In the golden glow of late afternoon light, the six women filed through an aged, arched wall and toward a wooded area behind the church. I followed at a distance, admiring their exotic costumes and intrigued by their purpose. They reached a grove of aspens, evergreens and birch, through which sunlight streamed down on the grave markers below.
The group was mostly elderly women, including two who walked with the help of canes. With them was a tall blonde girl who carried a heavy wicker basket, which she set down on a bench amidst the scattered headstones. The girl and one of the women leaned in closely together and lit a candle, which the woman set on a grave marked with a pot of cheery red geraniums. Next to it, she spread out a brightly-patterned cloth that was soon laden with food taken from the hamper. The women saw me hovering in their orbit and with smiles motioned for me to join them in their meal. In the pine-scented air of the Orthodox cemetery we had a picnic.
I had been invited to partake in this tradition of the Seto people of southeastern Estonia by a new friend Elina. A Finn by birth, Elina came to Estonia 16 years ago for the weekend and never left. She was introduced to the Seto community, an ethnic and linguistic minority who live along the border of Estonia and Russian, and their way of life struck a chord with her. In time, she "adopted" Veera -- 84 years old and the eldest of the women clustered around the grave.
A tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity is leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing. The women are all members of a Seto choir called Varska Leelokoor Leiko, which means "play." The choir now has seven members who share leadership. Typically the post is given to one person, known as the iisutleja, who is seen as having the "power of songs." Veera's grandaughter Ruti, 16, is an "honorary member."
The Leiko choir had come to the cemetery to commune with Veera's husband's sister, who never married. After a bit of food and some banter, at an unspoken signal, the women moved to the perimeter of the plot. A prayer was said and then Veera led the singing, with a song she improvised that began: Lydica, sister of mine, I am here to greet you on your birthday, I can't give you my hand, our fingers won't touch each other, Let the soil be light on your grave, let your sleep be peaceful sleep.
A time-honored gathering spot for Estonians, including the Seto, is the community swing. I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd. With Elina, Veera and the others, I made my way down the road to the center of Varska and the town's iconic swing. Maimu, 64 and Ruti climbed up on its platform and Veera, Lidia and Anna, 82 years old, stood alongside it.
The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village's swing, which gives the people such pleasure. The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village's swing would be built during that season. In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men's thoughts turned to courting -- the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people. The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here -- to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.
A component of the traditional folk costume for both Seto women and men is a braided belt, which is considered both an item of everyday dress with a functional purpose, as well as "jewelry." Men's marital status is signified by which side their wear the knot on. Village life required quite a lot of heavy lifting and the Seto girded themselves with the belts tightly, like a weightlifter, which made their strenuous movements easier -- it also contributed to the upright posture for which the Seto are known.
When a woman married she must have many belts, as she was expected to give them as gifts to all the members of her new extended family. The ability to do handicrafts was important and a woman was considered "useless" if she didn't know how to make belts.
Maimu and Ruti set the swing to rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform -- Maimu crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground. The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia's canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt and I understood why the women's eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.
Our time together concluded with a lullaby. The women sang the chorus in unison, its whimsical refrain somehow universal "Ah-ah, Choo-choo, Choo-choo, Lu-lu." It was infectious, and even someone as tone-deaf as me felt comfortable joining in.
Elina and I began to say our good-byes and Anna impulsively took off a braided belt and handed it to me. It is a cherished gift from the generous Seto souls who shared their songs, their laughter and a powerful lesson in nurturing eternal connections and uplifting traditions.
I had been invited to partake in this tradition of the Seto people of southeastern Estonia by a new friend Elina. A Finn by birth, Elina came to Estonia 16 years ago for the weekend and never left.