Estonian Easter Traditions: Where Old Meets New

Source: Visit Setomaa

Estonian Easter Traditions: Where Old Meets New

In Estonia, Easter marks the beginning of spring - it's a time of celebration and of tapping into old traditions to mark the turning of the year.

Easter is referred to by many different names in Estonian: Ületõusmispüha (Resurrection), Lihavõtted (literally meaning meat-taking holiday, marking the end of Lent), Munadepüha (egg holiday), and Kiigepühad (swing holiday, referring to the tradition of swinging on the large wooden village swing on Easter Sunday).

A traditional Estonian village swing

Estonians, both young and old, are still attracted to the traditional village swings.

Photo by: Sven Zacek

Easter Sunday in Estonia is usually celebrated with a long lunch, egg dyeing, and an old fashioned Easter egg hunt. It's common to decorate your own eggs. Typically the eggs are painted with natural dyes like onion skins or beetroot juice and then put in a basket as a centrepiece for the table.

Having real eggs on the table is crucial for the after-meal egg-knocking competition, where each year makes a champion out of someone new. The competition rules are simple: you tap the end of your egg against your opponent's and the shell that doesn't crack is the winner!

Many of the Easter customs that are still practised today (like egg knocking) come from old folk traditions. Egg rolling, mostly practised in Setomaa, has the same principle as egg knocking - your aim is to crack your opponent's egg. An egg is rolled down a pile of sand to try and hit other eggs. How intricate you make your ramp, is completely up to you. The person whose egg remains intact wins!

Easter egg rolling in Setomaa.

Photo by: Silver Tõnisson, Visit Estonia

Spring Holiday

In the Estonian Folk Calendar, Kavadepüha or Spring Holiday falls anywhere between 16 March and 20 April in the week leading up to Easter. This week was important for completing household chores, such as cleaning after a long winter.

Springtime in Estonia

Photo by: Anneli Tandorf

The weather during this week could apparently predict the weather for the summer. If it was raining, then a wet summer was to follow and if there was fog, this meant a hot summer was in store.

Good Thursday and Good Friday

Good Thursday was considered a partial holiday in preparation for Good Friday. Lighter meals, like soup, were consumed. The type of soup eaten varied by region, but the one thing they had in common, was everyone rested on Good Friday. It was a rare occasion if anyone actually left their house that day.

"Good Friday is such an important holiday that even the ant doesn't leave his nest, nor does the leaf fall from the tree."
- Estonian Folk Calendar (Eesti Rahvakalender)

Easter Sunday

Much like today, Easter Sunday was a day full of festivities. This was usually the day when eggs were exchanged or given as gifts. Young people would meet at the nearby village swing and girls would give the Easter eggs they decorated to the boys as a thank you for building the swing they would then spend their afternoon on. People would gather in their homes or at the local pub and exchange eggs as gifts. Eggs were also incorporated in the meals, usually in the form of an egg butter or spread.

Dyeing Eggs

Old-fashioned Easter egg dyeing

Before commercial egg dye products became widely available, eggs were wrapped in cloth with red onion peels to give the shells a funky pattern.

Photo by: Ashwin Bhardwaj

Although many store-bought dyes may be easier to use, the tradition of using natural dyes is still very common today. According to the Estonian Folk Calendar, the colours had meaning: pink- gentle, green- hope, blue- fidelity, yellow- falsehood, and grey- balance. Girls would let the boys choose an Easter egg and depending on which they chose, the girls would then be able to judge their personalities.

Easter customs and springtime traditions varied - and up to a point still do - throughout different regions of Estonia. Every year, the Estonian Open Air Museum in Tallinn celebrates some of the older Easter traditions. You can also visit Setomaa in Southern Estonia to learn more about their customs as well.

Source: Eesti Rahvakalender II, compiled by Mall Hiiemäe, Tallinn: Kirjastus "Eesti Raamat", 1981.

Last updated : 05.03.2022

In category: South Estonia, History & culture