Our readers in the West may have never heard of Maslenitsa, but for Russians it is an ancient tradition wrapped up in the coming of Springtime, food and the beginning of Christian Easter. It is a festival dating back to pagan times when Russians would celebrate the end of winter and beginning of spring.
In pagan times, Maslenitsa marked the beginning of spring and was celebrated on the vernal equinox day. Symbols were about nature and the sun.
Later the Church would christen the tradition, using Maslenitsa to mark the period of Lent and the 40 days of fasting prior to Easter. In modern times the celebration is a week long and represents one last chance to enjoy the delights of spring before the Lenten fast.
As explained on a recent Russia Today television and radio programme, the name of the holiday, Maslenitsa (derived from maslo, which means butter or oil in Russian) owes its existence to the tradition of baking pancakes (or blini , in Russian). They are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa.
On the one hand, hot, round, and golden, pancakes, as people believed, embody a little of the sun’s grace and might, helping to warm up the frozen earth. In old days pancakes were cooked from buckwheat flour, lending them a red color, making the significance even more evident.
Russians don’t cover pancakes with sugary syrup as a rule, opting instead for things like ice cream, sour cream, butter, jams and caviar to name but a few. There are three weeks of Maslenitsa, with the second week called “Meatfare” week and the last chance to enjoy meat products prior to Easter.
The third and final week which began on 11 March, is called “Cheesefare” week and Russians enjoy dairy products, usually with a week long diet of pancakes. As most Russians typically love pancakes, called “blini” in Russian, this isn’t a restriction as much as it is a party.
“Cheesefare” week culminates on Sunday, 17 March, called “Forgiveness Sunday” and it is on that day that the strict 40 Lenten fasting period begins. Forgiveness Sunday is the day to ring up all those you’ve offended or hurt in some way and to ask for their forgiveness. A popular way for some Russians is to spend “forgiveness Sunday” is to visit relatives and friends with an exchange of kisses and asking for forgiveness from each other, if by chance an offense had been made by words or deeds.
We’ll cover the Lenten fast in the coming days as the calendar approaches the 40 day event.