The hours of darkness

Thinking about the shortening days as we approach Winter Solstice, I decided out of curiosity to look up how short the days are way up north in Estonia.

In Tallinn this morning, December 12, the sun came up at 9:09 a.m., and set at 3:30 p.m. — it’s already night there. That means they only received 6 hours and 11 minutes of daylight. It’s difficult to imagine what that’s like.

And they’re not at the shortest day yet, either. The sun will come up later and later, reaching its latest rising of 9:19 a.m. and continuing to rise at that time until January 1.

The earliest sunset will be at 3:19 p.m., from December 14 through 18.

And the shortest day, a day with merely 6 hours and 2 minutes of sun (if they should be so lucky — it’s generally cloudy at this time of year, if not actively raining or snowing) will be December 22, the day of the Solstice.

I don’t know if I could take that much darkness. I seem to be solar powered, energetic when it’s sunny and slothful on gray days. I definitely have seasonal depression, and from October through February must use a high-intensity lamp and take vitamin D in order to function normally.  How did my ancestors manage with so much more darkness on winter nights?

My cousin’s husband sensibly pointed out that Estonia receives the same total amount of daylight and night per year that every other place on Planet Earth receives, only it is arranged differently.

And it’s true. I’ve been in Estonia twice near the Summer Solstice, when it never fully becomes dark. They experience 18 hours and 39 minutes of light between sunrise and sunset.

It’s amazing watching the oft-considered-gloomy Estonians perk up as they bathe in all that sunshine. Elation is the best word to describe it.

Naturally the biggest holiday in Estonia is Midsummer, starting in the evening on June 23 into the following day. People build bonfires and light them, sing traditional Midsummer songs, dance, eat and drink all night.

In the old agrarian days they drove cattle through the bonfire smoke, believing it would protect the herds from illness or injury.

But for now, darkness reigns. The wings of night enfold us, help us turn inward, dream.





Reflections on helkurs

I give up. What’s a helkur?

First of all, it’s pronounced HELK-er.  It’s something that helks.  That’s not particularly helpful, is it?

One might say it’s a magic token that protects the bearer who roams abroad in the long winter darkness.

It’s made from plastic.

It usually comes with a couple of inches of string and a tiny safety pin.

People in Estonia must wear helkurs, as prescribed by law, when walking along the roads on foggy nights and during the dark part of the year. As of January 2011, those caught without them at night risk getting ticketed and fined.

In other words, a helkur is a small piece of reflective plastic that reflects light on both sides. Estonians pin them to the sides of their coats, pants or jackets in such a way that they can be seen from both front and back. They must hang at about the height of an adult’s knees, the better to be seen in the glare of automotive headlights. It is recommended that they wear several helkurs to ensure that at least one of them reflects back to the oncoming driver’s vision.

Helkurs must be visible to drivers from at least 130 to 150 meters distance, according to European Union safety standards.

Oh, and the Estonian work helk means glimmer.

Since winter nights are long and dark this far north, helkurs are considered life saving devices by various government and law enforcement officials. But try telling that to some stubborn Estonians who accept change at about the same pace that the glaciers moved when they retreated northward.

Our close ethnic relatives, the Finns, have been promoting use of reflective safety tags since the 1960s, but currently only a third of the population wears helkurs in urbanized areas, with about 66 per cent compliance in rural areas. Since they were introduced, these reflectors have been improved greatly through the development and use of lightweight prismatic film.

When use of pedestrian reflectors started in Finland, there were about 300 pedestrian fatalities a year. In 2002 there were  only 40 pedestrians  killed on Finnish roads.

In European nations that require use of safety reflectors for pedestrians, the number of nighttime accidents involving pedestrians has decreased by 60 to 70 per cent. That’s a heartening statistic. I couldn’t find any good statistics for Estonia’s pedestrian accidents and fatalities.

I found out about helkurs in 2010, when I visited my cousin Anne in Estonia. She explained that they were developed as a pedestrian safety measure, particularly for people walking along unlit country roads where the roadsides consist of perhaps eight to ten feet of snowbanks. Estonians walk a lot more than Americans do, and authorities were concerned that too many pedestrians were getting injured or killed by motorists.

There have been annual  give-away and promotion campaigns to encourage the use of these safety devices. One manufacturer calls them inexpensive life insurance.

Helkurs come in a vast number of shapes and designs, and can be ordered with company logos or symbols of various organizations. My own helkur bears the image of Marge Simpson from the cartoon Simpsons family.  D’oh.

