24 December 2008

Christmas (in Estonia)

I stopped when I got to Lembitu Street. There was indeed more "Christmas magic" in the air, although, as I stood still, it felt and sounded more like ice than snow. The other magical, nearly miraculous, thing, was that not one dog had barked at me as I walked down Pikk and Õhtu Streets. It was around 12.30 a.m. - truly a silent night. In spite of its intentional and absolute austerity, the Soviet-era high rise across from me glowed from the electric Advent candelabra in a dozen or so windows. (There are seven candles on each candelabrum: four for the four Sundays of Advent plus three for the three Sundays to St. Knut's Day on January 13). I looked up over the otherwise colorless building to see if Santa was overhead. If he didn't have to worry about Russia for another week, would he be coming up from Southeast Asia through Greece and Poland to Estonia? Or would he be working a split-shift and be coming down from an eggnog break at the North Pole through Finland?

Christmas dinner at Tiit's house was exceptional. In "food world" at the Kaubamaja in Tallinn over the weekend I had seen frozen turkeys imported from France and frozen geese imported from Hungary. (That just doesn't seem right, does it?) At Rimi in Rakvere earlier in the day, Tiit and I had seen frozen turkeys. With no time to thaw one out, he bought a duck from the refrigerated section that was ready for the oven with not only a timer but with prune and apricot stuffing as well. In the picture above, in the aluminum pan in the center of the table, you see what was left of the duck.

In the upper right hand corner, in front of the Mandarin oranges, there is a decanter of Mrs. E's (Tiit's mother) homemade Christmas drink. Served in shot glasses, it was as thick as cough syrup. A concoction of a few different types of Estonian berries (along with spirits, of course), the drink had fermented since August. From this "natural" hooch to Bacardi Black and cokes (with ice and lemon, mind you) to champaign to coffee, Tiit keep the drinks flowing all night.

To the right of Mrs. E's Christmas punch is Mrs. E's homemade (and alcohol-free) "cranberry sauce", or what tastes and looks a lot like our cranberry sauce but is made with what Estonia has instead of cranberries. A piece of verivorst (which were sitting in a pan on top of a warm oven) and a spoonful of this cranberry sauce is what Christmas in Estonia is all about! Finally, just below the duck, underneath the knife, are Mrs. E's homemade hapukurk, or pickles. Nothing in a jar comes close to tasting as good and as fresh and as crisp as these do.

An Estonian dinner, let alone holiday dinner, would not be complete without potatoes, and Tiit made some oven-roasted potatoes smeared with garlic and mayonnaise. They, too, were sitting on top of the oven. I would have eaten the rest of them - they were the size of apples and very nicely browned - had I not been in mixed company and thought that the children had to eat, too. The plastic bag (to the left of the pickles) was full of soft gingerbread cookies that Titt's wife baked and baked and baked and baked until she was tasting them in her sleep. We bought the chocolate tort, or cake, at Rimi, along with the duck, and it turned out to be a cake from the Pihlaka Kondiiter (or, bakery) in Rakvere, where I will occasionaly go in the morning for a cup of coffee and two or three sweet rolls!

Add a couple of kids opening up a couple of presents that appeared under the Christmas tree from nowhere, and you have Christmas.

Indeed Santa delivers presents to Estonian children on Christmas Eve, but he does it before they go to sleep! I remember a Christmas Eve 10 years ago with an Estonian family when, outside their house, Santa passed off their presents to an Old Mother Hubbard of sorts, modestly disguised - eerrr, dressed - for the occasion, who was quickly ushered inside to distribute them to all of the anxious kids. Your name on a package is no guarantee that you will get the package. No, in this country you have to sing - or dance or read a poem - for your Christmas presents, whether you are seven or 47.

As we played Lotte dominoes, one of Santa's presents, Aigi, Tiit's daughter, kept telling me she just didn't know where the presents had come from. Egert, Tiit's son, went to bed with a van in one hand and a box of wooden blocks under his arm. And I went home with Scooter's latest CD "Jumping All Over the World." That Santa.