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.


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.

The teeth of winter

Whenever there was a gloriously spring-like day in February or March during my childhood, and I sped out to play in short sleeves, my mother grimly followed me, carrying an outer garment and offering her usual warning:

“Suve silmad, talve hambad.” 

Translated, the Estonian words mean: “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter.”

By extension it means that no matter how beautiful and warmly enticing the weather might appear, you can’t trust it. If you run around without a jacket you will catch a chill and eventually get a bad cold or even pneumonia. And then you’ll be sorry.

Oh, how I dreaded hearing those four words. It meant I had to stop whatever I was doing, cease  from enjoying the feel of sunlight and air on my bare arms, and put on a bulky jacket in front of all the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone else was outdoors without jackets or hats, and I felt like an idiot.

As I got older I patiently explained to Mom that the northern climate of Estonia , where she grew up, was nothing like that of New Jersey. It was like talking to a stone.  Pointless.  Sensible people did not run around outdoors without jackets until spring had definitely arrived with a long stretch of reliably warm weather.  In Estonia, the thaws didn’t begin until late April or May.

The day might  smile on you with the lovely eyes of summer, but it could bite  with the ferocious teeth of a winter wolf,  if you didn’t take precautions.

To be fair, Mother was a child in a world without antibiotics or other amenities of modern medicine. Back in those days, catching  a bad cold could be fatal.  She told me she came close to dying from an agonizing middle ear infection when she was very young, maybe 4.  Penicillin was discovered in 1928, when she was eight years old.

Although I don’t remember a time when antibiotic medicines were unavailable, there were other illnesses in my youth that threatened children as well as adults.  In the year I was born,  1952, there were  58,000 new cases of polio reported in the United States. Parents lived in terror of polio, which killed or crippled many victims for life.  In 1955, the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine was the first sign of hope that the virus might be some day be conquered. The Sabin oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962, offered an even better chance of immunizing children against this dreaded disease.

I barely remember lining up at school to receive doses of oral vaccine on a sugar cube when I was 10 or 11. Three separate  doses were required to provide immunity in 95 percent of those receiving it.  What a tremendous relief that must have been for our parents’ generation.

In those days, kids still ran the risks of catching what were considered the usual childhood diseases, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Smallpox had been virtually eradicated, with the last  outbreak in the U.S. having occurred in Texas in 1949. With measles, you were supposed to stay in a darkened room and not expose the eyes to sunlight. If you had the mumps, you’d be unable to eat pickles until it was over because your throat was so sore.  And chickenpox was miserably itchy.

There was also a milder childhood illness called German measles (Rubella) that reached pandemic levels in the early 1960s in the U.S. and Europe. Because it was known to cause severe birth defects and miscarriages, mothers brought their daughters to visit a child with German measles and drink from the same glass. They hoped the girls would catch the disease and become immune to it, eliminating the risk of catching it years later when they might be pregnant. My mother took me to a neighbor child’s house to catch German measles this way.

Our mothers were thankful when we recovered from measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles unscathed.  All these diseases carried secondary risks. Measles, chickenpox and German measles could cause serious hearing impairment, and mumps could leave a boy sterile, lead to pancreatitis or meningoencephalitis, or infect a girl’s ovaries.

By the time my kids arrived in the 1980s, there were vaccines for measles, mumps and German measles, usually administered as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot.  However, they didn’t  escape chickenpox, for which a vaccine was not  introduced until the mid-1990s.  They had to take the usual oatmeal baths to relieve  the itching. I remember Hayley  returning to school before her spots faded, in order to be in the second-grade play.  She performed as a leopard in a brown and yellow spotted costume, with real spots on her face and hands.

I have chickenpox on my mind lately, because of the real possibility that the dormant varicella-zoster virus can re-awaken and cause the painful condition called shingles. My husband had a mild case of it last year, and my brother and elderly aunt suffered badly  from it the previous year. In some cases it can be sheer agony. I’m planning to be vaccinated against it in a few weeks when I turn 60.


Turning back to the “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter” proverb, I think I did everything I could to taunt Fate as a teenager, as teenagers are wont to do. We were lucky to live near a lake that froze solid for  three months every winter, and ice skating was a popular wintertime activity. My dad taught me to skate when I was 8 years old. While  not destined to be a great skater due to wobbly ankles, I spent countless hours on the ice.

In junior high school, I raced home to change into skating clothes, grab my skates and walk to the lake almost every winter day. My skating outfit was my mother’s nightmare – a very short skirt, tights, and a heavy knit sweater over a lighter shirt.  It didn’t even faintly resemble  what she considered adequate winter outerwear.

Mother’s idea of proper winter outer garb included a heavy fur or fake-fur coat like you see on Russian women in old pictures. You looked like a cross between a bear and a small mountain in it. You would also wear thick boots, heavy mittens, a fur hat and a wool scarf wound around your neck, partly covering the face.  I wouldn’t have been caught dead dressed like that, winter or no winter.  And definitely not for skating.

We had long, serious winters back in the 1960s, with lots of snow. In my teens  I used to go out on the lake, skating for three hours or longer, taking breaks to warm frozen fingers at the bonfire on the snowy beach. Finally I’d go home around 8 p.m., thaw out my feet and hands, eat a bite of dinner, tackle homework and fall into bed. It was always a sad day when the weather began to warm and the lake ice developed cracks that made skating unsafe.

Just before my senior year of high school we moved to another part of town that lacked a lake, but to our joy featured a nice little swamp tucked back in the woods. Not many people skated there because the place was out of the way and there wasn’t room to play ice hockey.  My brother and I used to tear through the swamp like maniacs on skates, zigzagging in and out through the trees, grabbing hold of a tree trunk and spinning around it until we were dizzy.

I can’t believe how little the cold bothered me as a teenager. When I walked to the bus stop in high school on cold winter mornings with temperatures hovering at 9 degrees or so,  I usually wore a school jacket that barely reached my hips, a skirt as short as I dared, barelegged, or wearing knee socks or thin nylon stockings.  I could not do this today.

Girls did not wear pants to school during my school years. It was strictly forbidden, although in elementary school there was one exception: we could wear them to school and from school if there was, say, three feet of snow on the ground. We had to sit down and take off those pants as soon as we got inside the classroom.  We only put them on again just before dismissal. We didn’t wear them during recess, even though we played outdoors in almost every kind of weather.

I remember going out on a playground covered with  a foot of slush and snow, wading through this glorious mess with my classmates. We slipped down the icy slide and swung on the swings until the teacher’s whistle called us in to  take off our boots and coats. Our shoes and socks were soaked through, but they usually dried before the school day was over.

My daughters never had outdoor recess at their Maryland elementary school if it rained or snowed. Of course if we receive a dusting of snow, the entire Washington, DC region goes into Full Winter Panic Mode, with numerous school closings and late openings or early dismissals for all Federal government employees, of which we have many.

Most school systems started allowing girls to wear pants in 1970, the year after I graduated.  Now kids get away with wearing nearly everything, and the teachers and principal are grateful that the kids aren’t bare naked.

By the time I had children of my own, I too followed them around with sweaters or light jackets on mild winter days.  I’d mumble “Suve silmad, talve hambad” under my breath like a magical incantation. And my non-Estonian speaking, wholly American daughters replied, “Huh?”