Estonia may be one of the least religious countries in the world – only 20 per cent of the population said religion played an important part in their life in last census – but when it comes to religious holidays, Estonians generally give the nod or combine it with one of their own folk traditions.
Easter, commemorating the crucifixion and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus – a Jewish preacher and religious leader who became the central figure of Christianity – may have had a completely alien connotation for Estonians before the Teutonic Knights brought Christianity to the country in the 13th century, but in Estonia’s folk calendar, Easter is celebrated as a spring holiday to welcome the arrival of the lighter and warmer season.
Once the Christian customs mixed with the local traditions, a new set of habits emerged over time.
In the folk calendar, Kevadepüha or spring holiday falls anywhere between 16 March and 20 April in the week leading up to Easter. Traditionally, this week was important for completing household chores, such as cleaning after a long winter. The weather during the week could apparently predict the climate for the summer. If it was raining, a wet summer was to follow and if there was fog, a hot summer was in store.
Judging personalities by egg colours
Good Thursday was considered a partial holiday in preparation for Good Friday. Lighter meals were consumed and everyone rested on Good Friday. It was a rare occasion that anyone actually left their houses on that day.
Much like today, Easter Sunday was a day full of festivities. This was usually the day when eggs were exchanged or given as gifts. Young people would meet at the nearby village swing and girls would give the Easter eggs they decorated to the boys as a thank you for building the swing they would then spend their afternoon on.
The traditional way is to decorate eggs by boiling them wrapped in the outer skin of onions, resulting in a range of brown, yellow and golden hues, but many people would also let their fantasy fly and paint the eggs in vivid colours.
According to the Estonian folk calendar, the colours have meaning: pink – gentle, green – hope, blue – fidelity, yellow – falsehood and grey – balance. Girls would let the boys choose an Easter egg and depending on which colour they chose, the girls would then be able to judge their personalities.
The egg knocking competition follows, in which each of the participants has an egg and whoever breaks the shell of the competitor’s egg without cracking one’s own, will be crowned the winner.
Cover: a vintage Estonian Easter card from the 1930s. Sources: Estonian Folk Calendar and Estonian World. * This is an amended and updated version of the article first published on 25 March 2016.