Circle of life

The ancient Estonians' concept of the world was based, above all, on the image of the circle. People started to perceive time as linear only after Catholicism had been replaced by Lutheranism. People were a part of two basic circles: the circle of life and the annual circle. There was only one big circle of life, whereas the annual circle repeated itself over and over. The whole set of the Estonians’ customs is largely determined by these two circles.

There were four significant events in the cycle of life: birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death. Birth and death were the two things certain in everybody's life. Not every child came of age and not all the adults got married. The new worldview that combined elements of the ancient belief with a new religion called for a very complex set of customs. People were very open to various influences during the transition from one stage of life to another and therefore all the evil forces had to be kept away and certain traditions had to be followed in order to manage the transitional stages with success.

Certain customs governed even the conception of children. When the parents wanted their future child to be a boy, they kept an axe under their bed and when they wanted to have a baby girl then a needle was put there instead. Caring for the child was reflected in the complex system of commands and prohibitions that governed the life of a pregnant woman. Many taboos were actually based on practical reasoning. Some activities were prohibited in order to prevent certain deficiencies and faults in the child's character and physical appearance. According to folk wisdom, the future mother could not be startled or made angry, and she could neither quarrel nor laugh. Everything that could cause a concussion or a strain was strictly prohibited. Some restrictions were based on analogies. Women could not spill water on their clothes while doing the laundry – otherwise the child would start wetting the bed. A very widespread belief that many people hold even today was that if the pregnant woman touched some part of her body when she saw a place on fire then there would be a mole on the same place on the child's skin. It was generally believed that if there was something wrong with the child then the mother must have erred.

The time and the day when the child was born were very important. Estonians regarded Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as unlucky days that were unsuitable for starting any new work. Those days were equally unlucky for starting a life. Even now people believe that those borne on Sunday are especially fortunate. Children born in the evening were considered to be lucky, while those born in the morning had to work hard all their lives in order to make ends meet. The tradition of wrapping the child in a garment that belonged to someone of the opposite sex was common all over Estonia. This was supposed to make sure that the person would be married some day. In connection with Christianity some of the customs that were associated with the water used for washing the child were transferred to the holy water that was used for baptism. One thing was sure, however — there had to be some silver in the water because it was believed that silver was a protection from evil and thus it had been used as an offering since ancient times.

Visiting the new mother and child was the first significant event that celebrated a birth. Married women from the village came to see the child and brought along something to eat and a gift for the child. The first guests could not be poor or old otherwise the child would grow up to be poor. Such visits were made during the time that the mother stayed in bed and this period could last either a few days or a couple of weeks. The most dangerous time for the child was the period between the birth and the baptism. During that time the child was never left unattended and a candle was left burning overnight. A silver item on the child's chest was also believed to ward off the evil eye. Children were usually given the names of their grandparents or they could also be named according to the nearest holiday. Children could not be named after their parents. Children were usually baptised at the age of 2 or 3 weeks. However, there are many small islands in Estonia where the pastor went only once or twice a year and on such occasions took care of all the ecclesiastical rites from baptising to commemorating the dead. Children were baptised either at home or in the church. Baptism was followed by a christening feast that lasted for several days and included various customs to be observed in order to insure the happiness and well-being of the child.

In the folklore various activities are mentioned that were allowed only for adults but the ways of celebrating the coming-of-age were not referred to. When girls were considered to be adults they could sleep in the storehouse during the summer months and bundling was accepted; girls could also participate in the young people's gatherings and take part in the tending of the herd at night (called õitsilkäimine) where a fire was made to scare off the wolves and young people engaged in merrymaking around the fire.

Marriage was the most important event in a person's life. It was generally believed that marriage was the only way people could fulfil their social and biological functions. Even the birth rites paid a lot of attention to the future marriage. Until the 19th century marriages were mostly arranged by the parents of the future couple. The crucial factor was the bride's diligence, not her looks nor financial status. In a feudal village wealth was a rather vague notion and financial status became more significant only in the second half of the 19th century with the spread of capitalism.

One form of social interaction between young people was bundling (ehalkäimine), i.e. during the summer months young men used to visit girls at night. Bundling was practised on Thursday and Saturday nights from St George's Day (April 23) until Michaelmas (September 29). During that time young people did not sleep in the main building: girls slept in a storehouse and boys in a hayloft. The general attitude towards bundling was acquiescent if not favourable. Occasionally it was considered natural that a marriage proposal should be preceded by bundling. One has to be thankful when someone comes, I'd be put to shame if nobody wanted my daughter.

When a man had found a suitable bride then it was inconceivable to consider proposing to her right away. If the proposal were turned town then the man would have been the laughing stock of the entire village. Therefore it was customary to reach an agreement either by a symbolic deed or simply by asking before making the actual proposal. The best-known way of popping the question indirectly was to take a birch branch either to the doorstep or to the window of the girl's room. If the birch branch was taken inside, it meant that the groom could come and make the proposal. A very old custom was that of 'sheathing', where the girl was the one showing initiative. The girl would have an embellished pouch on her hip and she would sing a song asking a boy to put his knife into the pouch. If the girl did not like the boy then she threw the knife away but if he was to her liking then the boy could make his marriage proposal. However, the most widespread tradition was the so-called 'hearing' or preliminary proposal. This was done by an elderly woman on a Thursday evening and the preliminary proposal was made by presenting a bottle of vodka. If the bottle was accepted this also meant that the proposal would be accepted.

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