Click the above link to see Ima and Riina in a KGB jail portended by an ominous knock on the door at the end of this excerpt from IMASODE VII: Escapades in Estonia
BACKGROUND TO A CHRISTMAS IN ESTONIA:
Riina’s Uncle Eerik had become a Lutheran pastor as a young adult in the 1930s. Now, he resided in an atheistic communist Soviet state where defunct churches served as museums. No longer could he lawfully perform baptisms, confirmations, or any sacraments. Sadly, even Christmas, the favorite holiday in free Estonia, had to be celebrated surreptitiously behind curtains. He and his family had been relegated to live in the rectory’s attic so Russian soldiers and bureaucrats could occupy the other three floors of his house.
While Riina and Ima helped Liisu carry her prized tree up the staircase to the attic, Kris ran ahead to open the door.
“Vanaisa…Meil on mänd,” Kris said in Estonian and pointed down the stairs. “Jõulupuu!”
“Ei Kris. Mitte jõulupuu,” said Eerik. “We only used mänd for potpourri to make our house smell nice.”
Undoubtedly, the conversation from the attic landing had fallen down the stairwell loudly enough to make the old widow Mrs. Semper open her door. She peered out with wide eyes just in time to see the ladies pass her apartment dragging a tree. The old faithful informant now had the child’s announcement and evidence of a forbidden tree to report to KGB. The strange events of late and the strange people visiting made her question the sanity of the Rannet family members. She wondered if they had a death wish. Did they want to go live in Siberia? She could not wait to call Chief Pall.
When the ladies finally got the tree inside the attic, Liisu put a finger to her lips to indicate all should hush until she closed the door. Then smiling and lifting her eyebrows with excitement, she said, “Jõulud.”
“Jõulud, dear Liisu,” said Eerik
“I knew it. I knew it. That’s why you wanted the straw,” said Kris, jumping up and down.
The old man had a twinkle in his eyes. “Every year, we repeat the same annual excuse of making potpourri so that we can sneak in a jõulupuu. Traditionally, we use a nulg or mänd. Most conifers work as well.”
“Even I know the Estonia words nulg and mänd from my parents’ chatter! And even I know that a fir tree always beats a pine for a Christmas tree; but in Manhattan, we take whatever we can get,” iterated Riina.
“Yes, here too,” said Eerik.
“So, Jõulud means Christmas. It sounds a bit like the French joyeux noel or when we say joy to the world. It all means the same thing. It’s Christmas -the most joyful time of the year,” declared Ima, holding the pine sapling upright.
“Please, Kris, empty the straw from your pockets over where we usually put the crèche,” Liisu whispered excitedly in Estonian. “Then I have a little errand for you. No one but our family must know what I’ve planned.”
Everyone eagerly watched the simple process. Liisu quickly stripped a cluster of pine needles off a damaged branch and formed a little pouch from a clean rag. She twisted a piece of yarn around the pouch neck to secure its contents.
“Now Kris, you must be quiet as mouse. Take this little bag down to Mrs. Semper’s apartment. Knock on her door, hang this on the handle, and then dash back up here as fast you can. We want her to believe we are truly making potpourri pouches instead of decorating a—”
“Christmas Tree!” said Ima. “So, if this is your Christmas tree, am I the tree stand?”
“Oh no. Here, I’ll take it,” said Eerik, relieving her of holding the tree. “We actually attach our trees to the ceiling,”
“I think Germans hang a tree upside down,” said Ima.
“Maybe so,” he said and quickly wrapped some twine around the treetop and stabilized it on a large hook attached to a rafter.
Right then Kris returned, panting from his run up the stairs. “Since this is my favorite holiday, I did exactly as you instructed.”
“Did Mrs. Semper see you?” asked Liisu.
“No, but I put the potpourri bag on her door to prove I have been a good boy, just in case St. Nicholas might come. Then I dashed back up here so I wouldn’t miss out on anything.”
“Hmmm. Doesn’t if feel strange to have Christmas in late September?”
“Why not, Ima,” replied Riina. “Macy’s has a Christmas-in-July Sale every year.”
“Well, I thought why must we wait for December? We’ve not had relatives to visit us in so long. What’s to prevent us from celebrating the holiday a few months early? But, of course, it must be abbreviated,” said Liisu.
“Dear Liisu, thank you for this wonderful idea! It tops off a day that almost turned disastrous,” Eerik remarked cautiously.
