Old Country Christmas
Born in 1937, I was about four or five when I first remember Christmas in my country of birth. Estonia in the early 1940's, at least where we lived in the outskirts of Tallinn, could well have been a scene from the 1840's. We had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Our house was an old handyman special which my father bought with the intention of remodeling. There was an old fashioned pump in the backyard, our only supply of water. We had chickens and lots of vegetables and fruit trees. My mother's mother cooked, cleaned and did all the household chores. She kept an eye on the children. My brother was a year older than me and my sister a year younger.
When winter arrived, the grownups stuffed cotton in the cracks of the windows to keep the icy breezes from getting in. On cold wintry mornings I well remember watching the amazing patterns of ice crystals on the panes. Grandma's hot oven with freshly baked breakfast bread called Kohmakas, tempted us to go in the kitchen, not only to get warm, but to eat the delicious bread and probably coffee. My parents did not restrict us from drinking coffee, tea or fermented beverages called Morss.
We went to church on Christmas Eve, bundled up with scarves, hats, thick coats, muffs, mittens and gray felt boots. I remember sitting on a sleigh being pulled by a horse and looking at the starry sky as we headed to the church and back home.
Then came the scary part of the holiday. After father brought a freshly cut fir tree into our living room and mother decorated it with apples, candles, tinsel and angel hair, he left on some errand. Fear welled in my heart because I knew what was coming - the Old Christmas - Jouluvana. It was the Estonian version of Santa Claus and he was dressed in old clothes and a beard.
He was so scary that I hid under the bed. He did have a sack full of gifts but each child had to recite a poem before he or she got a gift. In reality, it was a happy scene, but in my childish mine I did not connect this Jouluvana with being my father dressed like an old man.
Seems to me that those early experiences of having to memorize poems helped me later in life to focus on my memory and especially became interested in poetry. It also taught me that one has to make some kind of effort before receiving a reward. That's an important lesson in life even today.
What kind of gifts did we children get? As I remember, we got paper dolls, coloring pencils and a kaleidoscope. There were no dolls or teddy bears or little red wagons for the children. Each child however had an apple tree planted in the backyard and each of us had a pet chicken. My brother's chicken was called Nipernaadi, mine was Madrilla and my sister's was Tuti.
The war destroyed our home and our country in 1944 and we scrambled through Europe trying to find a safe place. It was then I noticed how different Christmas customs were from what I had known. One place had a man called Saint Nicholas, who would come before Christmas and put ashes in the children's stockings if they were bad, and nuts and cookies if they were good. He came weeks before the Christmas Man - the one with the red suit and happy disposition. He never put ashes in anybody's stockings and everyone looked for him with expectation. In that area the women would begin to prepare cookie dough weeks before the holiday, using all kinds of spices like ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. The cookies were very thin, dark brown and to me, they did not taste very good. To this day I do not like spice cookies.
A very special Christmas during those war years I will never forget. My mother gleaned kernels of wheat from among the sand on the floor of a warehouse and made porridge out of it. Then she dug for some pinkish looking salt and sand chunks and cooked them to white salt crystals. She walked miles to a bakery and sold the salt to the baker. What little money she got was used that Christmas to buy each of us children a fish shaped hard candy. That piece of candy was so special, considering the circumstances, that no present since that time has left quite as much of an impact on me.
Today I am an empty nester, living in a free country which I am glad and proud to call my home. I don't have a big Christmas tree nor does the family gather around to open presents, but I will always remember the special fuss my parents made to honor the birth of Christ, whether in time of war or peace.