Bird Droppings from Estonia: Christmas in Britain then, Tartu now
Arvamus 24 Dec 2012 Hilary BirdEWR
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The spirits have returned, slipping way into the flickering autumn shadows without disturbing so much as a leaf. Only the animals saw them go. What made the dog, the cat or the bird perk up and look at something behind you that you could not see or hear? Where are they now, our ancestors, as the Time of Spirits, hingedeaeg, has gone and Christmas, Jõulud are waiting for the cue to go on stage? Well, I like to think that the old ones are slurping their ghostly beer in their ghostly local pub, telling tales of how they frightened the life out of Auntie Tädi Mari but, no matter how hideous they were, they could not make any impression on young Margus or Mari-Liis and how there was a traffic jam when too many witches on broomsticks took the wrong path somewhere over the isola di morte (island of the dead) in the Venetian lagoon...

Christmas was a simple affair in the UK after WWII. There was little money and my parents had to save all year to afford small presents for me (a book, an apple and orange, walnuts, a hand knitted jumper), to buy the Christmas dinner and a small tree for the front window of our little house. Decembers in Bristol, UK, were much colder in the 1950s than they are in this age of global warming and we were more likely to get snow.

Despite the weather, I remember how my dad rode his bicycle out to a farm near the city and came back with a chicken! This was in the days before cheap factory farmed birds (ugh!) and chicken was an unusual treat. Mum took out the innards for Mickey the cat that gobbled them down because his usual meal, before the days of packaged cat food, was scraps from the table. The bird was stuffed with a mixture of butter, breadcrumbs, sage and onion, cooked on December 25th (the day the British eat their Christmas meal) and eaten with potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts smothered in ‘brown sauce,’ a gravy made of the chicken and vegetables juices and corn flour.

The second course was a Christmas pudding - Charles Dickens would call it ‘plum duff.’ This truly great British dish is made of raisins, currants, candied peel, a sour apple, grated orange and lemon skin and juice, flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, suet (the fat around animal organs traditionally used in British steamed puddings), brown sugar, bread crumbs, eggs and ‘stout’ (strong porter). Stout is the ancestor of Estonian dark beer – it was brewed in the 18th century by Thrale's brewery in London for export to the court of Catherine the Great; it became popular in the Baltic region and was copied using local ingredients and brewing traditions.

British pudding ritual dictated that the mixture be stirred and a wish made while throwing in a small, octagonal three-penny bit (long since gone out of use). The mixture was then doled into china bowls lined with cloth, steamed for several hours and the puddings kept for a year before being eaten. Ours were stored in the larder in the kitchen. I once read a story by Jüri Parijõgi (Katkine kruus) that featured such a cupboard, one with deep shelves that was always cool – how this triggered memories! The pudding finally met its end when served up with egg custard - in richer houses it would be doused in brandy, set briefly alight and served with cream. I once made a Christmas pudding for some of my Estonian relations. I don’t think they quite knew what to make of it. They liked the port wine that went with it, though…

The English term Christmas (“mass on Christ’s day”) is young, and refers to the Christian nativity - Navidad in Spanish, Natale in Italian, Noël in French and Рождество (Razhdyestvo) in Russian —while the German Weinnachten means ‘hallowed night.’ The earlier English name for the winter feast was Yule (probably derived from Anglo-Saxon geōl), and this, of course is very close to our Jõulud, Finnish Joulu and Jul in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Yule is a reminder of the 5th century migration of Germanic peoples to Britain from what are now Scandinavia, the Netherlands and north Germany at the end of the first phase of the European ‘migration of peoples,’ during 350 – 700. This was a good time for Estonians when the predators who came later were all too busy becoming Russians, Germans, Frenchmen and Turks to poke their noses into our squabbles with the neighbours (mainly Latvians and Swedes). In those times a ‘Yule log’ would have been an entire tree, brought in with great ceremony to provide warmth for the 12 days of Christmas. Nowadays a ‘Yule log’ is a French cake – a bûche de Noël – a sponge cake, covered in chocolate, sprinkled with icing sugar and filled with buttercream …

The festive tree is a reminder of ancient rites the world over. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen trees and garlands as symbols of eternal life and, even in Christian Scandinavia, a tree was set up for the birds and the house and barn decorated with evergreens to scare away the devil during Christmastide. The first decorated Christmas trees, with sweets for apprentices and children, were introduced by the medieval guilds. In Old Livonia the Brotherhood of the Blackheads put up their first tree in 1441 in the guild houses of Tallinn and Riga. The tree was taken to the Town Hall Square on Christmas eve and the Brotherhood members danced around it. Later, in 1584, the Tallinn chronicler Balthasar Russow wrote (in Chronica der Provinz Lyffland – Chronicle of the province of Livonia) of an established tradition of setting up a decorated spruce in the market square where young men "with a flock of maidens and women, sang and danced before setting the tree aflame."

Well, that’s it for 2012! I am off to the Tartu turg for verivorstid, to be served with crackling bacon and homemade jam, ahjukartulid and hapukapsas on 24th December. Then on 25th December kass Jelli and I will have chicken and (cheating!) a Christmas pudding purchased in Marks and Spensers, Tallinn, and all washed down with Christmas porter from A. Le Coq! We wish you all a very merry Yule - Jõulud and a happy new year!
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