Mardipäev and soul time in Estonia

When I was a kid,  I asked my mother whether she dressed up in costumes and went trick-or-treating as a girl in Estonia. She told me – to my horror – that there was no such thing as Halloween when she was growing up.

Instead Estonian kids rubbed soot on their faces or put on a bedsheet and went knocking on a few neighbors’ doors on mardipäev (Martin’s day), though it was not widely celebrated like American Halloween.

Today, November 10, is mardipäev in Estonia.

Originally  celebrated on November 11, it honors St. Martin of Tours and is celebrated in many parts of Europe. In Estonia it was a relic from the time when Estonians were reluctant Catholics, forcibly Christianized in the 13th Century. Some time after the Protestant Reformation, however, the Estonians cleverly got back at the Roman Church by switching the date to November 10, Martin Luther’s birthday, and honoring Luther instead.

Mother didn’t get into the saints and Martin Luther business, and I didn’t care about it anyway. What I wanted to know was the burning question: did they get candy?

The horror: no candy

Of course they didn’t get candy. The poor deprived Estonian kids of the 1920s and 1930s might have gotten an apple or a few nuts from a homeowner, but certainly nothing like the Tootsie Rolls, candy corn, sticky homemade popcorn balls, candy apples, Snickers bars, lollipops, Hershey bars and other goodies that my brother and I hauled home in pillowcases after a hard evening ringing doorbells.

On trick-or-treat nights we usually brought along decorated school milk cartons to collect coins for UNICEF, and turned those in to our grade school teachers the next day. Our costumes were improvised, simple and homemade. Boys often wore  cowboy hats and carried their toy six-shooters. Girls frequently dressed as nurses or princesses. Some moms (almost nobody’s mother worked outside the home in the early 1960s) sewed or helped make their kids’ outfits.

I felt great pity for my mother and her school friends, deprived of the opportunity to devour vast quantities of candy once a year. They also missed out on the joys of Goosey Night, October 30, which is when kids in our part of North Jersey put on dark clothing and ran around ringing people’s doorbells to annoy them, or writing on car windows with soap. I presume this was intended as a warning for homeowners to stock up on candy or risk additional tricks the following night.

What on earth did they do for fun back in my mother’s childhood? I couldn’t begin to imagine.

Souls’ time – the time of the ancestors

According to various students of Estonian folklore, Martin’s day was part of a longer interval known as hingedeaeg, soul’s time, when the spirits of our ancestors and departed loved ones are near us. Some say this period began with mihklipäev, St. Michael’s Day, September 29,and concluded with kadripäev, St. Catherine’s day, November 25, or even on Christmas Eve.  Others believe the time of souls started at hingedepäev, All Souls’ Day, November 2, and ended on mardipäev, November 10.  (Let me note here that Estonians don’t capitalize the first letters of many words that we would capitalize in English. They also don’t use the word saint in mentioning a saint or saint’s day. Instead, it’s mihkel’s day, kadri’s day, martin’s day and so on.)

Soul time  is that bleak part of year when the growing season’s done,  the leaves have fallen, the nights have grown long and dark and winter is on the doorstep. Contemporary wiccans and pagans in America call this the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grows thin, and the beloved dead walk among us.

In many cultures around the world, this is a special time to remember the departed. In Mexico, November 2 is known as Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when families create altars and deck them with colorful flowers, candles and skull shapes made from sugar.  They picnic in cemeteries, bringing the favorite foods of those they honor and love.

In Estonia, the departed are remembered throughout souls’ time rather than concentrated in a single day, according to historian Lauri Vahtre’s “Maarahva Tähtraamat”, published in 1991.  This little pamphlet describes the important days of the calendar year as observed by the maarahvas — the people of the land. Once maarahvas was what Estonians called themselves, but now it seems to include an element of paganism. Tähtraamat literally means importance-book and is a sort of calendar/almanac. The first such calendar book written in the Estonian language was called “Eesti-Ma Rahwa Kalender”, published in Tallinn in 1720. The title means Estonia-Land Folk  Calendar. It was an almanac noting feast days, the length of day and night, moon phases,  eclipses, and best days for planting, harvesting and undertaking other farm work.  Here’s a link (in Estonian) to more information about tähtraamats from the Saaremaa Museum. http://www.saartehaal.ee/2013/02/25/tahtraamat-labi-kahe-sajandi/

Ancestor worship

Vahtre  explains that the traditions of mardipäev and souls’ time developed from ancient pagan traditions of ancestor worship. All Souls’ Day, she writes, originated in 998 C.E. at the Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France and was initially only celebrated by the Benedictines. But because the annual autumnal remembrance of ancestors was widely practiced in much of Europe, the Catholic church turned that tradition into a Christian holiday.

All Saints’ Day, the church holiday preceding All Souls’ Day, is virtually unknown in Estonia. But the Tallinn city archives  show that All Souls’ was observed as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was regarded as an observance strictly for city-dwellers. The country folk, who marked the longer period called souls’ time, held specific rituals either on souls’ day or Thursdays during souls’ time. Thursday was regarded as the holy day of the week by pagan Estonians, but whether this tradition stemmed from the Taara religious cult, analogous to Scandinavian Thor worship, I do not know. Thursday is, naturally, Thor’s Day.

Fire up the saun, the ancestors are coming

The most important way to honor the ancestors was to fire up the saun (the Estonian word for sauna) and set out special foods for them, either in the saun or the house, sometimes beneath a sacred tree. The head man and woman of the household named their forebears one at a time and invited them to the feast. In return, the ancestors were asked to protect the fields and herds. At the end of souls’ time, the ancestors were thanked and wished well on their journey back.

The foods most often served to the ancestors were barley porridge, boiled meat and broth, beans and peas,  writes Kristi Salve  in an article for the Estonian website Folklore.  Link: http://www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/sator/sator2/Moningaid.html

Beans and peas were also traditionally served at wakes and funerals.

Interestingly, the ancient Romans and Etruscans believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. The Romans used beans and peas to invoke the manes, benevolent spirits of the dead, during Parentalia, a festival honoring ancestors held February 13-21. One wonders whether there is some connection between this tradition and the Estonian custom of offering legumes to the ancestors at souls’ time.

Traditionally, joking, laughing, shouting, noise and noisy work like tree-cutting were banned during souls’ time, as was spinning, according to an article edited by Mariann Joonas in last week’s Telegram online newspaper.  Link: http://www.telegram.ee/vaimsus/hingedepaevast-ja-hingedeajast

In the Middle Ages, children went from house to house, singing and begging for soul-cakes. A prayer was said for the benefit of the ancestors in exchange for each small cake. This soul-cake custom still exists in the British isles and other places, Joonas writes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, children in the Mulgi region of Estonia dressed in white  and went from door to door, though not specifically begging. Nevertheless, they were given cakes, nuts, beans and peas in memory of departed ancestors.

Hing, the Estonian word for soul, also means breath. The ancestors of the Estonian and Finnish people believed that souls existed not just in humans, but in animals and in all the rest of creation.  They believed that the soul, or a portion of it, could leave the body during sleep, sickness or unconsciousness, visibly or invisibly, sometimes as a soul-creature such as a bee or butterfly. At the time of death, the hing might enter a new person, animal or bird, go somewhere else, or remain close to its former home, according to Joonas’s article.

And so I conclude by wishing blessings to you and your ancestors at this souls’ time.

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