There are a lot of notable calendar days but only the more important and older ones were used for counting a year. Our folk calendar is old. Some calendar days are more than a thousand years old, some are younger, taken from Christian calendar or from neighbouring countries.
The old system of time-recording was based on different factors. The solar calendar, being connected with the position of the Sun in respect to the Earth, divided the year into four parts. The lunar calendar proceeded from alteration of different phases. The phonological calendar illustrates our ancestors’ ability to observe natural phenomena and arrange the work connected with the gaining of the livelihood according to the development of nature. Estonian folk calendar is a calendar of land-cultivators and animal-breeders, whose year is divided into two parts, into the winter and summer half-year. The calendar adopted in an agrarian country proceeds from the consideration of the cycle of field labour, the dates of which depend on climatic conditions. The Estonians, like other agrarian peoples of Northern Europe, marked the close of the year with the harvest home feast and with the transition to the cycle of winter labour, the dates of which more or less coincide in those parts. The period of harvest home festivities would last for several weeks running, being over only after Christmas.
Several originally religious customs have become entertainments nowadays.
Now about some more important calendar days.
Midwinter was believed to arrive on St. Anthony’s Day, the 17th of January. This day was also the landmark of accounting for the supply of provisions for the entire household, including both the humans and the domestic animals. It was forbidden to spin, to make or fix fishing nets. People ate pig’ head or ears on that day. The weather of the haymaking season was forecasted upon that day.
“The winter’s spine gets broken” on Candlemas. Half of the provisions for the humans should be still there. Spun yard had to be ready by Candlemas. Spinning was forbidden on that day, otherwise sheep would weaken and wolves come. Nearly all housework was forbidden. In Southern Estonia sewing was allowed. In Western Estonia Candlemas was considered a women’s holiday. Men worked but women “wearing necklaces went to the pub to dance”. It was a free day for maids. Candlemas was the day for paying wages, the day for firing old and hiring new workers. People ate flitch and drank red wine on Candlemas. If the weather was fine on Candlemas, the summer would be good. A rainy Candlemas forecasted rainy summer.
St. Matthew’s Day was rich in prohibited works and forecasts. Maids had a free day. It was not allowed to darn – snakes would bite in summer; it was not allowed to bring timber home – poisonous snakes would come to the house; it was not allowed to spin. Spinning reels were hidden – the one who saw a spinning reel on that day would see a wolf or a bear in summer. It was not allowed to comb – dandruff would come into the hair. It was not allowed to switch a light in the evening – the number of flies would increase. It was not allowed to boil cabbages, beans or peas on St. Matthew’s Day – they would become worm-eaten in summer. It was allowed to boil potatoes and cook something of groats. Blizzard and snow on St. Matthew’s Day forecasted a fruitful year, especially a lot of berries and apples. North wind forecasted cool spring.
The women’s handiwork season was coming to an end and it was time to have a drink of spirits tinged with some red-coloured juice, the drink being called “St. Mary’s blush” – then one would have nice red cheeks throughout the year. From Lady Day onwards the girls were allowed to go to sleep outside the living quarters – in the barn or in the loft, and the lads were allowed to bundle. Ladies of the house baked cakes on St. Matthew’s Day – cabbages would have big leaves. In the evening pettitoes were boiled.
On this day (in case it was not a Friday or a Monday) the cattle was let out to grass for the first time. It was important to take the cattle into the forest. The herd was watered – the household poured water on them. Everyone in the cattle was given a piece of a pig-shaped loaf of bread – a special bread baked for Christmas which makes the cattle full and fecund.
All agricultural implements had to be in order by the ploughing day. Field works started on that day. The first ploughman was watered as was the herd. As a reward the ploughman was given boiled eggs. As a rule, all agricultural implements were checked on that day – then the works would advance and the workers would not be sleepy.
The customs on St. George’s Day are wholly relating to work. It is the milestone from which the count of the sowing weeks begins. This day marks the beginning of vegetation period and the arrival of the economic year, the busiest time for the country-people. In connection with St. George’s power of ruling over wolves, the rites of that day include a good deal of preventive magic for repelling wolves who were a scourge for the farm animals. The autumn sowing time was forecasted by that day. If it was freezing in the morning, sowing should be done early in autumn, if thaw, there was time enough for sowing. In the evening bonfires were made in West and South Estonia.
