TALLINN, Estonia -- Tens of thousands of Estonians joined in singing folk songs Sunday on the 150th anniversary of a music festival that inspired resistance to Soviet control and later received recognition from the U.N. cultural agency.
The Estonian Song and Dance Celebration attracted 35,000 singers, more than 1,000 choirs and 700 dance groups to the capital of Tallinn. The event, held every five years, started as a song-only celebration in 1869.
An estimated 90,000 people attended the main concert that closed the festival, which had most of the choirs joining voices for songs with special meaning for Estonians and their national identity. The festival theme this year was "My Fatherland is My Love."
During Estonia's nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation, some traditional anthems and songs were banned or had their lyrics changed so singing them was an act of defiance.
In the late 1980s, people intentionally sang the original versions of key songs at protests, and that defiance culminated in independence following their "Singing Revolution" in 1991.
The United Nations' cultural body, UNESCO, has recognized Estonia's folk song festival and similar events in Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania for showcasing the "intangible cultural heritage of humanity."
Over half of the singers at this year's festival were under age 30 and only have known an independent Estonia. Yet the lyrics still carried deep meaning for the new generation of choir singers.
"There are some songs that when you start singing them, you just can't hold your emotions back and the tears just start coming," Robi Pinta, 18, said before joining the huge blended choir.
A sea of blue, white and black flags festooned the festival arena, where singers dressed in traditional garments and the audience members cried "Eesti," or Estonia.
The mood was joyous and did not seem to carry overt overtones of exclusion that have often accompanied European displays of populist nationalism.
"For me patriotism is more about feeling as one with your nation," said 23-year-old Joanna-Stina Talivere. "It's about feeling as one with everyone who is here today."
The unity has extended beyond Estonia's borders. During the Singing Revolution, 2 million people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined hands to form a 600-kilometer (370-mile) human chain that protested Soviet occupation of the Baltics with a song.
"Estonians love to say that that it was singing that made us free," Heldur Harry Polda, 22, said at the festival Sunday. "I think everybody believes that. And I think we have to kind of respect that and keep our country free."