Jõulud is — actually I should write are, because the word jõulud is plural — the most important holiday(s) in Estonia. The holiday period lasts from St. Thomas’s Day, December 21, to January 6, Three Kings Day or even longer if the Yule beer lasts.
The word jõulud is the equivalent of Yule – it means Yules. Both the words jõulud and Yule harken back to the pagan festivals of feasting and honoring the return of the sun at midwinter that preceded Christianity and Christmas.
When we speak of midwinter and midsummer, it does not refer to a day in the middle of the period from Dec. 21 and March 21, or a day in the middle of the period from June 21 and Sept. 21. In some pagan concepts of time, winter, or the cessation of the growing season, is said to begin around the fall equinox and last until the spring equinox. Likewise, summer means the six months, more of less, when plants grow, flower and go to seed between the spring equinox on or about March 21, and the fall equinox, on or about September 21 in the Northern Hemisphere.
In other words, midwinter is the day halfway between the fall and spring equinoxes, the day of the winter solstice, which usually happens on or about December 21. Midsummer is the day of the summer solstice, on or around June 21.
Variations of the word Yule or Jul are used in place of the word Christmas in Scandinavian countries, including Finland. I note here that before 1316 CE (Common Era), the Finns called the summer solstice Ukon juhla. Ukon refers to Ukko, one of their old pagan gods, (Uko or Uku in Estonia) and juhla means celebration. I presume juhla means the same thing as jõulu, which would lead to the conclusion that Yule originally meant nothing more than “celebration.”
According to Wikipedia:
“Yule is the modern English representation of the Old English words ġéol or ġéohol and ġéola or ġéoli, with the former indicating the 12-day festival of “Yule” (later: “Christmastime”) and the latter indicating the month of “Yule”, whereby ǽrra ġéola referred to the period before the Yule festival (December) and æftera ġéola referred to the period after Yule (January). Both words are thought to be derived from Common Germanic *jeχʷla-, and are cognate with Gothic (fruma) jiuleis and Old Norse (Icelandic and Faroese) jól (Danish and Swedish jul and Norwegian jul or jol) as well as ýlir, Estonian jõulud and Finnish joulu. The etymological pedigree of the word, however, remains uncertain, though numerous speculative attempts have been made to find Indo-European cognates outside the Germanic group, too.” Much more about Yule at this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule
I’ve also run across speculation that the word Yule might be connected with Yalda, an Iranian holiday that takes place on the winter solstice, usually December 21. It celebrates the victory of light over darkness, and the renewal of the Sun. The word Yalda means birth, and at one time it marked the birth of the Zoroastrian god of light Mithras. More information: http://www.farsinet.com/norooz/yalda.html
Mithraism became popular among members of the ancient Roman military, and they celebrated the birth of Mithras on December 25. This holiday was called Natalis Solis Invicti (nativity of the unconquerable sun.) Eventually that date was adopted by the Christian church as the official date of the birth of Jesus.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the evening of December 24 is when Estonians celebrate Christmas. In many pagan traditions, as well as in Judaism, holidays start at sundown on the evening before the official day.
In Estonia, December 24 is called jõululaupäev, which literally means “bath day for Yule.” In the past, Estonians headed for the saun, steamed off the accumulated dirt of work and the big house cleaning that took place on December 21, and put on fresh clothes. Some still do this. Some attend an early church service at 3 or 4 pm, then head home for the traditional dinner of roast pork. sauerkraut and blood sausage. The holiday officially starts when the first star is sighted in the sky.
The Yule Elder, jõuluvana, is Estonia’s version of Santa Claus, and brings presents while the family is at church. During the Soviet years, when religious observances such as Christmas were forbidden, a secular holiday took place on New Year’s Eve, and gifts were delivered by Father New Year.
(This was going to be posted on December 24, 2013, but the holidays got a bit hectic. I am just now recovering from jõulud and the subsequent Polar Vortex.)