The Winter Solstice, that still point in the turning year before the days begin once again to lengthen, is today.
My Old Farmer’s Almanac for 2013 says winter begins 11 minutes past noon, which means the last minutes of fall are slipping away as I write. It doesn’t feel like fall or winter outdoors; the thermometer reads 62 degrees Fahrenheit, as though it were early May. Tomorrow the forecast for Washington DC, just 15 miles from my home, is for a balmy 72 degrees. Welcome, winter!
In Estonia, December 21 marks the start of Yuletide, which we call jõuluaeg, jõulu being our word for yule. Alo Raun’s useful Eesti Keele Etümoloogiline Teatmik, aka the Estonian Etymological Handbook, says the word jõulud originated from an Old Swedish word, iul. Yule is also the pagan word for the Winter solstice.
It is also Toomapäev, the day of St. Thomas the Apostle, from the days when Estonians were Catholics, prior to the Protestant Reformation.
Toomapäev is considered the real start of the yuletide celebrations. In order to peacefully usher in the holidays, homes underwent a “seriously major cleaning,” (my translation) according to Lauri Vahtre’s book, Maarahva tähtraamat. The walls and ceilings were cleared of soot and grime; hence the phrase “Must-toomas välja!” (Black-Thomas out!)
Our friend Must-Toomas, undoubtedly named after the saint, was also known in some parts of Estonia as Tahma-Toomas, which also meant Black-Toomas;or as Tolmu-Toomas (Dust-Thomas) or Nõgi-Toomas (Soot Thomas), according to an article on the remarkable website http://www.folklore.ee. The article, “Clothed Straw Puppets in Estonian Folk Tradition” was written by Ergo-Hart Vastrik in 1991 and translated into English by Mati Limberg in 1997. Link: http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol7/metsikx.htm
Sometimes the collected dust and soot was added to straw and old rags to fashion a kind of poppet figure. In doing so, the female head of the household, the perenaine, symbolically tied into it all the bad luck, illness, grievances and dirt of the house. Then she secretly carried it to a neighbor’s house, under cover of darkness, and placed it next to a door or window. The neighbor, naturally, would not want Sooty-Toomas on her property either, so the figure was carried from house to house in the community over the course of the holiday season. Sometimes the poppet was called Christmas Toomas or New Year Toomas.
These straw poppets were still made as recently as 1987, according to Vastrik’s article, from which this excerpt is borrowed:
“Most accounts concerning the making of the figures at this time came from the parish of Juuru… In Juuru, the custom was viable for a longer time than in the neighbouring parishes – the rite was carried out in Orguse and Härküla villages as late as 1987 … In 1929, the making of the New Year’s figure was described as follows:
“A figure of a man – Tahma-Toomas [Ash-Thomas] – is made of straw and old clothes and taken on New Year’s Eve to someone’s yard. The man has a letter in his pocket: my name is Tahma-Toomas. No one wants to have him in his yard by the morning, but takes the man to the neighbour’s yard. This is done to spite others. Once neighbours really started quarrelling and started throwing the figure over the fence until it was all tattered. The household in whose yard Tahma-Toomas is left by morning will not be able to work properly in the new year and their house will be dirty. When I was a child it was not done. Younger people started doing it. Tahma-Toomas or nääritaat [New Year father] or jõuluvana [Christmas elder]. ”
Of utmost importance in the Estonian household, was the requirement that the Yuletide beer had to be ready before the 21st. If not, it was believed that Black-Toomas would get into the beer and ruin it.
Doing work other than cleaning was unlucky on the 21st of December. Spinning was forbidden, as was grinding grain with a mortar and pestle (probably to honor the grain goddess, since much of the day’s ritual centered on grain and beer).
When all the household was clean, the Yule rye-hay was brought indoors and scattered on the floors. In the distant past, this was done to honor the grain fairy/goddess/spirit, who brought joy and well-being to the household, according to Kustas Põldmaa in his book Nurmed ja Niidud.
To symbolize the grain fairy (or goddess), the female head of the household wove an elaborate yule-crown from fir branches, straw, reeds and/or pine roots, decorated with colored egg shells and wood shavings, in which candles were lit. (A virtually perfect fire hazard, if ever there was one.)
The male head of the family traditionally carried hay into the reha or grain drying room, flinging it up to the rafters. If a lot of the hay got caught up in the rafters, tradition held that there would be a good crop of grain the following summer .
Of course today’s Estonian name for the day is Toomas (Thomas) and it’s variations. Toom, Tom and Tommi. Raivo Seppo’s book Elavad Nimed adds the names Maas, Toomes and Toomus.
Wishing you a blessed Yule, a clean home, beer without soot in it, and an abundant crop of rye in the coming year!