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.

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:

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:

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.


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.

Struggling to turn American

I dreaded my mother’s visits to our school.

Normal American moms were a common sight at Pines Lake Elementary School. They came for teacher conferences and volunteered in classrooms back in the day when the majority of moms didn’t go to work.

Much as I loved Mama, around 4th or 5th grade I grew deeply embarrassed by her clothes, which positively screamed “I am an immigrant from someplace weird,  and not your normal American mom.”

That headscarf she wore, for example. She called it a babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.  It was a big square cotton scarf, folded in half diagonally, the ends tied under her chin, and the other corner resting  on her back.  You know, the Eastern European peasant look. Mama wore scarves outdoors most of the time, except in summer. I didn’t know anybody else at school whose mother wore a scarf like that.

The scarf wouldn’t have stuck out too much in Paterson, the nearby city where we lived until I was in first grade. Our old neighborhood was full of women who were recent immigrants. I remember seeing them hang  laundry and  converse over backyard fences in other languages, probably German, Dutch or Polish.  Our landlord, who lived upstairs from us, was Polish.  My mother fit in fairly well there, since she was fluent in German and knew some Polish, but my family moved to the suburbs for better schools and a bit of yard around the house.

Stumpy shoes with laces

In addition to the scarf, Mother always wore a dress or a dark skirt and a pullover, with  Hush Puppies shoes on her feet.  Usually she sewed the skirts herself. I never saw her in slacks until I was in college. Outside the house, she often wore stumpy leather shoes that laced up the front, with thick heels like the ones worn by nuns and old ladies.

Worse yet, she insisted that I wear similar stumpy shoes that laced up the front, only mine had a lower heel. She found them in some unimaginable shoe  store that seemed to specialize in ugly footwear. The shoes she picked out for me were, she said, of  good quality, good for my feet,  and would last a long time. (She was right about that last part, as I’ll explain.)

Normal American girls at school wore black patent maryjane shoes, penny loafers or something along those lines. Maybe kids somewhere in Estonia wore stumpy shoes that laced, but I attended school in Wayne, New Jersey, less than 20 miles from New York City, and I would almost rather have died than be seen wearing those shoes in public.

I was bullied and scapegoated at school, and knew for certain that wearing those shoes would make me even more of a target for mockery.  For the first time in my life, I objected to an order from my mother.

Wear them or else

The way my brother and I were raised, an Estonian kid didn’t ever argue back to parents or elders. Mother had no idea how much I suffered in school, nor did I dare tell her. She would have tied on her headscarf and marched to the school principal to complain, like she did when I was in third grade.  And later I would have felt repercussions from the other kids.

My mom’s response to my objections was “too bad” or whatever the equivalent Estonian phrase was.  She pointed out again that the shoes were expensive and of good  quality, so I had to wear them.

At this point, I felt I had little choice: wear the dratted shoes and be jeered at by classmates, or get sneaky. I got sneaky.

Every school morning in fifth grade I clomped out of the house in stumpy shoes, down the path through the woods to school. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, I put down the horrible big briefcase she forced me to carry, and took out a pair of tan canvas Kedettes, a slightly dressier version of Keds sneakers that she let me wear in the summer. I changed shoes in the woods every day, reversing the process  going home. It was not possible for me to petition for shoes like the other girls wore. We didn’t have the money, and that was that.

After a summer of blessed release from the obligation of wearing stumpy shoes, I started sixth grade, and somehow was allowed to acquire a pair of loafers. I wore them to school constantly. Mama complained that I never wore those nice, good quality stumpy shoes any more, even though they looked practically as good as new — as though they had never been worn!  I quietly said they were ugly and out of style. Unfortunately they still fit me, because I didn’t grow much.

Lime green stumpy shoes

Mom’s response was to buy a bottle of shoe dye in a particularly noxious shade of lime green, and paint the shoes to jazz them up. Now they looked more modern, and I could wear them in style, she said,  flourishing them in front of my horrified eyes.

Back I went to subtle resistance, smuggling loafers out of the house and switching shoes on the way to school. If life was tough in elementary school, it was nothing compared to the adolescent hormone hell of junior high school.

Around that time my mother started suffering intense back pain and headaches, thought to be arthritis. In consequence, she stopped supervising our before-school routine. Ever the opportunist, I ditched the Green Horrors in the closet, and wore my loafers every day.

