It’s Estonian Women’s Day – have some red beer!

Today, February 2, is popularly known as Groundhog’s Day in the U.S., but unfortunately, the fun is generally over after the drowsy rodent has seen/not seen its shadow and predicted more winter/early spring.

However in Estonia, Küünlapäev, literally candleday (Candlemas) is an all-day festival for women, who head out to pubs and quaff red-dyed beer or vodka, while the men stay behind to mind the children and do the housework.

What a great idea! I always knew Estonians were geniuses, especially Estonian women. Moreover, this holiday is not just some brainchild of modern-day Estos – it’s been a tradition for perhaps centuries.

February 2 is also known by the name naistepüha or women’s holiday. Women put on their best clothes and necklaces, and went visiting or dancing at local cafes and pubs.  The special beverage of the day is called naistepuna, which literally means “women’s red”. This is beer or another alcoholic beverage colored red.

St. John’s Wort flowers

The word Naistepuna also happens to be the Estonian folk name of a plant called St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum in Latin. Traditionally women gathered the plant’s bright yellow flowers during the summer solstice and dried them to make red dye for the Candlemas beer.

Many of you may have heard that St. John’s Wort is considered an herbal treatment for depression, especially by people in northern Europe.  It makes me wonder if the dried flowers were put in the beer on purpose to relieve the gloom of a long northern winter and cheer the women up.  Estonian women still drink red beer on this day, but I believe it’s usually done with food coloring.

The Open-Air Museum outside Tallinn, Estonia, featured a program today in which visitors got to make candles from sheep fat, taste traditional foods and sip St. John’s Wort tea, which supposedly made people’s cheeks rosy. Pink cheeks were considered sign of good health.

In Toronto, Canada, home to a large population of Estonian immigrants and their descendants, members of Estonian women’s academic organizations will probably celebrate their 53rd annual Candlemas event this weekend.

Traditional beliefs of February 2

Traditionally, this day signifies that winter is half over, and that half the food stored for winter should still be in the larder and the barn.  Like Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas was a day for forecasting weather. A rainy day was supposed to predict a rainy summer, while a sunny one meant a dry summer.

All of the women’s winter spinning had to be finished before this day, since it was forbidden for women to spin on Candlemas, lest the sheep get sickly weak and attract wolves.  Sewing was allowed in southern Estonia, where each stitch represented a poke in a wolf’s eye. Almost all other housework was prohibited, maids got the day off, and wages were paid. People ate flitch (unsliced bacon) and barley porridge.

It was believed in Estonia that candles burned brightly on this day.  Candlemas was a Christian holiday when the church candles were blessed for the coming year. In pre-Christian times, candles and fires were used in rituals and magic to honor goddesses and gods of fertility.

The Exalted One

In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began as a pagan goddess, Brid or Brighid. St. Brigid remains the most celebrated and revered figure in Ireland next to St. Patrick. Sometimes this day is also called Midwinter Day, because it falls midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

Fire and purification are an important aspect of the ancient pagan festival of Brid (pronounced breed). In the Celtic world, she is also called Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. It is believed the name comes from a root Sanskrit word Brahti meaning “The Powerful One” or “The Exalted One”.

Brid was the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. Both goddess and saint are associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. On her day, the home was cleaned, old ashes removed from the fireplace, and new fire kindled.

Brid originally was a sun and fire goddess, and this is reflected in her legends: she was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. She was patroness of healing wells and springs, because the fire of the sun was believed to give the water healing properties at certain times of year.

In Pagan belief, the divine aspect of the feminine is associated with water, abundance and fertility. There are wells dedicated to Brigid throughout the United Kingdom, with Brigid’s well in Kildare being the most revered. People cast offerings such as coins, rings or bits of metal into wells. In a 19th century survey it was found that Ireland was home to nearly three thousand holy wells. Of these, at least fifteen are dedicated to St. Brigid.

