A couple of months ago, I attended the Songkran festival in Northern Thailand. I left feeling dismayed about its disconnection from tradition, and confused about the impact of foreign exposure and tourism on local cultures. In response, I penned this reflection.
What a contrast to Estonia’s Song Festival, which was celebrated a couple of weeks ago in Tallinn, with clear ties to the past and where revelry didn’t distract from convention. In Estonia, I felt both awed and deeply humbled at being able to witness such an intimate and meaningful gathering.
Estonia’s Song Festival was first celebrated in 1869, and since its inception, it has been commemorated both in times of independence and in times of foreign occupation – with few significant adjustments to the program. The themes and some of the songs change, but the overall structure and sentiment is enduring. The celebration has always taken place not as any sort of propaganda about Estonia to the world at large, but to remind their citizens, in a peaceful, constructive way, of all that they have to be proud of.
“I couldn’t help but reflect on why Songkran had jolted me, while the Song Festival had been deeply satisfying. Both are celebrations deeply rooted in national rituals. But one has, over time, allowed the focus to shift.”
Over the course of the weekend, I was particularly impressed with the orderly proceedings. Dealing with over 100,000 people is no easy feat – especially when one considers Estonia’s population is only of 1.3 million people. Each step of the process was executed with practiced ease: buses carted the nearly 30,000 singers and over 70,000 spectators to and from the Song Festival grounds, and streets were closed off as necessary to accommodate the surge in visitors to Tallinn.
While foreigners were greeted with smiles at every turn, they weren’t being catered to. No translations or introductions were provided, but what was lost in translation was made up for in the clear pride etched on each person’s face and in every voice. What’s important to note is that foreigners weren’t being excluded – but it was an opportunity for them to witness a cherished celebration of Estonian people and their history on their terms.
In a world of sponsorships and paid promotions, it was also refreshing to see an event of this magnitude with barely any corporate involvement. There were no fireworks, no pomp and circumstance; the focus was on history and on keeping traditions alive. The clothes and costumes – more often than not handmade – were fascinating to see and connected to municipalities from all over the country. The resulting mosaic of colors filling Tallinn’s streets and the Song Festival grounds was a feast for the eyes.
I couldn’t help but reflect on why Songkran had jolted me, while the Song Festival had been deeply satisfying. Both are celebrations deeply rooted in national rituals. But one has, over time, allowed the focus to shift to parties and debauchery and away from local customs and culture. Experiencing both has left me with a strong sentiment that local customs and traditions should be considered sacred; that foreign involvement should be limited in order to preserve the sanctity of the custom.
Certainly, it’s normal for adjustments or revisions to be made to certain practices over time. After all, many rituals are enacted to suit the needs of a particular place and time. Yet, it’s comforting that so many of the songs and ideals on which the Song festival were founded are still in place today. While it is important for foreigners to feel included, that shouldn’t come at the expense of the local culture.
Zach Glassman was invited to Estonia by the Estonian Tourism Board. All opinions are his own.