I used to nurture a secret grudge against a pair of much-older second cousins, Inge and Olga,  who lived in a nearby town, because their mother gave me their hand-me-down clothes. Not only were the clothes at least eight years out of style, but some of them looked downright  awful to me. I particularly loathed a dark green plaid dress that  was too big for me and featured a small rhinestone poodle on a white collar. Then there were dirndl dresses.

How to look like a yodeling contestant

Dirndls, which are worn in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, have a white blouse with a wide neckline and puffy short sleeves, with a wideish black cummerbund sort of thing and a colorful skirt trimmed with rick-rack ribbon in contrasting colors. When I wore one, I looked like I was headed to a yodeling competition, definitely not like the Normal American Kid I yearned to be.  Those dirndls were meant for kids of average size, but I was small and skinny so they hung on me like flour sacks. Mother and Aunt Hilda thought I looked adorable in them, naturally.

Once Mother became ill, I was no longer forced to wear the poodle dress or the dratted dirndls.  I picked out a few things that seemed  less weird than the others, and made do with those. In 7th grade my classmates wore wraparound skirts, Madras plaid shirts, nylons and black t-strap shoes with pointy toes. In my hand-me-downs I still looked odd, but not quite as odd. Then  I inherited some clothes from my Estonian friend Kati, who was a year older. Her clothes weren’t out of date, to my vast relief.

To be fair, Mama wasn’t any happier among those normal American housewives than I was among their kids.  Most of the neighborhood women had high school diplomas or beauty school certificates, while she was one of the first women to study law at Estonia’s prestigious Tartu University before the war intervened.  Her father had a law degree from the same university, and her grandfather was a professor of theology there.  My mother was cultured, highly intelligent, and spoke four languages fluently. She was bored out of her mind in our community, longing to live in a city where she could visit the opera or ballet, and discourse with other educated people.

There were a couple of German neighbors she befriended gratefully, and she had Estonian friends who lived in other towns. However my father wouldn’t allow her to learn to drive, so the only times she got out of the house were for the weekly grocery trip on Saturdays, or accompanying us to Estonian school and church, rarely to visit friends.  Mama could have been one of the first female lawyers in Estonia, but she was stuck, carless, in suburbia. I’m sure this played a part in the deep depression she endured until  her death in 1975, when she was 54 and I was 23.

Trying to keep us Estonian

I understand now why she made me dress like an Estonian school kid, and why she forced me to bring the teacher a bouquet of flowers from the garden on the first day of school every year, like kids did in Estonia.  She wanted to keep me as Estonian as possible, in case Estonia regained its freedom from the Soviet Union and we could go home.  But my parents didn’t realize that the Estonia they left during the war no longer existed. Estonia changed with the times too.

Immigrant parents the world over want to teach their children their old ways, just in case they someday can go home. And like me, first-generation kids born in the new country get caught trying to balance between two worlds — their parents’ old world, and the contemporary world around them. It’s a struggle for everyone involved.  Especially if your family’s from a tiny country practically nobody ever heard of, and there aren’t other kids like you so you can stick together.

Women don’t drive cars – or do they?

The Old World-New World struggles in my family weren’t limited to clothes. I was never allowed to speak English at home until I went to college.  Worse, my father refused to let me learn to drive, because women weren’t supposed to drive cars. I got a boyfriend to teach me secretly and take me to get my license. Even though my father found out, there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. I’d become an expert at sneakiness with those ghastly green shoes.   Sneakiness to some, self-preservation to others.

I wasn’t supposed to go to college because there wasn’t enough money, and males went before females. I was supposed to live at home and work at some retail job while my younger brother went to college, only it didn’t work out that way. My  grades were good enough to earn me a full scholarship to Northeastern University, and a partial scholarship to American University. My father, however, wanted me to attend Paterson State Teachers College  (now called William Paterson University) because it was cheap, and because I could walk there from our house. This way he could save the cost of room and board, and avoid buying me a used car. Since my second cousins went there and became teachers, Paterson State was considered acceptable.

The application to Paterson State mysteriously disappeared into my school locker  and wasn’t unearthed until the application deadline had passed. Oops, I said innocently.

In addition to the scholarships, I was accepted at the new Livingston College  that was part of Rutgers University. My father grudgingly borrowed the money from my godfather, and I was free at last, free to try to become a normal American college student.

A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

What’s Goosey Night?