Wives’ Feast Day

In Northern England and Scotland this day is known as Wives’ Feast Day, which sounds a lot like the Estonian women’s festival. Other members of the household cook dinner for the lady of the house, and she is given small gifts and honored as keeper of the hearth and home. It looks like they’ve got the right idea, but do they drink red beer?

In ancient Rome, Midwinter Day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of the god Mars. The word Februare in Latin means “to purify”. Fires were lit for purification, and candles were blessed and burned in her honor. Women carried candles in street processions in memory of Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone, as told in the Greek myth. Determined to stop goddess worship, Pope Sergius I in the year 453 ordered February 2 to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, forty days after she had given birth.

No matter which name it goes by, February 1 and 2 are celebrations of fertility, the divine feminine, and the awakening of the earth that eventually leads to spring. And, let’s not forget, it’s a day when women can and should celebrate themselves.

Life on two planets

Have you ever felt as if you inhabited two vastly different planets at the same time?

That’s about what it felt like growing up in two separate cultures, speaking two languages, playing by two sets of rules.

The Estonian part of my childhood involved automatically demonstrating great respect to anyone older than me, making a slight curtsey when I was introduced to an older person, recognizing that teachers and older people were always right, and so on.  I was to call all adults Mr. or Mrs. (Härra and Proua), or Aunt or Uncle (Tädi and Onu) if they were family friends, even if they were not related to us. I was pretty good at that stuff, Little Miss Polite herself.

But I had to keep all this excruciating politeness a dark secret from my American classmates, who would have laughed until they were sick. The day someone in the school cafeteria told me I ate like a chipmunk, I realized it was time to develop a façade of slobbiness in order to fit in. I put my elbows in the table and struggled to chew with my mouth open, even though, somewhere, Miss Manners wept.

My finest moment as Miss Polite came when I accepted my high school diploma and, shaking hands with the superintendent of schools, automatically curtsied, unable to stop myself. I still hope nobody noticed.

You will be assimilated

I’ve often thought of myself as too Americanized to be very Estonian, but at the same time loaded with too many peculiarities marking me as the child of Estonian immigrants to be a normal, average American. I’m sure there are many of us who have felt this way, just as immigrants’ children from many nations feel divided between cultures. In some cases, partially Americanized kids are required by their parents to wear special clothing in school, visibly indicating that they are different. Some are barred from dating or speaking with the opposite sex. Some must study hard at all costs to escape getting beaten at home for bringing home a B on the report card.

Luckily, Estonian-American kids didn’t have to face the hurdle of ethnic clothing, except for my little misadventure with stumpy shoes. We also don’t look different physically from average Caucasian Americans, except that some of us are a bit blonder.  In those respects we’ve been able to assimilate into American life much more easily than immigrants of other races and skin hues.

At the same time, there are rarely more than a couple of Estonian-American kids attending the same public school, because there simply aren’t that many of us. I was the only one in my school, except for my younger brother and briefly a girl his age who was half Estonian. She went to a different high school. It would have been lovely if there had been a few more of us, just to spread the weirdness around a little.

It was not easy explaining to my few close friends that I spent hours every other Saturday at Estonian school in Paterson. Or that we spoke a different language at home.  Or that I couldn’t join Brownies or Junior Girl Scouts, because I was an Estonian Girl Guide with a blue uniform and a white neckerchief. I so envied the normal American girls who wore their brown or green scout uniforms to school one day a week.

My secret identity

I had two lives, my public striving-to-act-American one, and my secret Estonian one. The differences became harder to balance as I got into my teens. In public school, I was an incredibly shy goody-goody nerd.

In my secret life as an Estonian girl, I was kissing boys at summer camp by age 9 or 10, expanding my vocabulary of cuss words, sampling cigarettes, and getting sips of beer from the older kids. At age 14, in 1966, I was going to New York City alone, riding the subways to Greenwich Village in a fruitless effort to see real hippies, or otherwise exploring the city. By then I was hanging out with a group of Esto friends, drinking beer at a bar near the Estonian House that didn’t card us. In New Jersey, the legal drinking age was 21, 18 in New York. I doubt my American classmates were doing this sort of stuff yet.