Sometimes the Estonian media  gleefully announce that so-and-so was killed by a car while wearing three or four helkurs, which just gives the recalcitrants more excuses not to bother with them.

As someone who often has to drive my husband to the Metro station at 6 a.m., I’d love to see these reflectors worn by our neighborhood dog walkers, joggers and folks heading to the bus stop.

It would be nice if the local deer would also consent to wearing them.  The area where I live is called Derwood, but once it was called Deerwood, and not without reason. We have hundreds of them roaming the upper reaches of Rock Creek Park and surrounding neighborhoods. They eat our tulips, azaleas, pansies and hostas. They rub their antlers against the trunks of young trees, sometimes killing them. I am not fond of deer.

And they have this unpleasant tendency to stroll across the road in front of you when you least expect them. When I was driving my daughter to 4 a.m. swim team practices along unlit, heavily wooded roads coated with invisible black ice, there was nothing I dreaded more than encounters with  roving deer. So far I’ve avoided colliding with them, but you never know. One collided with my neighbor’s fence last night and broke two of the fence posts.

And so it goes.




Just noticed that today is December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, called nigulapäev (Nicholas Day) in Estonian. Saint-days are not capitalized by Estonians.

The Estonian name-day calendar lists today’s names as Nigul, Nigulas, Niilas and Niilo.  Also Nils, Klaus, Laas and Laus.  All derive from the name of Nikolaos of Myra, the 4th Century saint who became known as Sinterklaas by the Dutch, and eventually developed into our American Santa Claus, who dwells in every shopping mall from Maine to Hawaii. He is currently the patron saint of Mastercard.

My first husband’s father, whose name was Nicola, the Italian version of Nicholas, didn’t celebrate his own birthday. Instead, like many native Italians, he celebrated on his name-day, St. Nicholas Day.

The original Nikolaos, who was the Greek bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, was called the Wonderworker for his many miracles.  He had a reputation for secretly giving gifts such as coins, in shoes that people left out for him.  He is revered by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The saint’s relics, including his bones, eventually wound up in Bari, Italy. Several years ago these bones were studied by a forensic lab which found that the man was about five feet tall and had a broken nose.

In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas Eve, Dec. 5, is when children place their shoes in front of the chimney in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave gifts in them.  Children are given presents on the eve, and small gifts are found in the shoes the following morning. This day is still more important than Christmas in the Netherlands, and is also celebrated by German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch immigrant communities in the United States.

The shoe custom exists in much of Central Europe. Today’s Christmas stockings are an echo of this tradition.

In Estonia, nigulapäev is considered the beginning of winter, because under the old Julian calendar it occurred on December 19, close to the winter solstice. Legend says that on this day, the eagle falls from the tree because its claws lose their grip due to ice.

It is mainly celebrated by Estonia’s small Orthodox community as a religious festival.

In the olden days, December 6 supposedly shared similarities with the folk customs of mardipäev (St. Martin’s Day, November 10.) I don’t know whether this included the mardipäev tradition of dressing as beggars and going door to door for treats.  Today,  young Estonians still  go begging on Nov. 10 and receive coins and treats such as Snickers bars.

Are we not Mehkas?

Discovered something interesting the other day. It turns out that my father’s ancestors lived in a teeny-tiny area in southeastern Estonia called Mehkamaa.  Which means Land of the Mehkas.  It consists of two villages called Saru and Mõniste (pronounced money-steh) and the area around them.

O frabjous day! Does this make me a Mehka too?

Not quite.

My brother might call himself a Mehka, but I would be a Hipp.  Really. And no smart remarks about that, thank you.

The men in Mehka Land are called Mehka, roughly the equivalent of our American catch-all nickname Joe, as in “Hey Joe”, when you don’t know the fellow’s real name.  In Scotland, the all-purpose mens name is Jimmy, as in “Pass the whiskey, Jimmy.”  Or “Hey, Jimmy.”  But Mehka can be a genuine first name. Several  of my ancestors were named Mehka. However I strongly doubt the name is used today.

The origin of Mehka is a mystery. It could be related to mehis or mees, which means man-like or man. One source claims that it might be a variant of Mihkel, which is the Estonianized version of Michael. Lots of words that are spelled one way in standard Estonian undergo a sea change in the Võro dialect in southeastern Estonia, acquiring extra  õ’s or letters such as q and y, which never appear in regular Estonian. Võro is spelled Võru in Estonian. The name Mehka appears only in one small area of Võro, and is not found in the rest of Estonia.

