History, Traditions and Symbols of Maslenitsa


The history of Maslenitsa has its roots in old folk stories. Maslenitsa is an old Slavic festival, inherited from pagan culture and preserved during Christian times. Originally Maslenitsa commemorated the equinox and for this reason pancakes have become the perfect expression for the holiday. While for others, the holiday is a religious affair, precluding the Orthodox Church’s period of Great Lent. Here, the name 'maslenitsa', a word that is derived from the Russian word for butter, is quite literally arising because this particular week in Orthodox tradition is meat free and only dairy products are eaten.

Maslenitsa is the most cheerful and delicious folk festival lasting an entire week.

Although for many the holiday is a festival welcoming in the new season it remains an important family holiday. Spring, is associated with rebirth, rejuvenation and renewal. Maslenitsa week therefore begins with newlyweds being congratulated. Historically they ride in sleighs throughout their village, an integral part of the festivities was horse riding.

In the XVIII and XIX centuries the central to the festival was peasant comedy, with such characters from Mummers as "Maslenitsa", "Voivoda" and others. The plot for it was Maslenitsa itself, with its abundant refreshments before the upcoming lent, with its farewells and promises to be back next year. Often the comedy included some real local events.

Maslenitsa for many centuries has preserved the character of a folk festival. Traditionally the cold winter is chased away to reawaken the hibernating spring. The holiday is welcomed with song on snow capped hills. At the centre of the festival is a doll stuffed with straw, dressed in women's clothes, which is usually burned at a stake!

Blini are Russian pancakes, and they are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Blini are cooked everyday, starting from Monday, but in particular large quantities from Thursday to Sunday. The traditional Russian blini was from the time of the worship of pagan gods. The Sun god called Yarylo banished the winter, and blini symbolize the sun—being warm, round, and golden—they are an appropriate warning to the lingering cold weather.
Each woman traditionally has her own special recipe for blini, handed down from generation to generation through the female line.

Traditionally, the first pancake goes to beggars to pay the tribute to the memory of deceased relatives. Baked blini are usually made of wheat, buckwheat, oat, or corn flour and are eaten together with sour cream, eggs, caviar and other tasty spices from morning till night.

Maslenitsa is celebrated the whole week and it is perhaps the most cheerful holiday in Russia.  Sunday before Maslenitsa people traditionally pay visits to relatives, neighbours, friends or invite guests to their houses. Maslenitsa is the last week before the onset of Great Lent. During Maslenitsa week, meat is already forbidden, making it a "meat-empty week". For this reason the last Sunday before Maslenitsa is called “meat Sunday”, when sons-in-law are invited to eat up the meat.

Every day of Maslenitsa has its own name and devoted to special rituals:

Monday – Welcoming
By this day the building of ice-hills, seesaws, and balagans is complete. Children and grown-ups assemble a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and old woman’s clothes. They place it on a pole and go dancing in khorovods, afterwards the doll is carried to the top of a snow hill, while at the same time people enjoy sliding down it.

Tuesday – Playing
Most of the fun and mischief falls on this day. From the early morning, the youngsters would chute down ice-hills and eat pancakes. Single guys use sleigh rides to look out for young beautiful girls. The whole purpose of these games and activities was to make the matchmaking process easier and form couples to get married on the Krasnaya Gorka (Red Hill Holiday – a Sunday after Easter, traditionally the time for couples to get married).

Wednesday – Regaling, the Sweet Tooth day
Pancakes  would be the center of attention. They come in great variety – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats.

Thursday – Revelry
On this day people ride in sledges to help sun drive away winter. They drive around the village ‘following the sun’, clockwise. On this day fist fights traditionally take place.

Friday – Mother-in-law’s Eve
On that day mothers-in-law treat their sons-in-law to pancakes.

Saturday – Sister-in-law’s Gathering
This day  is devoted to the visits of all relatives and to pancake feasts.

Sunday – Forgiveness Day
It is the last day of the festival, the day to ask all relatives and friends for forgiveness.  Usually it will follow by dancing and singing to farewell Maslenitsa. It is the day when Maslenitsa dolls, which represents the figure of winter has to be burnt. It is placed in centre of fire and everybody farewell with it with jokes, songs and dances. People scold winter for its cold and hunger and thank for joyful winter fun. After Maslenitsa doll has turned to ashes, young people would walk over the fire, marking the end of the Maslenitsa festivities.

Maslenitsa ends with the first day of Lent – Clean Monday, which is considered the day of purification from sin and fast forbidden food. On Clean Monday people usually wash in a bath; women wash dishes, cleaning them from grease and remains of forbidden food.