If you grew up anyplace in the U.S. other than Passaic or Sussex (and possibly Bergen) counties in northern New Jersey, you’ve probably never heard of Goosey Night. Goosey Night always takes place on the night before Halloween, October 30.

Goosey Night to me meant racing through the blowing leaves on a dark, late-October night wearing one’s darkest clothes, a sliver of soap clutched in my hand. The mission: to leave soapy marks on as many car windows in the neighborhood as possible, before mom called you inside. I had no idea, at the time, that I was taking part in a tradition dating back centuries.

Mischief was afoot

My younger brother loved ringing doorbells on Goosey Night. I’ll never forget the time he rang Mr. Vanderstad’s doorbell one time too many. The irate neighbor ran out in pursuit, spotted me hiding and treated little old innocent me to an angry lecture. A half-century later, my brother is still friends with one of the Vanderstad boys.

The really bad kids in our neighborhood didn’t bother with kid stuff like soap or doorbell ringing; they were armed to the teeth with eggs and toilet paper, or cherry bombs to blow up mailboxes. We would never have dared do those kinds of things. Our mother would have caught us on our way out, lectured us about wasting good food, and more than likely kept us inside for the evening. It was unthinkable for people who had starved in refugee camps to waste eggs by throwing them at houses.

The day after Goosey Night was Halloween, when we put on our costumes and nerved ourselves to ask the same tormented neighbors for candy, if we dared.

Mischief Night and more

When I went to college some 40 miles south, in Middlesex County, I found out that Central Jersey folks called October 30 Mischief Night, and had never heard of Goosey Night. Some years later, in 1977, a magazine called N.J. Monthly published an article about the many localisms that distinguished the speech of New Jersey residents.

Among other things, the article said you could tell what part of New Jersey someone grew up in by what they called the night before Halloween. I don’t recall the details, but in some parts of New Jersey it was called Cabbage Night (Bergen County) or Tick Tack Night (Trenton area). Years later I read that this was called Devil Night in Detroit. Goosey Night was confined to Passaic and Sussex counties, and maybe a few spots in Bergen County. And none of us had the faintest idea where the name came from, or what it means.

As the Internet opens up wide opportunities for researching esoteric topics, I’ve discovered many other names for the night of Oct. 30. Some are from the United States, others from Canada, or the British Isles, where the custom likely originated. This tradition is virtually unknown in some areas of the U.S. such as central Maryland, where I live. My kids and their friends had never heard of it, except from me. But people growing up in the Baltimore area say they called it Gate Night, when it was traditional to steal a neighbor’s front gate and hang it in a tree or someplace where it could be seen and eventually retrieved. Gate Night and Devil’s Night are also known in parts of Canada.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Gate Night is a survival of an old Scottish Halloween custom of taking barn doors off their hinges and doing a ritual in the barn. This is mentioned in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem, “Hallowe’en.”

Other names for Goosey Night include Corn Night*, Doorbell Night, Mickey Night*, Trick Night*, Miggy Night*, Mischievous Night*, Egg Night, Moving Night, Beggar’s Night, Damage Night (Cincinnati, OH) Mat Night (Quebec, Canada), Mizzy Night (Liverpool, UK), and Hell Night. Those marked with asterisks come from Yorkshire, England, along with Tick Tack Night, mentioned earlier. Tick Tack Night has an interesting origin, having nothing whatever to do with tiny breath mints.

Ticktacks explained

In the early part of the 20th Century, ticktacks were noisemakers consisting of notched wooden spools with handles, wound around with string and hung on windows as pranks. When the string was pulled, the spool made a terrifying noise against the window without damaging it. I found this information and much more in The Halloween Encyclopedia by Lisa Moran, a wonderful treasure trove of information about everything related to Halloween. Link:

Cabbage Night may derive from an old Scottish folk custom of telling fortunes by pulling up cabbages around Halloween. In more recent times, kids celebrate the occasion by hurling cabbages at various targets. Corn night involves tossing grain or popcorn at windows. Trick Night, Egg Night and Damage Night are self-explanatory. Mat Night supposedly comes from Mad Night.

