Shrove Tuesday (vastlapäev) is the last day of winter fun and feasting before the season of Lent and fasting begin. Traditionally on this day, people would eat pig’s feet and rich pea soup, carve spinning-tops out of bone, play Shrovetide games and slide over the snow as far as they can. It was all part of ancient fertility/bounty rituals ensuring that the year ahead would be a good one.
In the old days, Shrove Tuesday was a women’s holiday, and the fairer sex were forbidden from doing almost any work. Instead, they would go to the tavern, have a drink, dance and predict the future using the thigh bones of a pig - when that was all over they would come home and ravish their men. Of course, times have changed, and many of the old traditions, as well as their meanings, have either been forgotten or relegated to tales and lore - these days it’s mostly about sledging and the ravishing of a certain cream-filled pastry; a steaming bowl of hearty pea soup also remains a popular dish on this day.
On vastlapäev, teens, kids, grownups and even grandmas spend their time engaged in reckless downhill sledging. In the days of yore, sledging was supposed to guarantee a good flax harvest, but nowadays it‘s strictly for fun - unless you happen to grow flax. In Tallinn, a great option is the Nõmme area, with lots of pine trees, snow covered sand dunes and varying degrees of ‘dangerous’ slopes. It’s truly a family affair - to get there take bus #36 from the Viru stop to the Nõmme Turg stop, head towards the forest and follow the people with sleds (didn’t pack your sled? Not a problem, all manner of inexpensive snow sliding apparatus can be purchased at most larger supermarkets). In the last few years however, snow has been an increasingly rare commodity - just let your eyes be the judge of whether or not to hit the slopes.
Before, during, or after a few hours of sledging you’ll certainly want, in fact ‘need’ to participate in gorging yourself on vastlakuklid (delicious, whip cream-filled sweet buns). A popular pastry since as far back as anyone can remember, in recent years it has grown into a full-on dough and cream-filled frenzy. As of a couple of years ago, they have even start to become available about a week before Shrove Tuesday in some locales and can often be found up until a week after. These treats can be picked up at most cafés and bakeries in Old Town, supermarkets and many a mini market also make sure to stock them. Of course, not all vastlakuklid are created equal, you’ll want to seek out the ones that contain real whipped cream, a bit of jam/marmalade, and ideally they’ll also have cardamom in the dough (best to check out the ones the locals are buying by the boxload). Many variations of the sweet, creamy goodness now exist and you’ll want to consume them fresh. Almost all bakeries have difficulty keeping up with the demand and many offer pre-ordering, best to get out early and buy a box or three to enjoy throughout the day.
There are several special events happening in Tallinn to celebrate Shrove Tuesday. If you’d like to spend it just like the old Estonians did, check out the Open Air Museum’s special event.