In high school I starved all week, eating nothing but a bag of Fritos and an orange for lunch every day, in order to save bus fare for Friday-nighters at the Estonian House. There we practiced folk dancing, mingled and had fun.

On Monday mornings I, SuperEstoGirl, put on my disguise as a mild-mannered loser who never got asked to parties or dances, and slunk back to high school for another boring week. I kept my Estonian life strictly separate, because I didn’t want to get a reputation as a wild partier, even though I was about average for an Esto kid in the 1960s.

How many other children of immigrants possess secret identities, struggling to appear as normal as possible in school, while keeping their families happy by dressing and behaving according to their ethnic traditions? For some kids the challenges are far more difficult than they were for me. We’ve all read about parents who punish or even kill daughters for stepping outside their cultural boundaries. This is horrifying. If parents are so hell-bent on keeping their children insulated from American life, why come here in the first place?

If one brings a family here so the kids can attend American public schools, one can’t expect those children to remain permanently immune to outside influences. I’m not saying that American culture is without flaws; there are plenty of things I’d like to see changed here if I could wave a magic wand. I’d love to see less violent television and movies, fewer video games, less material spoiling of children. And I wish there was a serious nationwide effort to eliminate the vicious bullying that too often makes school a nightmare for some kids. I’ve been there.

Victim of ignorance

Perhaps my worst experience as an immigrants’ child was in third grade. My mother came to a parent-teacher conference, during which she attempted to explain to the ignorant old bat who taught our class that we were Estonians. For some reason the teacher concluded that we were Russians, even though my mother tried patiently to explain that we were not. But to the teacher, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, therefore we were Russians and godless Communists, and therefore Enemies of America.

From then on, that horrible hag singled me out and picked on me every way she could. She looked hard for ways to criticize me. I remember one day she asked the class to name all the root vegetables. I raised my hand, was called on, and said “Parsnip.”  She loudly told me there was no such thing, that I meant parsley, and she implied that I was very stupid. When I tried to write a poem about a bird, she loudly criticized it in front of the class (which backfired on her because it made me determined to write poetry. Ultimately I ended up giving poetry readings in college, getting a few things published in tiny literary magazines at college, and selling two poems to Cosmopolitan magazine years ago. So there, Miss M.)

The rotten teacher made me the class scapegoat, and the following year she  kicked me out of the school harmonica band on a pretext, in front of all the other kids. Her treatment led to my getting picked on by the meaner kids in the school, and this bullying lasted all the way to my senior year in high school. There were times I considered suicide because of it, but I was determined not to give my tormentors the satisfaction. The bullying was not related to my secret life as an Estonian, even though it started with the fact of being Estonian. Heaven help me if my schoolmates had ever found out about that.

I was never allowed to fight or talk back, because I was supposed to be Miss Polite Little Estonian, and when I wept about it to my mother, she told me that they were just jealous because I was smart. Hold your head up high and rise above it, she said. Not good advice. She or my dad should have shown me how to talk back and encouraged me to make fun of them on the playground. But that solution would not have been acceptable to my parents, nor would it have occurred to them. Good Esto kids did NOT talk back to anyone, ever.

Instead, I grew up wary and distrustful of people, even among my Esto peers. When one of the most attractive boys in high school asked me out, I refused, because I was sure he was doing it to make fun of me, and that if I said yes, others around me would burst out laughing. It didn’t enter my head that as a relative newcomer to town, he didn’t know about my history as a scapegoat, and just wanted to ask me on a date. (Sorry, Peter S. )

How many of you, dear readers, have stories or anecdotes about your life on two different ethnic planets? If you’d like to share them, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

Nigulapäev

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.