In addition to Bergen County, NJ, Cabbage Night is known in parts of Vermont, Connecticut, upstate New York, northern Kentucky, Newport, Rhode Island; and Boston, Massachusetts as well as Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Old-time mischief

Mizzy Night and Miggy Night seem to have evolved from Mischief Night, which is known in many parts of the British Isles. In the 1800s, Mischief Night traditionally took place on the night of April 30, a night known to Celts and modern day pagans as the eve of Beltane. Mischief Night now is on October 30 or 31. Mischief Night activities also take place on night of November 4, known in Great Britain as the eve of Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. This holiday is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks to commemorate a failed plot to blow up Parliament in the 1600s.

In the western part of England and Wales, mischief and pranks were once done on the night before Shrove Tuesday This was known as Nickanan Night or Roguery Night in Cornwall, and Dappy-Door Night in Devon. Traditional pranks included dabbing whitewash on things, smearing doorknobs with molasses, knocking on doors and tapping on windows (a practice called nick nack in parts of the English speaking world), and removing gates from their hinges. Link:

According to the same source, the earliest recorded mention of Mischief Night dates to 1790 at St. John’s College in Oxford.

Playing pranks at Samhain, the Celtic name for a seasonal festival that pre-dates Halloween, is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736, and was also common in Ireland. This led to Samhain, October 31, being nicknamed “Mischief Night”. Link:

Goosey Night

So where did the term Goosey Night come from?

My best guess is that it evolved from the custom of guising or mumming, which dates back to the Middle Ages, when it usually took place during the Christmas season. Guising means dressing up in disguise.

In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, children disguised in costumes go from door to door, performing songs or dances, or reciting poems in exchange for food or coins on October 31, but sometimes also around New Year’s Day.  The ancient Celts celebrated their new year on October 31, so when they began to mark the incoming year on January 1, they must have included some Celtic new year traditions.  This practice of going door to door is still known in some areas of Great Britain and Ireland as guising, but as trick or treating in other localities. The term “guising” was first recorded in North America in 1911 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. A similar English custom, souling, involved singing or begging for soul-cakes on All Soul’s Day, November 2.

According to The Halloween Encyclopedia, guising dates back as far as 1585, when it was done by adults. It is believed to have come from older pagan traditions, and was thought to be a way of deceiving wandering spirits. Modern Wiccans, like the ancient Celts believe the doors between the worlds of the dead and the living are open during the days around Halloween/Samhain.

In Estonia, children go door to door in disguise and sing for treats on November 10, the eve of the feast of St. Martin of Tours. Known there as Mardipäev, St. Martin’s Day, this popular holiday has been celebrated for centuries. Similar Martinmas activities take place in much of northern Europe. For more about these customs, go to

Incidentally, children in some parts of Great Britain go door to door on Guy Fawkes Eve, begging for “a penny for the guy” to kindle the bonfire on which an effigy of Guy Fawkes was burned. The “guy” was the effigy. This tradition probably borrowed elements of guising.

Tonight is Goosey Night, or whatever they call it in your area, if they call it anything at all. Watch out for those wandering spirits in the night.

Tomato sandwiches

Sept. 1, 2012 – This is the time of year when we’re usually deluged with ripening tomatoes from the garden. To my mind, there are few things better to make with this crimson bounty than tomato sandwiches. And thinking about tomato sandwiches reminds me of days at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp in Long Island, where I first learned to make and eat them back in the early 1960s.

I have to give credit to the women who toiled in the camp kitchen, turning out three meals a day on a limited budget augmented by U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus foods such as powdered eggs and oatmeal. They tried to do their best with what they had to work with, in a sweltering kitchen in the middle of July. Usually the food was plain but good. But once in a while they would produce a dish like the dreaded baked eggs and macaroni casserole, made with flavorless USDA surplus powdered eggs, the top crust hard as rocks. This was a dish that could only be choked down with vast amounts of salt and catsup, if at all. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it even with catsup, although some of the other kids seemed to accept it. My brother usually made a mess of half catsup, half egg casserole, and devoured it without a problem.

Having been raised by parents who often went without food in a post-war refugee camp in Germany, I was lectured endlessly at home about not wasting food, cleaning your plate, and so on. My conscience didn’t dare accept a serving of the eggs-and-mac, only to leave it uneaten. On the other hand, I did want something for supper.

Alternatives to the dreaded eggs-and-macaroni casserole

At lunch and dinner, the long tables at camp were usually set with plates of sliced tomatoes and/or cucumbers, as well as small baskets of bread slices. Salt, catsup, mustard and butter were available, and sometimes jars of peanut butter and jelly as well. Sometimes, as an alternative to the main supper dish, they also set out cheese, bologna and salami slices, so there were alternatives if we didn’t like the regular meal. But on those lean days when eggs-and-mac appeared without cold cuts or peanut butter, we carefully buttered our bread and topped it with three or four tomato slices and dined on those.