The origin of Mehkamaa, however, is a sad story.

Suffering serfs

According to the book “Võrumaa ja Võrulased”, edited by H. Kasesalu and published in 1986, which I acquired either from my late father or from my aunt in Estonia, the tale grew out of the extreme hardships experienced by the Estonian peasantry in the 17th Century.  Võro in those days was part of Livonia, which consisted of southern Estonia and northern Latvia, and included Estonians, Latvians  and Livonians under  the unwelcome rule of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword.

Livonia, called Liivimaa (Sand Land) by the Estonians, was home to a Finnic-speaking people and existed long before this military order of German “warrior monks” (What an oxymoron!) was created in 1202 by Albert, bishop of Riga to forcibly convert the pagan Livonian, Curonian, Semigallian and Latgalians who occupied the area.

These  Finnic and Baltic speaking tribes did not take kindly to giving up their belief in the Latvian and Lithuanian sun goddess Saule, or Estonian  gods such as Pikker, Peko, Uku and Ahti, not to mention the many earth, water, fire and sky spirits that populated their surroundings and guarded their homes.

Just 34 years later after they were founded, the Sword Brothers were nearly wiped out by the Samigotians of Lithuania, joined by Latgalians, Livonians and Estonians in the Battle of Saule, Saule being the aforementioned sun goddess.


In 1413, the Samigotians of western Lithuania became the last group of Europeans to be forcibly converted to Christianity.  The conversion, however, was not altogether successful. Lithuanians to this day maintain an active pagan faith called Romuva, a surviving folk religion practiced not only there, but in Lithuanian immigrant communities around the world. Saule is their principal goddess.

Estonians have two much less widespread pagan faiths, Maa Usk (Earth Faith) and Taara Usk, which centers on the deity Taara, possibly related to Scandivanian Thor.

As an aside, my paternal grandfather practiced Taara Usk during a revival in the early 1900s.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, wrote around the year 45 that the Baltic peoples worshiped the mother of the gods, which may or may not have been Saule.  But more on Saule in another post.

Getting back, the surviving Sword Brothers joined the Teutonic Knights  in 1237 and proceeded to wreak revenge, conquering all of Livonia, Courland and Semigallia.

Meanwhile, in 1261, Estonia, which lay north of Livonia,  was completely subjugated by German and Danish crusaders, who imposed taxes and duties and built manor houses all over the place. The church demanded additional money from the natives and repressed their old folk religion.

Pagan rebellion

On St. Georges Night, April 23, 1343, the indigenous  (and thoroughly indignant) Estonian pagans rose up in battle against the Christian religion  and their hated Danish and German rulers and landlords.  Although initially successful, the pagan rebellion was quashed three years later by the invading Teutonic Order.  That year, 1346, the king of Denmark, Valdemar IV, sold the unruly Duchy of Estonia to the Teutonic Order for 19,000 Köln marks.  More information:

At any rate, the hapless Livonians subsequently got tossed back and forth for centuries among the Teutonic Order, the Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians. The country was finally split between the new nations of Estonia and Latvia after the first World War. From 1918 to 1920, both Soviet Russian and German troops fought against Estonian and Latvian troops to control Livonia, but were defeated.

But as usual, I digress.

The 17th Century was rough on the long-suffering Livonian peoples and particularly so in the Võro region, where two generations of warfare (1558 to 1629, the Swedish-Polish war), plague (1657), and massive crop failures (1695-97) decimated the peasant population even as oppression by the manor lords increased.  In Mõniste, there was only a single survivor, a man called Mehka.

Lonesome Mehka

The lonely Mehka wandered from farmhouse to farmhouse, calling out and searching for signs of human life, but finding none.  When he reached a nearby community called Saru,  his cries were finally answered. A woman’s voice called back.

The woman’s name was either Hipp or Hippõ (Hipp-uh). She and Mehka lived together in that empty land, and their descendants were joined by people from other areas to repopulate the region. The communities of Saru and Mõniste together are still called Mehkamaa, or Mehka land. A number of folk songs tell the story of Mehka and Hipp.

In 2006, there was a Mehkamaa family tree exhibition to mark the 620th anniversary of the founding of Mõniste, called Mendise (also Menzen), in 1386 by the von Uexkülls, a Baltic German family of nobles. It is believed  they took their own name from Ikšķile, a Latvian  town in Livonia.  That name comes from the Livonian word ükskül, or üksküla  in Estonia, which simply means one village.  It may mean the first (German) village.