“Why disasterous?” asked Ima.
“Although this may dampen your spirits a bit, I need to alert you all to the facts.”
“What facts?” asked Ima.
“What do you mean, Eerik?” Liisu asked anxiously.
“While you took a little trip to the collective farm in Rapla, the KGB came here looking for Riina,” he said.
“Why me? What for? Do they think I’m a spy? I haven’t even worn my trench coat yet.”
“No, they think you are the daughter of a man named Leo Finantsguul who killed two Russian soldiers in 1942. They plan to trade you for your father,” said Eerik.
“What a horrifying prospect!” exclaimed Ima. “You mean instead of asking for a ransom, they want to trade her.”
“KGB will lose that bet. It’s a long shot that my folks would trade me or pay a ransom for my sorry hide anyway. They’d just be happy to see their grown-up daughter finally move out of their apartment.” Riina sounded flippant in light of Eerik’s serious news.
“Oh Riina, don’t joke,” pleaded Ima. “This sounds really serious. Eerik, did you tell them she was born in New York in 1940? I could vouch for her. We both entered nursery school in 1942. I can’t even remember life before Riina.”
“I explained all that, but KGB calculates in its own way,” he said.
“What nonsense. My folks changed their name on Ellis Island in 1940. Lots of people did that to make themselves sound more American. Kuld Finantsid became Leo Feingold.
“I explained that as well.”
“But Uncle Eerik, Leopops, made up our name. As jewelers in Estonia, several in his family had the name of Kuld which means ‘gold.’ And since Finantsid meant ‘finances,’ he figured to make and sell enough rings to finance buying more gold to make more rings and so forth. Once in New York, he combined his naming ideas into Feingold because he thought it sounded good for a maker of fine jewelry.”
“In fact, that’s why I used to call her Ringa Fingergold,” declared Ima.
“At least that’s better than Ringa around the Tub or Ringa Brass Turns Finger-Green!” quipped Riina.
Everyone laughed at Riina’s little joke.
“I never knew the whole story,” said Eerik.
“Really, it’s a great story and a great name,” reiterated Ima. “Everyone knows her dad makes the best rings in New York. Soldiers get them for their sweethearts, and even movie stars have had him design special items. Some have their pictures on Mr. Feingold’s shop walls.
“Seriously, we all know that Leo and Marianna left in 1940 and then changed their names; but the fact is, Chief Pall of KGB has his own theory. He knows where you are, Riina, and could come back for you… anytime,” warned Eerik. “So Liisu, we better get this show on the road.”
“I agree, Eerik. You better get your toolbox and bring some tacks. Kris, go get the Christmas box with the lights and ornaments from under your bed. Girls, I need you to hold blankets over the dormer windows while Eerik nails them down.”
“Why on earth?” asked Ima.
“So, no one outside can see our colored lights,” replied Liisu. “Our neighbors know Eerik is a minister. Now they have seen you two come and go the last few days, and you saw how curious the neighborhood kids were about the tree tied to the cattle trailer and the straw falling on the street. Someone will put two and two together and conclude we have company and are celebrating Christmas. If so, it won’t be long until one of them calls militia or KGB to report us.”
“How can you live under constant surveillance and suspicion?” asked Ima.
“We’re used to it. Please know that not every Estonian is watched as we are,” said Eerik, returning with his toolbox. He took out some wallpaper hanger tacks and his hammer. Then he showed the girls how to stretch the blankets tight enough for him to nail them down.
“What else can we do?” asked Riina.
Liisu pulled candles from beneath the kitchen counter. “While Kris and I make sugar cookies, Ima, would you put these Advent candles on the piano and light them as if we’ve spent a month lighting each one.”
Kris returned with the box of decorations and began to open it.
“I feel like you did on our tour of Old Town when you wanted to be the one to tell the story of Vana Toomas? Remember you kept saying, ‘Let me. Let me.’? ” Riina teased Kris and mussed up his hair.
“You’re making me sound like a baby,” the boy said and blushed.
“Well, tonight I also feel like a little-me-too,” said Ima.
“What’s that?” Kris cocked his head quizzically.
“In America, that’s the same as the ‘Let me, Let me kid’ in Estonia,” added Ima.
The adults all laughed. Kris finally caught on and giggled.
“Now Kris, look in the Christmas box for the crèche and the holy family.
“That’s my favorite part.”