I was an impatient kid and slapped on the butter any which way. My friend Rita, however, meticulously spread her butter evenly over every bit of the bread. I was usually finished by the time Rita was ready to take her perfect first bite. (This probably explains why Rita had a stellar career as a government banking official in Estonia when it regained its freedom, and why I’ve struggled to find work as a freelance writer since my journalism career came to a close 15 years ago.)

And once in a long while, when there weren’t tomatoes or cucumbers on the table, we made catsup sandwiches instead.

I love Bosco

In the morning, the kitchen ladies often served hot cooked oatmeal or farina. Some unsung genius among the campers developed the trick of stirring lots and lots of Bosco chocolate syrup into the farina to make it palatable. This bit of camp wisdom was passed down from camper to younger camper over the years. Bosco didn’t mix as nicely with the oatmeal, which we usually drowned in milk and sugar. Many of us who were kids in the early 1960s fondly remember Bosco and its rival product, Cocoa Marsh, which made drinking milk so much more enjoyable. I wonder when they disappeared from the stores.

Some little monster, at camp or elsewhere, came up with a parody of the Bosco TV jingle, “I Love Bosco”. It went:

I hate Bosco, Bosco’s bad for me.
Mommy put it in my milk to try and poison me.
I fooled Mommy. I put in in her tea.
No more Mommy, to try and poison me.

Every day a couple of campers were chosen for KP, which meant setting the tables for all three meals, clearing them afterward, washing down the tables, scraping leftovers into a slop bucket, and lugging that smelly bucket out to the woods to the solgi auk (slop hole) for disposal. This was a pit dug in the sandy soil, and covered over at the end of the camp season. One of the neat things about going to the solgi auk was the chance to spot frogs and other wildlife attracted to the food scraps. One of the not-so-nice things, at least to us girls, was the chance of encountering a snake attracted to the wildlife.

One year at camp, some of us felt duty-bound to made life harder for the kids whose turn it was at KP, particularly if we didn’t happen to like one or more of them. We made mini-slops. Someone would leave something on their plate and pass it to the next kid, who would add something else, and so on. The idea was to be as creative as possible. A really good slop would have a liberal assortment of potato pieces, Bosco syrup, cucumber slices, catsup, bread, milk, mustard, jelly and whatever else happened to be served at that meal. It was left at the table as a special “treat” for the hapless kids on KP to deal with.

Trust me, being on the receiving like of a slop was not fun, but there are worse things in the world.

And one of the best things in the world is spreading “real” mayonnaise, the light version, on a slice of good bread, and topping it with dripping fresh sliced tomatoes from your own back yard. A little salt, a little pepper. One bite, and you’re in Tomato Paradise. I can hardly wait for next summer’s tomato season already.

NOTE: This was supposed to be posted on Sept. 1, not in late October.

Circle games

Kids lined up in front of the great hall at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp, Middle Island, NY, circa 1961

I’m the 8th from the left in the second row.
(To view larger image, click on the photo.)

I don’t know quite how they did it.

How did those struggling immigrants manage to pool their money to buy pieces of property in Long Island and elsewhere, and build, with their own hands, the structures that would house community events and celebrations for decades?

How did they manage to pack 50 or more Estonian-American kids ranging in age from 6 to 14 into a pair of two-room cabins and keep them amused and occupied for six weeks every July and August? How did they keep us speaking Estonian in spite of all the American influences bombarding us?

One answer is that there was a fierce sense of determination in our immigrant parents’ generation to keep the Estonian language and traditions alive  — as they were being wiped out in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic — and a burning hope that some day we would all move back to a free Estonia.

Many of our parents never lived to see the day in 1991 when the hated  Russian domination over their homeland was lifted and the immigrants were suddenly free to go back.  They had worked hard to keep their children as Estonian as possible, stretching hard-earned dollars to send us to Saturday schools to improve our grammar and learn our history.

Going home

Some  of our parents did move back to the Old Country. So have members of my generation, the sons and daughters of  the immigrants.  Estonia’s current president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, grew up in northern New Jersey not far from my home town, though I doubt that we ever met. Ilves was one of those who moved back. I’m one who didn’t.

