Things to know
The life-style of Estonians is directly linked to the character of Estonians, the weather and different seasons. In winter Estonians tend to be more home- and work-centred, while summer is a time for active open-air activities and vacations in the countryside. Estonia has an excellent infrastructure of cultural, social and sporting facilities. Throughout the year there is a wide range of activities and events striving to meet and even exceed expectations of local inhabitants and their international guests.
Greeting and kissing
On first encounter, foreigners may be surprised to find that approaching Estonians with warm hugs and kisses has just the opposite effect from creating an open and friendly atmosphere. Most of them at that awkward moment think – just a hand-shake would have been enough…Estonians do not tend to go to extremes with emotionality and sentimentality: opening up and trusting others on a personal level takes longer than with some other nationalities. But foreigners are advised to be patient in order to find an easy-going and fun conversation partner, a generous host and a faithful friend, who will give his or her warm hug only to special people at special moments.
The Estonian language has been accused of being a deliberate effort to create a language that is impossible to learn. The Estonian language has 14 cases, but the use of prepositions is relatively simple. Estonian belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages and is therefore probably easier for Finns to learn than it is for others. To compensate for the number of cases, words have no gender, which you would have to memorise and the use of tenses is fairly simple. Estonian is unique for the letter “Õ”, which features in many words connected with happiness (õnn) and joy (rõõm).
St. John’s Eve and Christmas Eve (24 Dec) are the most important holidays in Estonia. Christmas, celebrated after the winter solstice, falls in the darkest period of the year and is primarily a family-centred holiday. Both the old and the young stand by a decorated, candle-lit Christmas tree waiting for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Afterwards, they all sit down to a festive dinner, which usually consists of roast pork, black pudding with cowberry jam, and sauerkraut with roast potatoes.
On the evening of 23 June, Estonian cities become half empty. Everybody who can do so travels into the country in order to celebrate one of Estonia’s most significant holidays- St. John’s Eve. On that night darkness lasts for only a few hours. Hundreds of bonfires are lit all over Estonia, people sing and dance around them, and when the flames have died down a bit, those who are brave enough leap through them to shake off the year’s evils. St. John’s (Midsummer’s) Day marks the longest days and the shortest nights of the year, and the customs relating to it go back to pre-Christian pagan times.
Other ancient customs, which relate to the time of year, are still practised. On Shrove Tuesday, in February, adults seize the chance to go sledging together with their children, on the pretext of the old custom. On St. Martin’s Eve (9 Nov.) and St. Catherine’s Day (25 Nov.), children in costumes go from house to house, earning sweets with their singing and dancing.
In addition to these festivities, Estonians also have 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 mild thaw and 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.
Several Christian holidays receive much less attention and importance in Estonia than in many other European countries. Easter is celebrated by many only with colouring eggs and only Good Friday and Easter Sunday are days off. Estonian school holidays do not depend on the time of Easter.
The tradition of Song Celebrations goes back to the year 1869, when male choirs and brass bands came together to celebrate being Estonian. Modern Song and Dance Celebrations include all types of choirs and national dance groups. In the last Song and Dance Celebration in 2009 34 000 performers participated and performed before an audience of 200 000.
The Song and Dance Celebrations unite the folk and celebrate being Estonian. Taking place only every 5 years, they are a special event not to be missed.
Modern cuisine, eating habits, food, and ways of cooking in Estonia are similar to those in other Nordic countries.
Depending on the rhythm of life, different Estonians also have different preferences in meal times and meals. Typically Estonians have a light breakfast before going to work or school. Between noon and three o’clock they have their most important meal of the day, lunch.
At lunch, some prefer red meat and potato porridge, thick flour or bacon sauce. Others might prefer light soups, salads, pasta, chicken and fish dishes. Pizza and American and Chinese fast food are also available. Dinner usually takes place around six or seven o’clock in the evening. Since people have more time, they might use it to relax and enjoy a hearty meal or they might have a small snack before or after working out in the gym.
Traditional meals include barley porridge with sour milk, boiled unpeeled potatoes with curds or salted Baltic herring or smoked herring. On festive days butter, brawn, roast pork, sauerkraut, fried cabbage or black pudding are served.
The traditional dishes and customs are still in use during the more significant festivals of the folk calendar, the most important being Christmas. Practically every Estonian is still very fond of black rye bread.
Shoes off rule
It is considered polite in Estonia to take your shoes off when entering somebody’s home. This rule should be ignored only if you are clearly said to leave your shoes on. This has mostly a practical reason as the streets are either muddy, wet or covered with snow for at least half of the year. Walking around in your muddy or wet shoes would make the floor quite dirty. Taking outdoor shoes off when going inside is also more hygienic during summer. Changing your footwear inside is obligatory in many day-care centres and schools. At the office this is rarely the case, but changing your shoes might still be more comfortable in winter, as winter boots might be too warm for a whole day inside.