The 1860s marked the beginning of a period of National Awakening in Estonia. The Song Celebration tradition began with the first Song Celebration organized by Johann Voldemar Jannsen and the “Vanemuine” society in Tartu from 18-20 June 1869. 51 male choirs and brass bands encompassing 845 singers and musicians gathered in Tartu.
The first Song Celebration was the highlight of the Estonian national movement. The Song Celebration was also a great musical event, which created the Song Celebration tradition. The Song Celebration has taken place regardless of the political situation. The term “singing nation” expresses well the Estonian identity that has united the nation in its struggle for national independence before 1918 and during the period of the Soviet occupation (1941-1991).
Six Song Celebrations were held from 1879-1910, which played and important role in the nation’s cultural and economic awakening and growth. The tradition of holding Song Celebrations every five years began during the first Estonian independence (1923-1938). After the end of World War II, the Song Celebration tradition was restored in 1947. Since 1950, the Song Celebrations have been held every five years.
The “Singing Revolution” began in 1988, based on the Song Celebration tradition, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the Song Festival Grounds to demand Estonia’s independence and sing patriotic songs. Estonia regained its independence in 1991.
The first Estonian Games, Dance and Gymnastics festival, held in 1934, was precursor of the present Dance Celebration. 1500 folk dancers performed there.
The greatest Dance Celebration of all times (the 9th) took place in 1970 with over 10000 performers. By then a structure based on age groups had developed with performers including toddler and seniors, the dancing veterans. The youngest dancer at this festival was 4 years old and the oldest 76! All the following festivals have had the optimal 8000 performers. The Dance Celebration is a performance with a certain theme. The dancers in their bright national costumes form colourful patterns on the dance field to tell a story. The Dance Celebration is usually held on the same weekend as the Song Celebration. These two celebrations commence with a joint festive parade through the city from the centre of Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds.
In the beginning of the 1960s, the number of youth choirs, orchestras, folk-dance groups and participants had increased to such a level that there arose a need for a separate celebration. So a Youth Song and Dance Celebration was organized. The first was held in 1962 and the next celebration will be held in 2017.
In November 2003, UNESCO declared Estonia’s Song and Dance Celebration tradition a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In July 2014 about 200 000 people participated in the XXVI Song Celebration and the XIX Dance Celebration “Touched by Time. The Time to Touch”, either as performers or spectators.
The 12th Youth Song and Dance Celebration “Here I’ll stay” was held in the end on June and beginning of July 2017.