02 December 2007

Eestis Nüüd, 'Tis [Officially] the Season

Sans Thanksgiving on its calendar, Estonia officially "kicks off" its Christmas season on the First Sunday of Advent. While in the US, thousands of local Best Buy managers - wearing wrinkled, cardinal-red Stafford dress shirts - unlock their store doors at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving to kick off the Yuletide season, hundreds of Lutheran church pastors and ministers, wearing long, black robes and white, lace dickies, bless five-story-tall evergreens around dusk in the center of towns across Estonia.

Early this morning in Tapa, it was Bears-Packers weather. It was around -5 degrees Celsius (that's the low 20s). The wind was blowing 3 to 4 meters per second (around 10 mph), putting the dreaded wind chill factor at around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I came back from Tallinn on the 6.40 stagecoach, and, as I trudged to my apartment at 8.00, I felt as if I were walking down Oak Street in Chicago against those back-bending gusts off Lake Michigan. Safely inside, I warmed up quickly with two heaping spoonfuls of Nescafe Classic in a reindeer mug Gina sent me for Christmas last year. For the last three months, I've been drinking Starbucks coffee, which Sam brought over with him in August. It's probably just a matter of days before I start going through withdrawal with these instant coffees and medium roasts.

On this particular First Sunday of Advent, St. Jacob's Church in Tapa (above) celebrated its 75th anniversary and the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church kicked off its celebration of the Republic of Estonia's 90th birthday. The first time I was in Tapa - back in 1998 when I was a green Peace Corps volunteer - I lived with the pastor of St. Jacob's and his family. So I often attended Sunday services with them - dad at the altar, mom at the organ, big brother in the bell tower, a couple of sisters in the choir loft, and the rest of the three or four children with me in the pew. Lutheran services in Estonia are not all that different from the Catholic Mass. We have an/the Our Father; they have an Our Father (in Estonian, Meie Isa), which they say before Communion. We have a Lord, Have Mercy; they have a Lord, Have Mercy (Isand, halasta!), which they, too, say at the beginning of the service. We believe in "God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"; they believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth (...Jumalasse, kõigeväelisse Isasse, taeva ja maa Loojasse). I don't know if I built up any treasures in Catholic heaven by going to these services, but the prayers and songs during the services gave me an excellent outlet for practicing my Estonian aloud.

At this morning's service, Pastor Reet Eru (a woman, by the way, there on the left) presided with Archbishop Emeritus Kuno Pajula. The opening hymn was the Estonian national anthem "My Fatherland" (Mu isamaa), and the first Advent candle was lit beneath the Estonian flag. The closing hymn was called something like "God, Hold and Keep Estonia" (Hoia, Jumal, Eestit). While I was a pinch bit uncomfortable with the cooperation - some might say collusion - between this church and the state, especially on the first Sunday of Advent, Estonia does not have an official religion. According to the constitution, there is no state church. While the Lutheran church has played the leading role in Estonia, each and every citizen is free to engage in acts of worship, in public or in private, as long as this does not impair public order, health or morals. This is a far cry from Soviet times, when KGB-like officials staked out local churches and noted who was going in and out and when teachers reported to state officials which students were absent from school on December 24 and December 25. Today, unfortunately, at least in Tapa, the congregation is so old that they remember those times.

The Republic of Estonia's 90th birthday (or jubilee) is February 24, 2008. Every month from December 2007 to November 2008 is dedicated to someone or something Estonian. For example, December is dedicated to the Estonian people; January to the War of Independence, and February to the President.

But what exactly happened 90 years ago? Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves set the scene in a speech last month: "the first democratically elected body of representatives in [Estonian] history – the Provisional Land Council of the Estonian Province – declared itself the supreme power in Estonia" on November 28, 1917. But then the Bolsheviks forcefully dissolved the council, and leading Estonian politicians went underground. On February 24, 1918, however, following an election which the Bolsheviks organised and then declared null and void because they didn't like the results, the Committee of Elders of the Land Council declared that "Estonia, with her historic and ethnic boundaries, is...an independent democratic republic...." This is the Estonian Declaration of Independence.

St. Jacob's joyous 75th anniversary celebration continued immediately after the service and into the early evening. The Tapa Vald Children's Choir, dressed in the vald's red and black colors (above), sang. At 18.00, after an afternon open house with refreshments and look back on the church's history, in more Cubs-Cards than Bears-Packers weather, the Arsise Youth Bell Ensemble (Arsise Noorte Kellade Ansamble) performed in front of a packed, standing room only church.