the weeks from one holiday to the next. The more important holidays involving various customs were: Shrove Tuesday, St George's Day, ‘Souls' visiting time’, St Martin's Day and St Catherine's Day.

Shrove Tuesday was the last day before Lent. It was a moving holiday which always fell on a Tuesday. Traditional dishes were bean or pea soup, cooked with trotters. Magic was performed with trotter bones which was supposed to be favourable to the pigs' growth. On Shrove Tuesday, people were keen on sliding: a long slide was supposed to guarantee a good growth of flax.

St George's Day was the day when spring field work began and cattle started grazing in pastures. This day was already celebrated in pre-Christian times. Luck regarding cattle and horses was sought by various magic rituals. Lodgings were changed on St George's Day. All contracts were entered into or cancelled starting from St George's Day. On this day young men and women were hired in taverns as farm-hands for the coming summer season. St George's bonfires were lit. Many beliefs connected with this day concern snakes. (St George's fight with the dragon).

‘Souls' visiting time’ was a period in autumn when tribute was paid to the souls of dead ancestors. The souls were expected on Thursday nights and a table was laid out in the sauna. Making noise, loud talk and laughing, and especially processing of wool were forbidden during that period. On foggy autumn nights it was believed that the air was foggy with souls.

St Martin's Day (November 10) was marked the end of the economic year and the souls' visiting time. On the previous evening, Marts, young people and children, initially only boys, wearing masks and costumes, went from farm to farm, sang songs and wished good luck with the crops to households. This custom has been seen as a remnant of the cult of ancestors. St Catherine's Day (November 25) was regarded as a women's festival. On the previous evening, Catherines, young women and girls, went from farm to farm wearing masks and costumes and wished the households good luck with the herd. It was also a holiday related to sheep and, to advance their growth, porridge had to be eaten in the sheep shed.

Few of the pre-Christian names have been preserved and there can be no doubt that Catholicism with its saints exerted an essential influence on the development of the popular calendar. First and foremost, this involved fixing the dates of holidays in the Estonian popular calendar and giving them names. The decisive factor here was their compatibility with the local economic rhythm. In the course of time only those days retained their importance that were connected with a larger number of rituals and games.

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