For many people, Christmas is about buying presents, a tree, decorating the house and eating good food. The picture of chubby Santa from the Coca-Cola commercial is familiar to everyone all over Europe. However, for those who grew up in Eastern Europe, Christmas memories can be very different. So what are the various Christmas traditions in Eastern countries? Thanks to my friends and family I have gathered here some examples of Christmas traditions, menus and customs.
Christmas in Estonia
In Estonia, much like in Belgium and the Netherlands, Santa Claus is a secondary character and it is actually the ‘päkapikud’, Santa’s little helpers that children are awaiting. During the weeks before Christmas every night before going to sleep, children put one of their slippers on a window ledge hoping to find inside the next morning, a small present such as a candy or a piece of chocolate. At school, children then discuss and compare what the ‘päkapikud’ brought them. On the 24th of December, Estonians celebrate Christmas with their families. In some families, a male member of the family takes up the role of Santa Claus or ‘Jõuluvana.’ He enters the room with a bag full of presents, sits down and starts taking out the gifts one by one while calling out the name written on the present. Each individual only gets their present after reciting a Christmas poem or a song for Jõuluvana. For dinner, traditional Christmas dishes are black pudding know as ‘blood sausage’ and a sort of meat jelly or aspic. The Christmas table also includes various salads, baked potatoes, meat and marinated vegetables or mushrooms. Much of the food in the former Soviet Union is quite similar and it is common to see dishes that are traditionally Russian, Ukrainian or even Georgian served in Estonian homes. A typical Christmas dessert would be tree shaped or animal shaped ginger bread. Mulled wine or ‘glög’ is also an important Christmas tradition.
In all three Baltic countries, Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, is also celebrated. Traditionally, every Sunday before Christmas, one candle is lit; on the 24th, four red candles are burning and at midnight a fifth candle is lit, marking Christmas. As Estonia has never really been a religious country, Christmas was not really associated with the birth of Christ, but rather the start of a cold and dark winter period. In Latvia, even an old pagan tradition has survived. On Christmas Eve people put on different masks, such as death or goats and demons and go around the village knocking on the doors of residents. People invite them into their house and offer them food and drink to guarantee good luck for the coming year.
Celebrations in Orthodox countries
In Orthodox countries like Russia and Ukraine, New Years Eve takes precedence over Christmas. Christmas in Russia and in most other Orthodox nations falls on the 6th of January, based on the old Russian calendar. On that day people prepare the dish called ‘kutja’, a sort of rice porridge with raisins. They bring it to their neighbors who give money in exchange. This is similar to the Epiphany in Belgium when children go from door to door dressed as the Three Wise Men to collect money, candies and sweets. As under the Soviet regime Christmas was not celebrated, as religion was not allowed, New Years Eve became the main celebration. This is why in Russia, Ukraine and also Belarus presents are given on the 31st of December during a big celebration and a large meal. This is also when ‘Ded Moroz’, or the local Santa Claus, comes to visit. However, he is very different from the traditional Coca-Cola Santa. ‘Ded Moroz’ is much more serious. He arrives with his beautiful granddaughter ‘Snegurochka’ or ‘Snow Maiden’ and he takes his job of finding naughty children very seriously. He is usually dressed in a dark blue or green robe, has a very long grey beard and is tall and skinny. He does not fly through the sky, but actually rides his slay on the ground and enters through the front door. The arrival of the New Year is celebrated with dancing and singing.
Nowadays Bulgarian, Belarusian and Ukrainian families also celebrate the 24th of December. They organise a vegetarian dinner (although in some cases fish is acceptable) to celebrate the end of the 40 day fasting period which precedes Christmas in the Orthodox tradition. People normally wait for the first star to appear in the sky, symbolizing the Bethlehem star, before starting their meal.
In Bulgaria, a special kind of round-shaped bread is prepared and the person who bakes it hides a small coin inside. The oldest male member of the family splits the bread into pieces, one piece for each member of the family, even if the person is not present at the table. Then everyone starts looking for the coin in his piece of home baked bread and whoever finds it will have good luck in the coming year. A similar thing is done for New Year's Eve when ‘banitsa’ is prepared (a sort of pastry with cheese filling) and small slips of paper are hidden in it, with wishes written on them by the members of the family. Each individual at the table chooses a piece of the ‘banitsa’, finds the tiny roll of paper hidden inside and reads out his 'luck'. Certain families write very artistic and poetic wishes, some just write key words like 'travel', 'passionate love', 'marriage' 'adventure' etc. On the 25th itself, which is the first day after the long lent, people gather for a substantial meat-based lunch during which they drink rivers of red wine. In smaller places and villages, groups of boys walk around the village and pat villagers on the back with a special decorated stick while singing well-wishing songs. In return families give them small gifts, food, fruit, even small amounts of money. This is normally done for New Year's although in some villages this takes place around Christmas.
In our modern world, these traditions sometimes sound like a lot of superstition. In these countries however, Christmas represents a new beginning, the end of a cycle that has been completed, a time that is not only about food, drinks and wrapping paper.
I wish all Nouvelle Europe’s readers a happy new year!