Black Thomas and Yule Hay

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!

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From Varja to Juta: Name-day calendar for Dec. 4 through 10

So many names!

As I go over the Estonian name-day calendar, I find so many unfamiliar names. Some of them are out of date and were seldom used during my lifetime. There are trends in name-giving in Estonia, just like there are in the United States and other countries.

Remember back in the late 1970s, when it seemed as though every baby girl was named Jennifer, and every baby boy, Scott?  In the 1980s names like Tiffany, Ashley, Courtney and Jason became popular.

My 1969 high school classmates mostly had names like Barbara, Patricia, Susan, Linda  or Donna. You never see anyone naming their daughter Barbara or Susan now. The boys in my class were called William or John or Robert or Mark. Male names tend not to vary over the years as much as female names.

Last year, in 2012, the top five girls’ names in the U.S. were Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia and Ava. The top five boys’ names were Jacob, Mason, Ethan, Noah, and guess what? Good old William is still up there at number 5.  http://www.behindthename.com/top/

Looking over the top 50 girls’ names for last year, I found only one – Elizabeth – that appeared among my classmates. By contrast, there were 10 boys’ names in the top 50 that I recall from high school.

No Estonian names?

Now here is a curious thing. The Estonian website nimi.ee shows the top names for boys and girls for the month of October, 2013, and not a single one of the most popular names was of Estonian origin; the closest anyone came was with the name Kristjan.

The top 10 boys’ names in Estonia two months ago (in order of popularity) were Martin, Kaspar, Marten, Daniel, Gregor, Robin, Kevin, Mark, Aleksandr and Artur.  For girls, they list Maria, Sofia, Elina, Karolina, Laura, Melissa, Adele, Alisa, Elizabeth and Mia. A few of the top  names, notably Gregor, Aleksandr, Sofia and Elina, indicate the significant number of Russians living in Estonia. http://www.nimi.ee/?m1=3

Barbara on December 4

On the Estonian name day calendar, we begin with Dec. 4 and variations of the name Barbara, this being the feast day of St. Barbara.

Estonian names for the day are Barbara and its Estonianized variants Barbo, Parba, Varve, Varja and Varju. In his book Elavad Nimed, author Raivo Seppo adds the male names Paabu, Paap and Paapu and female names Parba, Parbara, Parbu and Varbu as additional Estonian adaptations of Barbara. Varja and Varju have an additional meaning in Estonian: shade.

The website Behind the Name says Barbara originated from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), meaning “foreign”.  St. Barbara is believed to have lived in either Turkey or Egypt during the 3rd Century CE.

December 5: Selma

The Dec. 5 names are Selma and Selme, both female. Seppo’s book adds Selmar, which I presume is masculine.  In Finland, the name for the day is also Selma; in Latvia it’s Sabine. 

There is a St. Sabbas or Sabas, a 5th Century abbot who founded monasteries in Palestine, who is honored by both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions this day.  However I doubt Selma and Selma were chosen for this day because of the saint.

Behind the Name says Selma comes from the male name Anselm which contains the Germanic elements god and helmet.

St. Nicholas on December 6

Who else but Jolly St. Nicholas would be the namesake for Dec. 6?

Estonian names for the day are Nigulas, Nigul, Nikola, Niilas, Nils, Klaus, Laas, Laus and Niilo, all masculine names derived from Nikolaos, the original Greek version of the name.

But wait,  there’s more! Seppo’s book includes the following derivatives:  Klass, Klaes, Klais, Klaos, Kleis,  Laes, Lais, Laos, Lass, Lauks,  Miglas, Migu, Migul, Migulas, Miilas, Miklas, Nigis, Niglas, Nigles, Nigol, Nigolas, Nigu, Niil, Niiles, Niiku, Niklas, Nikles, Niklus and Niss.  Estonians certainly know how to get the most out of a name, don’t they?

None of these Estonian  names is female, though in other languages there are feminine variants of Nicholas such as Nicole, Nikki, Nicolette, Colette, Coline, Nicoline, Lina, Nika and Nikolasa. http://www.behindthename.com/name/nicola-2

According to Behind the Name,  Nicholas and its variants come “from the Greek name Νικολαος (Nikolaos) which meant “victory of the people” from Greek νικη (nike) “victory” and λαος (laos) “people”. Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century CE bishop from Anatolia who, according to legend, saved the daughters of a poor man from lives of prostitution. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and merchants, as well as of Greece and Russia. He formed the basis for the figure known as Santa Claus (created in the 19th century from Dutch Sinterklaas), the bringer of Christmas presents. http://www.behindthename.com/name/nicholas

Sabiine on December 7

It’s tough to follow a popular act like St. Nick. The Estonian names for Dec. 7 are Sabiine, Piine and Sabrina, all feminine and based on the name of an ancient Italic tribe called the Sabini. 

The names were probably assigned to this day because they somewhat resemble  the above-mentioned  St. Sabas as well as St. Savin, honored Dec. 7, and St. Sabinus, who is honored Dec. 11. Seppo includes the nicknames Piina, Sabi and Ine as well. Piina has an additional meaning in Estonian: to torture.

Külli on December 8

Külli, Küllike, Külliki, Külve and Külvi are the Estonian names for Dec. 8. All are feminine. In Finland, the corresponding names for the day are Kyllikki and Kylli. Finns use the letter Y in place of the Estonian  letter Ü, but the pronunciation is approximately the same.  These names are based on a character in the Finnish national  epic called the Kalevala. Kyllikki was the wife of Lemminkäinen, one of the major characters in the tale. The names stem from the word küll, which means enough or plenty.   I don’t know why those names are assigned to Dec. 8.

Raido on December 9

Dec. 9 is for the male names Raido, Raidu, Raigo, Raiko, Raid, Rail and Rait. Seppo adds the name Raidur.

I tried looking up saints’ names to see if any of them bore a resemblance to today’s names, but didn’t find any.  I have absolutely no idea why these particular names were assigned for Dec. 9. If someone reads this and knows the answer, please post a comment about it.

It’s likely that this set of names originated from Raido, one the alphabet runes used by various northern European peoples including the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Danes and other Germanic tribes. Estonians used these runes as well. This image of Raido is pasted from http://www.runes.info/images/16raido.jpg

Raidō, which means ride or journey, “is the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name of the r-rune of the Elder Futhark, the oldest form of runic writing. Other names for this rune include rad, reið and raidho,” according to Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raido

December 10: Juudit, Juta

The Dec. 10  names are Juudit and Juta, while the Finns have the similar name Jutta for that date.  The German name-day calendar has Jutta on December 22, presumably in honor of  St. Jutta of Diessenburg, whose feast day it is.

Juudit of course is from the biblical Judith. The Coptic Church honors her  on Sept. 17.  According to Wikipedia, the name Judith  is from Hebrew: יְהוּדִית, Modern Yehudit Tiberian Yəhûḏîṯ; meaning praised or female Jew, and is the feminine form of Judah, according to Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Judith

Next week I’ll write about Daniel, Aivar, Lucia, Eho, Kalli, Adelheid, Rahel and their Estonian variants.