GAYLORD - Although Gaylord and Kuressaare, the hometown of Estonian exchange student Mehis Vipp, are separated by several thousand miles, the celebration of Christmas in the two cities do bear a number of similarities.
"We decorate a tree, bake cookies and Santa Claus brings presents to the children," Vipp said from the festive living room of Ron and Linda Kirkpatrick, his host parents for part of his one-year stay in Gaylord.
While there are many shared similarities in the customs of Christmas between the two countries, one major difference seems to be that Vipp and the rest of the 1.5 million residents of the tiny country south of Finland have yet to be hit by the frenzied commercial aspect of Christmas commonly found in Gaylord and the United States. "We exchange a few presents in our family, with the kids getting a little more," said Vipp. "But it doesn't seem like it's what it is here."
While not at all unusual to see stores in Gaylord setting out Christmas decorations by the end of October, Vipp said Christmas activities, including shopping, traditionally do not commence until the first of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" - Dec. 13.
"Christmas is a family holiday," Vipp said, comparing it more to the celebration of the American version of Thanksgiving. "I haven't experience it (Christmas) here yet but I was somewhat surprised to find that the schools don't have Christmas parties."
At Vipp's high school, located in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa, just west of mainland Estonia, the 12th-grade students plan and host a Christmas party for the lower grades. "It's a big deal, something everyone looks forward to. We have a dance and lot's of food. It's a really good time," he said.
Another difference Vipp observed about Christmas in Gaylord was the inclusion of the religious aspect of the holiday. "We heard caroling at the E-Free Church. It was nice, something you don't see when we celebrate. We think of Christmas as a family holiday," he continued to insist.
A likely reason that the religious feel of Christmas has been downplayed may be the fact that until 1991, Estonia was part of the former Soviet Union. With the breakup in the 1990s of the Soviet Union, Vipp said life in general, including Christmas, has taken a turn for the better.
"There are more opportunities since the (Iron) Curtain opened up and we were liberated," said the 17-year-old Vipp, who although too young to have many memories of Soviet rule, has heard the grim stories from his parents and grandparents who grew up in the oppressed society.
"There weren't many job opportunities and travel to any other country was almost out of the question. I like to travel and plan on seeing some of the United States before going home," Vipp said.
While Vipp said a Christmas turkey or ham are typically served for the holiday meal, there are a few foodstuffs in his country which likely don't turn up on too many American tables.
"We have something, it's a sour cabbage I guess, we also have blood sausage," which he described as a sausage with the main ingredients being blood and a mixture of grains. "It's all right, but I'm not that crazy about it," Vipp said, making a slightly unpleasant expression.
Today (Saturday)Vipp will experience his first American Christmas with the Kirkpatrick family who plan to celebrate at home with their children.