As children we were taught the traditional Estonian songs and circle games of our parents’ generation. Circle  games are singing games played with participants standing in a circle, one or two in the middle choosing partners from the circle, or otherwise acting out parts of the song.  Americans have a few circle games too, such as “Ring Around the Rosy” and “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

The first  Estonian circle game many of us learned was probably “Kes aias”.  Children stand in a circle pretending to be rosebushes in a garden. One child in the center is a bee.  There are the words we sang:

 Kes aias, kes aias?

Mesilane aias.

Mis nimi, mis nimi?

(person’s name) tema nimi.

Käi läbi, käi läbi

Käi läbi roosipõõsaste

Ja otsi kohta kus sa saad

Ja lükka teine sisse.


Who’s in the garden?

Who’s in the garden?

A honeybee’s in the garden

What’s it’s name?

What’s it’s name?

(person’s name) is his or her* name

Go through

Go through

Go in and out the rosebushes

And find a place where you can

And push another to the center.
*Notice that the Estonian language does not use words
for “his” or “her”. Happily, it has an non-gender pronoun
“ta;” “tema” being its possessive and third-person form.
I love this peculiarity of Estonian and have long wished
that we could use ta to replace his and her in English. It
would have made my journalism career simpler.

Let’s say someone named Pat was slightly hurt in a car accident, but his or her car was totally destroyed. We don’t know whether Pat is male or female, so we need to waste time  making phone calls to see if we can find out whether Pat is a man or woman. We may not be able to get this information, because the police officer who filed the accident report is off-duty, and the editor is growling that it’s close to deadline.  It’s hard to fudge this in English. We can write “Pat Smith was slightly injured in a one-car accident on Dale Road yesterday evening, according to Smithville police. Smith’s car was totally destroyed. ”  But that’s too wordy.

Ta did it

If you work for a paper with a stylebook that insists you use Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. in front of a person’s last name, and you can’t find out Pat’s gender, you have a challenge. You work around this by writing   “Pat Smith was slightly injured in a one-car accident, but the car was totally destroyed” and the editor growls  that you failed to mention whether Pat is a he or a she.

How much simpler life would be if you could simply write “Pat Smith was slightly  injured in a one-car accident, but ta’s car was totaled. ”   Why does anyone need to know Pat’s gender, anyway?

Or, in another example, “Bill and Nancy need to take off ta’s shoes.”  There is no need for “his or her”, though it’s usually handled with the word “their” in Americanese, and “tema” in Estonian.

I’m going to start using ta in place of his or her on this blog, in the forlorn hope it will somehow catch on.

As usual, I’m wandering far off the original topic.

 Going in circles

Circle games were some of my favorite things about being raised Estonian. Another circle game we learned was “Üksinda, kõnnin ma” (All alone, I am walking). This one begins with a lone person walking around in the center of the circle, searching for a friend. When ta finds a friend among those around

the circle, ta pulls that person in  and they joyfully dance a polka measure together, that goes “Jah, jah, ja, sind tunnen ma, lähme veel kord tantsima. “ (Yes, yes, yes, I recognize you. Let’s go dancing once again.)

Many of the folk dances we learned at camp or Estonian school were also performed in circles.  One of the easiest was “Kalamees,” Fisherman.  I taught this to my daughter’s  Brownie troop for Thinking Day some years ago.

But why so many circles? I imagine they symbolize continuity, a way of life that inherently changes very little over the years. Spring comes, and crops are planted. Summer begins, and so does hay-making. Crops grow, and in the early autumn they are harvested. Winter looms, and people retreat indoors to read, to weave,  to repair fishing nets and farm implements.

Different nations may invade and conquer, but the Estonian people, who call themselves Maarahvas (Earth’s people) quietly maintain their traditions, their songs and their dances through the cycles of the seasons.  They leave, and then they come back.

Regarding the photo:

I can recognize less than half the kids in the camp photo.

Fifth from the left, second row is Merike Kammar, 7th from the left is Kati Saksniit, I’m next to Kati. Then a girl on my right named Tiina, Anne Hirs, Katrin Poola, Ines Lukmann, Sylvia Lukmann, Evi Fry and Karin Lukmann complete the second row.  In the first row, second from the left is Jaan Kuuse, 6th from the left might be Tommy Lukmann, last one on the right is my brother Pete.  Recognize someone? Let me know!