“Mine too. I want you to put the straw in the manger, but leave out the Baby Jesus figurine until later,” said Eerik.
“Let me. Let me. Let me… be the one to—”
“Of course, you’ll be the one,” said Eerik.
Soon everyone had a task, preparing for the instant holiday. Every time the hammer struck, they all clenched their teeth, hoping no one suspected what they were doing. Once Liisu had the dough ready, Kris helped his mom extrude sugar cookies through the cookie gun.
“I want to make mostly star shapes to put on the tree.”
“We’ll see, Kris. I’m not sure we’ll have time to put cookies on the tree,” said Liisu.
Then while Eerik strung the lights on the branches, Riina set up the manger scene because she’d grown up around all the Christmas traditions in America.
With an imminent need to hurry-up this holiday celebration, the family decided not to tie on all their favorite tree ornaments. Eerik decided the lights and the star on top would have to suffice for decorations.
However, the two young visitors wanted to add a few decorations themselves. Both had brought jewelry in case of a dress-up event. Riina took from her suitcase several big colored plastic hoop bracelets and threaded a branch through each one. Ima draped her pearl necklace in an upper branch and her brass chain belt lower down.
“Still we could make a quick garland,” declared Ima. “Liisu, do you have paper and scissors?”
“I’ve got scissors, but paper is quite precious here.”
“No matter,” she said pulling out the colorful travel brochures. “From these, we could make a short garland chain for the tree.”
“Maybe, but why not make small garlands for our heads? Wearing crowns was once quite customary at Christmas,” said Liisu.
“That’s a great idea… sort of like having English crackers for holiday parties,” said Ima.
“Let me. Let me. I want to help too,” said Kris.
“OK, I’ll cut the strips. You can bend them into circles and glue them as links in a chain,” Ima said in her teacher’s tone. “Let’s see how many crowns do we need?”
“Four in the family and two guests make six,” said Kris.
“Excellent. Now, Liisu, do you have paste?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Do you have any flour to spare for us to make instant paste?”
“Oh, yes. That would work,” agreed Liisu, scooping a tablespoon of flour into a bowl and adding a little water to make a good consistency.
“Ohhhh, I wanted to add the water,” said Kris sticking out his lower lip.
“Kris, if you had added too much, we’d have to add more flour; and that means less flour for cookies in the future,” Liisu said, in a mother’s tone. “But you can do the stirring.”
“Jah, Ema,” said the boy obviously trying to please on this happy day.
“I’m sure your mother will let you,” said Ima looking up from her cutting task.
“Anyone want to lick the cookie dough off the spoons?” ask Liisu.
“I do. I do. Let me. Let me, Ema,” Kris said.
“I’m sure your mother will let you ,” said Ima looking quizzically at the boy
“Did you ever see a boy so willing to help,” said Eerik winking at Ima.
While Kris scraped the bowl and licked the spoon, Liisu opened the oven and let out the smell of fresh baked cookies.
“As soon as this first batch cools, we can place them as decorations on the tree,” Liisu suggested, pulling out the first tray of cookies.
“Boy, do they smell good,” said Ima.
“You know Ima, sugar for cookies and fuel for the stove rank even more precious than paper. But, this splurge of supplies on you and Riina will make memories to last our family for years.”
“Thank you for your generosity. Riina said you would put on the dog.”
“Liisu, believe me to explain American lingo would take longer than our visit,” quipped Riina.
“Suffice it to say that when Riina told me you would put on the dog for visitors, I thought she meant you’d put a dog on the grill…as if dog were a delicacy here in Estonia.”
“Oh, my, that sounds dreadful,” Liisu said laughing. “Our culture is not that different from yours.”
By the time Kris finished licking the spoon, Ima thought it time to paste the links for the homemade crowns. A few times she had to unglue his fingers that got stuck together with paste. “Kris, this reminds me of someone I knew who got her fingers all glued together with spray-on stardust for a Christmas play in America.”
Realizing Kris understood very little of what she had said, Ima just smiled and continued to help him link the loops to form small garland chains. When all were finished, Kris placed them around the dining table as placeholders.
With everything done, the family paced the floor, anxious for Kristjan to arrive home from choral practice. At six, they could hear him bounding up the stairs.
Kristjan opened the front door, smiled broadly, and sniffed eagerly. “What is this I see and smell?”
“Liisu brought a pine tree from the country… and planned a photo-flash Christmas,” said Eerik. “And I do mean flash… in case KGB returns for Riina.”
