Global Estonian | Estonian Literature Day on 30 January is celebrated as a national holiday for the first time
Au eesti kirjandusele! Eesti kirjanduse päev 30. jaanuaril on esimest korda riiklik püha
Anton Hansen Tammsaare kuju Tammsaare pargis. Foto: ERR

Estonian Literature Day on 30 January is celebrated as a national holiday for the first time

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Sirje Kiin writes about the importance of the Estonian Literature Day. By designating the Estonian Literature Day as a national holiday and Flag Day, we are cherishing Estonian literature and culture. 

On 30 January 2023, we are celebrating the ESTONIAN LITERATURE DAY as a national holiday for the first time. The idea to celebrate this day was proposed four years ago by Professor of Literature Rein Veidemann at the Estonia Theatre, at the event marking the 140th anniversary of the birth of Anton H. Tammsaare.

“The world poured into Tammsaare’s words, stories, images and personal fates, the Estonian world from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century functions, on the one hand, in a historical finality, yet on the other hand, its power for generalisation and its profound depths in their majestic infinity feel like a universe. This is the kind of literature where we recognise the essence of what makes us Estonian. This is why I am proposing to add 30 January as Tammsaare Day to the national calendar. It would be a day dedicated completely to our literary culture, as the birthday of Kristjan Jaak Peterson, 14 March, is dedicated to our mother tongue. This day, 30 January, would then reoccur for as long as we have the calendar of Estonian national holidays and the state itself. Let us begin today – today is the first Tammsaare Day, Estonian Literature Day,” the author of the idea said, arguing in favour of the need for such a public holiday.

Naturally, we could ask why we would celebrate the Estonian Literature Day on Tammsaare’s birthday in particular – what about Lydia Koidula, Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, Juhan Liiv, Eduard Vilde, Gustav Suits, Friedebert Tuglas, Marie Under, Henrik Visnapuu, Karl Ristikivi and many other classics of Estonian literature, up until the generation of contemporary writers, many of whom have also attained the status of classics, such as Paul-Eerik Rummo, Hando Runnel or the late Mats Traat, who passed away in the summer of 2022. 

According to the initiators of the idea, Tammsaare’s birthday has been selected symbolically to cherish Estonian literature as a whole, the diverse intellectual realm of our literature, instead of just one author or one classic.

How could we celebrate this new national holiday? It would be the day of recognising all literary initiatives and feats. For example, writing an essay based on a work of fiction in school – a part of the state exam that has been buried for several years now! –; literary competitions for children and young people; public readings and commentaries of classic works (poetry and prose); literary evenings focused on translating works from one creative language into another (dramatizations, films, music, figurative art); literary hikes to the homes of predecessors; joint writing sessions for biographies of authors, perpetuating the memory of classical authors; get-togethers of friends of literature, awarding readers prizes and finally – or above all – recognising dedicated literature teachers at the national level. 

We could establish new literary or book clubs, meet with Estonian authors even via Zoom, or, most importantly – pick up a work by an Estonian author that we have not read yet or that used to be a favourite and reread it. Because good literature has the magical power of having a completely new and different effect when read at different times, depending on the age and life experience of the reader. 

Why do we need literature, someone may ask, having become immersed in gaming, sports or video games, and grown estranged from reading books. Unfortunately reader surveys worldwide attest that new generations read less fiction and books in general, spending an increasing amount of time with moving images; that is, visual information. At the same time, research shows that no other art form or source of information develops or replaces the useful and valuable characteristics we gain by reading fiction. 

Only reading fiction develops empathy in children, expands our emotional range, allows us to delve into so many different worlds and souls. This, in turn, helps us make sense of and cherish life, and understand ourselves better. 

One may ask why Estonian Literature Day when we have the excellent world literature at our disposal? We can never read everything of worth created in the world in different eras. An emotional kick is provided by reading translated fiction of other nations, and it also helps us get to know the mindset and cultural life of other nations. 

Literary scholar Maarja Vaino, who, as the director of the Tammsaare Museum is one of the initiators of the Estonian Literature Day, answers this question as follows, “Fiction written in your mother tongue provides you with a mental foundation, a key to being a cultured individual. However, it is not only about reading because we already have the World Read Aloud Day on 20 October, globally celebrated, no less. It is about being Estonian. Our culture is based on texts that, passed on in writing and orally, preserve an intellectual connection between past and future generations. Not only that. Literature should be a unifier between people here and now, because in encompasses the entire nation with its different ages and layers. From children’s literature to academics and popular fiction.” 

After all, the Estonian identity is based on our mother tongue and the best expression of this mother tongue is Estonian literature, the so-called core texts that every Estonian knows and that bind us together as a nation, from folk songs, proverbs, our national epic Kalevipoeg and Spring by Oskar Luts to Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice or Kivirähk’s November, from Juhan Liiv to Toomas Liiv or from Marie Under to Doris Kareva.

Therefore, on 30 January, let us go beyond raising the flag and truly read Estonian literature. Not on this day only, but all through the year, with book clubs or friends or alone with the rich images, ideas and visions that the books evoke. 

Speaking of Estonian literature in exile, the Estonian American National Council is happy to announce a new competition for the Henrik Visnapuu Award, with 1 April 2023 as the deadline (see the article below for conditions). The first winner of the Henrik Visnapuu Award, which was re-established in 2020, was Elin Toona, who recently moved from Florida, USA, to her childhood home in Haapsalu and currently lives in Taebla. I would like to highlight her autobiographical, dramatic masterpiece Into Exile in particular. 

Last year, Estonians in Canada established the Arved Viirlaid Literary Award and poet Lehte Hainsalu was declared the first winner in December 2022 for her collection of poems Valuvaba. Lehte Hainsalu has written many children’s books, poetry, stories and novels. Among the latter, I would like to highlight Kellakuuljad, her excellent novel of cultural history. 

Finally, I would like to make some book recommendations from the freshest Estonian literature published last year; filmmaker Katrin Laur, having lived in Germany for many years and returned to her homeland, published the novel Tunnistaja, which gives a rare in-depth insight into and overview of Estonian cultural history and history through an unexpected perspective – the eyes of Catholic priest Eduard Profittlich. Such a rich novel, a masterpiece even! I predict it will win many literary prizes. 

Wishing you a wonderful Estonian Literature Day,

Sirje Kiin

Sirje Kiin
Estonia-USA, PhD in comparative literature 



Veebilehte haldab Integratsiooni Sihtasutus.
Sihtasutuse asutaja on Eesti Vabariik, kelle nimel teostab asutajaõigusi Kultuuriministeerium.