Young birch twigs were brought into the house, the graves of the deceased family members were visited, there were getting togethers of kinsfolk in the churchyard or near the church, of young people near the village swing. The herds were given a free day, all the others had free time from the afternoon. The making of a fire on St. John’s eve is the principal custom that has still remained in full force in Estonia. St. John’s day served as the interim day between the end of spring labours and the beginning of the hay-making period. The weather was in accordance with the weather at Christmas.
St. Jacob’s Day marked the end of hay-making and the beginning of harvesting. “Hang the scythe on the peg and take up the sickle,” so it was said because it was believed that herbs got hardened after that date: “Beginning with St. Jacob’s Day iron nails get into the grass.” After St. Jacob’s Day girls started to make bride’s presents to the wedding guests together in the evenings.
St. Lawrence’s Day was the time for sowing rye. Some works were forbidden, e.g. heating the stove, cooking meals. Before St. Lawrence Day apples did not have their good taste. Between St. Lawrence Day and St. Bartholomew’s Day it was the time for flax pulling. In some places sheep-shearing started.
On St. Bartholomew’s Day, at nights threshing of rye by hand began at manors. Winter rye and winter wheat had to be sown. It was believed that good mushrooms start growing on St. Bartholomew’s Day.
By St. Michael’s Day “the rape had to be in the cave and the womenfolk in the chamber”, i.e. the field labour had to be done and the women’s housework started. Animals were killed for food, and peasant household got better dished to taste. It was the most widespread lamb-killing and beer-making date. It was a kind of leave-taking day since the rent contracts were concluded for the period covering the interval between St. George’s Day and St. Michael’s Day. In many places Michaelmas fairs were held. There were also numerous customs connected with harvest home festivities. The real festivities, however, started some time later, when corn had been treshed and stored in barns.
St. Martin’s Day was another occasion on which an animal was killed, beer was brewed, blood sausages and blood buns were baked in addition to barley bread, as it was the custom in order to serve the members of the household with festive food and offer a treat to “St. Martin’s beggars” – the people who came mumming on that day. Martin was a bringer of fair crops, the symbolic receiver of the autumn harvest and the initiator of a successful new agricultural year. On St. Martin’s Day mumming is still quite a popular amusement of the young people, but nowadays it is more practised in towns and bigger settlements that in the countryside.
On St. Martin’s Day there were more mummers disguised as men, and on St. Catherine’s Day they were mostly women wearing different kind of ornaments and finery. It was the day of sheep-shearing. Spinning was forbidden as well as hunting.
In Estonia, the winter season was supposed to start on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), the arrival being continued in the course of a score of the following days as well: “Andrew unravels, Nicholas (St. Nicholas Day, December 6) rivets, Lucy (St. Lucia’s Day, December 13) brings a broom along, Thomas (St. Thomas’ Day, December 21) brings blizzard.” Yuletide began with St. Thomas’Day, when preparations were started for the period of holidays that came to an end as late as on Twelfth Day (January 6). In the western part of Estonia, including the islands, the period of holidays lasted until St. Canutus’ Day and even until Candlemas (February 2). According to the old tradition, the floor was covered with thick layer of straw on which people sat, playing games, talking, joking, guessing answers to riddles, drinking beer, or simply romping. At the turn of the 20th century there were quite a few rural households in Estonia which were not used to having a green fir-tree brought into the main chamber for celebrating Christmas. At Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Day there were mummers disguised as animals. At Christmas it was a goose, on New Year’s Eve a he-goat, and on Twelfth Day a stork. There was a custom of baking a special kind of bread for Christmas. It was shaped like a round or oblong loaf, with a rough or rick-like surface (like rick of corn). On its top one left the impress of a barn-key, or a brooch, or a finger-ring, or simply one’s finger. The loaf had many names, such as the Yule hog, New Year’s bannock, etc. As a rule it was kept on the dining table throughout the holidays, and later it was divided among the cattle on a calendar day. By that action the farmer would ensure the success of his field-work and his cattle-raising activities in the oncoming agricultural year. Nowadays this bread has been replaced by pepper biscuits and by white bread, however, the custom of having blood sausages at Yuletide is still alive.