This is the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from Ballymena.
I have to say, after an admittedly poorly-timed grocery shopping trip today, I don’t think things are all that different here. The usually super-efficient buses were all late, with an ominous HILINEB (“delayed”) flashing all over the place on the departure board thing; when ours finally did arrive, the journey took twice as long as normal, owing to the bumper-to-bumper traffic and general horn-blaring chaos.
Once inside the supermarket, we realised that there was not a single trolley left in the place, and had to split up and join all the other loiterers who were hanging around at the edge of the checkouts waiting to grab a trolley the very second that it was abandoned. Incidentally, I’m going to work out how to say “Are you finished with that?” in Estonian for future reference. I lost out three times to people who knew how to say it and were therefore able to swoop in in front of me and grab the trolley that I very obviously had my eye on.
Still, at least we were just doing our normal food shop. I felt quite superior to the poor sods who were flying around with crazed panic in their eyes, trying to see over the mountain of toys and wrapping paper in the trolley. I’ve found it liberating to forego the usual mad presents rush: you know, the desperate, last minute frenzy of someone who is far too disorganised to have everything bought and wrapped in good time. I love giving presents to loved ones – I just absolutely hate deciding what to buy for them. There’s the desire to get something really special and personal, something that I know they’ll love. Then there’s the need to allow for my generally limited budget. And then there’s my wonderful gift of procrastination. It’s all just so stressful.
This year I am too far away from most of the people close to me (not that that actually makes a lot of sense as a sentence, but I’m not entirely sure how to rephrase it, to be honest) to realistically be able to send gifts, and while I shall certainly miss the giving and receiving part of the season, I do not at all miss the traumatic and panicky run-up to Christmas Day. It’s the first time that I’ve ever been able to just wander through the town, taking in the sights and the sounds of Christmas, without having something of a nervous breakdown (of the kind illustrated in this post from last year).
I did think, for a while, that Estonia might not experience the same levels of craziness at this time of year. I seem to have been wrong. And really, not that much appears to be different here in terms of how the holiday season unfolds. Mad shopping, twinkly lights, Santa in a cabin, Christmas markets, mulled wine, advent calendars… Latvia (our next door neighbour) is even said to have invented the Christmas tree, with the first documented use of a decorated tree being in Riga town square in 1510!
Yes, it’s all here, with some subtle differences (and a few slightly larger ones). I’ve heard that it’s traditional to bring “Christmas straw” into the home, although I don’t know why exactly, or if people still do that. They do seem to be quite into the lighting of advent candles, which glow in nearly all the windows. They’re really pretty. Apparently, when they’re lit, children traditionally hang a sock on the window and elves bring them gifts every day. I did not know this until today, otherwise I would have tried it. Alas! It is too late, for tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve is an important day in Estonia, when, every year in a traditional ceremony dating back over 350 years, the president declares Christmas to be a time of peace. I think this is lovely. I have less positive feelings about the other major custom: the Christmas Eve Sauna. Needless to say, I will not be taking part. Lighting candles and listening to a declaration of the Christmas Peace? Lovely. Sitting naked with complete strangers (also naked), all dripping with sweat? No thank you.
So, this Christmas will be very different for me in many ways, but as long as I can avoid the humiliation of a public sauna it should still be pretty good. No frantic gift-shopping, no stress, no overspending, no debt. I plan to cook a nice dinner, go to the Town Hall Square, and then enjoy Christmassy movies and Baileys with Riho. Sadly, Quality Street and Roses are missing from this happy picture, for there are no such things in Tallinn as far as I can see. However, we found some chocolates that will hopefully do the job, so all is not lost.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing… have a good one.
Happy Christmas! And Haid Joule (I think)!