“What?” Kristjan scrunched his face at Eerik’s puzzling comment. “What possible interest can KGB have in Riina?”
“Well, to bring you up to date, while everyone was gone today, KGB showed up looking for Riina. Chief Pall thinks Riina is the child of a murderer and plans to trade her for Leo,” Eerik iterated his earlier concern.
“What an imagination KGB has,” Kristjan said and went over to the kitchen area. “Something besides pine needles smells mighty good,” he said and reached for a cookie.
“Don’t you dare,” Liisu said, rapping his knuckles lightly with a wooden spoon. “How did I end up with two boys this Christmas?”
“Can’t I have just one piece… of that broken cookie?”
“No. If you behave, you can join Kris and put this group of cookies on the tree. That way you’ll get to help prepare for the holiday preparation. The other cookies are for later.”
With everything complete, Eerik announced that Christmas had indeed started officially. He asked everyone to sit at the table and put on their crowns to celebrate the coming of the King of Kings. He asked Kris to put the Baby Jesus figurine into the manger. Then slowly the old pastor began the Bethlehem story from the Gospel of Luke. Even though he read the words from an Estonian Bible, both Americans clearly knew the story and nodded just from the sound of several verses.
Liisu brought out her violin, and Kristjan went to the piano. Together they quietly played and sang an old Estonian Christmas carol. Then everyone joined in on “Silent Night.” Although singing in different languages, no one could mistake the message “Kristus sündinud teil! Kristus sündinud teil!” Halfway through the third verse, the group got a bit boisterous. Eerik had to shush them. Even if they wanted to shout this song to the heavens, it was unwise. Just as their carol ended, the teakettle began to whistle.
“Perfect timing,” said Liisu. “Folks, I have no wine to mull. I hope coffee will do. Kris, take the plate of sugar cookies to our guests. Do you want milk?” she asked.
“Ei, mitte piim,” the boy said, scrunching his face like Kristjan had. “After seeing where it comes from at the dairy today, I may not want to drink piim ever again.”
The adults all laughed freely. The boy had faced a new reality of choice.
“Well then, because this is a special night with special guests, you may have coffee with the grown-ups,” Liisu said.
Soon everyone had a cookie in hand and held up their cups as if waiting for a toast. But Eerik saw this moment differently!
“My dear ones, this seems almost like communion. Let us give thanks to God who sent his Son as a gift for us at Christmas.”
Riina raised her cup. “Cheers… if that’s okay to say?”
“Absolutely. Eerik just gave the most cheerful news ever heard by human ears.” said Ima raising her cup and clinking with the others around the table. “Here-here.”
“Tevist,” said the Estonians.
“Cheers,” said the Americans.
“And thanks for sending us two Americans,” said Kris.
Everyone took a sip, including Kris.
“Blaaa-ug,” he said, sticking out his tongue. “It tastes like dirt.”
“Wait a minute,” said Riina, “I just remembered something. Not that this hot drink isn’t simply delicious… but-but… give me a moment.” She went to her suitcase and pulled out a pound of coffee and placed it in Eerik’s hands. “Leotaat said Estonians have a hard time getting coffee so he sent you some to enjoy.”
The adults “oohed and ahhed” as they passed it around and sniffed the rare package of coffee.
“I’m surprised Customs did not confiscate this also,” said Eerik.
“They were too distracted with pomms that weren’t bombs,” quipped Riina.
Then Ima slipped over to her valise and pulled out a bag of hard candy. “I meant this for a hostess gift, but what better time to share it than during our photo-flash Christmas.”
After another round of “oohs and ahhs,” the happy group held out their hands while Kris, who rarely got sweets, passed the bag. “Ema, may I have what’s left?” he asked.
“You’ll have to ask your mother,” replied Ima.
“Ima… he did ask his mother. Ema is the Estonian word for mother,” Liisu said, patting her guest’s hand.
“I wondered why he has asked my permission so often tonight.”
“Well, son, this is too much candy for us to eat in one day,” said Kristjan.
“Yes. Take a few pieces down to Mrs. Semper’s door. We’ll save the rest for another day.”
“Even though Christmas had almost ended, do I still have to obey?”
“Yes, Kris, go quickly.”
Kris went and returned in a flash.
“With our treats done and the room growing dark with night shadows, the time had come for the finale. “Drum-roll please,” said Eerik. Everyone turned his knees into bongo drums.
