Customs and holidays
On the evening of 23 June, Estonian cities become half empty. Everybody who can travel to the countryside to celebrate one of Estonia's most significant holidays - St. John's Eve. On that night darkness lasts only a few hours. Hundreds of bonfires are lit all over Estonia, people sing and dance around them, and when the flames have died down a bit, those who are brave enough leap through them to shake off the year's evils. St. John's (Midsummer's) Day marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year, and the customs relating to it go back to pre-Christian pagan times.
St. John's Eve and Christmas Eve (24 Dec) are the most important festivals in Estonia. Christmas, celebrated after the winter solstice, falls in the darkest period of the year and is primarily a family-centred holiday. Both the old and the young stand by a decorated, candle-lit Christmas tree waiting for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Afterwards, they all sit down for a festive dinner which usually consists of roast pork, black pudding with cowberry jam, and sauerkraut with roast potatoes.
Other ancient customs, which relate to the time of year, are still practised. On Shrove Tuesday, in February, adults seize the chance to go sledging together with their children, on the pretext of an old custom. On St. Martin's Eve (9 Nov.) and St. Catherine's Day (25 Nov.), children dress up and go from house to house, earning sweets with their singing and dancing.
In addition to these festivities, Estonians also have several national holidays. The most important falls on 24 February when people celebrate the declaration of independence in 1918. Regardless of the weather, which in February may vary between mild thaw and fierce frost, a military parade takes place in the morning. In the evening, the majority of Estonians gather in front of their television sets to watch the President's reception - if they are not invited to attend themselves, that is.