My family tree searches turned up several Hipps and Mehkas on my father’s side, which is why the section in the book “Võrumaa ja Võrulased”, captured my attention.  I have no idea whatsoever if I’m descended from the original Mehka and Hipp who repopulated Mehkamaa.

To an American, these are very odd names.

But wait, it gets weirder. A not uncommon endearment for women in Mehka Land is Hipõkõnõ, according to the online Võro dictionary.  The Hipõ– is a variant of Hipp (of which there are many) and the -kõnõ is the Võro version of the common Estonian suffix -kene, which means little one, dear one, and so forth.  In other words, dear little Hipp.

My parents sometimes used the diminutives Anitakene or Kikukene, Kiku being a self-given nickname when I was too young to pronounce Anita. At around age 12 I threatened everyone with death if they ever called me Kiku again. Now I’d love being called Kiku.  Alas, nearly everyone who called me Kiku is long gone.

When my Aunt Aino in Estonia was going over the family tree with me some years ago, she said her grandmother’s name was Hip, not Epp as I had assumed. I’ve met Esto women called Epp, but had never heard of Hip or its variants. Born in 1853, her maiden name was Hip Rebbane or Rebane, the surname meaning fox, a common last name in that area.  Hip married Jaan Kalkun (which means John Turkey) and was the mother of my paternal grandmother, Emilie Kalkun Susi, who died eight years before I was born.

Okay, so where did Hip come from? I thought it was a version of Epp, which I thought was a short variant of Elizabeth, but apparently I was mistaken.  The Võro-Estonian dictionary, helpfully  defines the possibly related words hebo and hipi as edustaja, eputaja. Looking those up, I gather they mean, roughly, achiever and show-off. Hebo further means pirtsutaja, a fussy or picky person. Whether they are the roots of the name Hip, I don’t know.

This name also carries the variants Hebbo, Ebbu, Hipe, Hepp, Ipp,  Eppu, Epu and Ebu, Ebu being the version in Tartu County where my mother hailed from.

Epp= Joyful?

I’ve also seen Epp described as a very old Estonian name meaning rõõmsat (joyful) and possibly edevat (coquettish).

However Raivo Sepp’s fascinating book “Elavad Nimed” (Living Names), which I picked up on my last visit to Estonia, makes the claim that Hipp and its variants come from the Greek name Hippolyta, after the queen of the Amazons.  I cannot figure out how Estonian peasants got hold of a name like that.  Sepp says Eufrosiine, the Estonian version of Greek Euphrosyne, (Goddess of Joy,one of the three  Charites or Graces) gave birth to the Estonian names Ebu, Epp, Epru, Hebu, Hepp, Hipp and Ipp as well as Roos, which I thought was a version of Rose.  Greek Hippolytus, Sepp says, yielded the male names Hipp and Ipp.

Male names? I am definitely getting confused!

I grudgingly suppose the Greek names could have come north through the Orthodox Church, but it does not make sense that illiterate peasants would have even heard of them, let alone borrowed and shortened them.  There is an interesting theory that the Finnic peoples once inhabited most of northern Europe and ran a brisk trade in amber with the peoples of the Mediterranean, leading to cultural exchanges few today suspect.  But more on that another time.

My wild guess is that Epp may have distant  roots in Epona, the Gaulish goddess who protected horses. Inscriptions dedicated to Epona are found in the Danube region of Germany, throughout the Roman Empire and in Celtic countries. Her Roman feast day was December 18. Epona and hippus, the Greek word for horse, are closely related.  But I will keep searching to see if there is more to learn about the origins of Hipp, Epp, et al.

Mango? Peep?

During these  ramblings through the internet, I came across some names that used to be distinctively southern Estonian in 1840: Margus, Ebbo, Mango, Toots, Kaabriel, Albert and Jaak. Mango! I KNEW southern Estonians were an odd bunch.

Margus is a version of Markus, Ebbo is a male version of Ebbu/Epp/Hip, Mango stems from Magnus, aq Latin name meaning “great”, Toots (pronounced like Totes) is from Theodoric, Kaabriel is naturally Gabriel, Albert is Albert and Jaak is a form of Jacob.

Around the same time, the denizens of nearby Viljandi rejoiced in names such as Epp and Peep. These were not pronounced Eep and Peep.  Peep, pronounced like pape, is a short version of Peter.

And with this, my alter-ego Hipp, whose ancestors and ancestresses dwelt in distant Mehkamaa, signs off for today.