Before the “Ta-dum,” Riina interrupted. “Stop… wait. I have one more surprise.” She got the tambourine from her carry-on and handed it to Kris. “It’s not exactly a drum, but you can beat it almost the same way.”
The boy got so excited he began running around the room and beating the little instrument. “Shhhhhm Kris. Sadly, we must still keep our Christmas celebration a secret,” said Kristjan.
“Again, a very quiet drum-roll please,” Eerik repeated.
Kristjan picked up the electric cord, waved it with fanfare style, and then plugged it in. Instantly, the colored light bulbs flickered and then came on fully. Everyone gasped and clapped at the evening’s highlight! Then while staring at the colored lights, each one told the stories of past holidays. Finally, Eerik asked Ima also to tell hers.
“My favorite Christmas was when my father took my mother and me to London to meet Aunt Lottie. She threw a big party for us at her very big house. Carolers dressed in Victorian costumes serenaded us, and I got to stay up for midnight mass.”
“At my house, we have multi-flavored holidays,” declared Riina. “Because Leopops is Jewish, we have Advent, Chanukah, Christmas, and Epiphany. When I was little, it confused me; but now, I think I had the best of all worlds.”
“In Estonia we used to light the Advent candle around the first of December, but the season’s biggest day was always Christmas Eve,” recalled Eerik.
“We do still celebrate St. Nicholas’ death on the 6th of December,” said Liisu.
“Do you give gifts then?” asked Ima.
“We only give simple gifts… later though,” said Liisu.
“Our Christmas centers more on the gift God gave us than gifts we give each other,” said Kristjan.
“So, it’s Nix to St. Nick here?” Riina asked in her joking manner but rhetorically, not expecting an answer
“My favorite time, in the old days, was when we went to the big Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas Church in Vanalinn,” explained Eerik.
“Some Estonians still secretly celebrate St. Thomas’ Day on Dec. 21st, and Epiphany on Jan 6th and some even honor St. Canute’s Day on Jan 7th as well. These holidays give us lots of opportunities to sing,” said Kristjan.
“Wow, that’s a whole month of celebration. Stores in America would love that,” said Riina.
“Because our customs meshed together for centuries, Christmas used to be a very busy time for us too, but in other ways. While Christians prepared for the birth of the Savior, the Pagans believed the birthday of the Sun fell on winter solstice. That’s sadly where we get our word Jõulud,” explained Liisu.
“Oh, that disappoints me. I thought it meant joyful,” said Ima.
Eerik patted his abundant waistline. “I’m afraid we still follow another old tradition. It seems the ancient peasants spent the season eating and drinking. They indulged themselves, hoping to influence the Fates to send plenty of food for the next year.”
“Also, Pagans believed all noisy tasks like grinding wheat should stop so good ghosts would not be frightened away,” said Kristjan.
“So, the tambourine would be also nixed,” quipped Riina.
“After seeing you practice your faith quietly, I realize how blithely I treat my freedom to worship. A shallow faith could never suffer the persecution you have,” admitted Ima with remorse in her voice. “With your brief ceremony planted in my heart, I think from now on, this Christmas shall become my new favorite one.”
Everyone tapped their fingers together in silent applause.
“And now, as brief… and as wonderful as this has been, I pronounce this Christmas ended! We must dismantled the tree, remove the blankets from the windows, put the lights and crèche into the Christmas box, and put the box back under the bed. Quickly everyone,” urged Eerik. “I suddenly feel a strong foreboding about tonight.”
Even with all the hints of Christmas hidden, a warm glow still shone about the attic. Music from an old vacuum tube radio gently lilted across the room. The family settled in to enjoying the rest of the evening in separate ways.
While Eerik sat with the Bible open in his lap, Kristjan and Kris stripped fir needles off a branch and into a bushel basket. Sprawled on the floor, Riina crushed the pine needles with the hammer and Ima cut old rags into tiny squares. Then they helped Liisu scooped crushed needles into these pieces of cloth to make more homemade potpourri bags. One would hold the bag, and the other twisted a piece of yarn at the neck of each bundle. This assembly line had happy workers after a very happy early Christmas.
Suddenly, a loud knock came on the attic door!
Buy IMASODE VII: Escapades in Estonia to find out how KGB Chief Pall and his officers interrupted this quiet evening. Tate Publishing has it available now. With its full release, the book can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.