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Of Russian origin: Maslenitsa

Boris Kustodiev, MaslenitsaBoris Kustodiev, Maslenitsa

Spring welcome

The tradition of Maslenitsa dates back to pagan times, when Russian folk would bid farewell to winter and welcome spring. As with many ancient holidays, Maslenitsa (the stress being on the first syllable) has a dual ancestry: pagan and Christian.

On the pagan side, Maslenitsa was celebrated on the vernal equinox day. It marked the welcoming of spring, and was all about the enlivening of nature and bounty of sunny warmth.
On the Christian side, Maslenitsa was the last week before the onset of Lent (fasting which precedes Easter), giving the last chance to bask in worldly delights.

Once Lent itself begins, a strictly kept fast excludes meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs. Furthermore, parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life are also strictly prohibited.

In the eyes of the church Maslenitsa is not just a week of merrymaking, but a whole step-by-step procedure to prepare oneself for a long and exhausting fasting, which, if observed properly, may be a real challenge.

Photo by Natalia Makarova, RTPhoto by Natalia Makarova, RT

The religious Maslenitsa celebration activities consist of three weeks starting with vseednaya week (omnivorous week), with no limitations in the diet, followed by ryabaya week (freckled), with alternating ferial and fasting days, and culminates with what we know as Maslenitsa week, or Cheese week, or, myasopust (abstaining from meat) when only dairy products are allowed for consumption.

The church has long been trying to eradicate the pagan side of the holiday, but only managed to reduce the Maslenitsa week from 14 days to 7 in the XVII century.

This last week is not homogeneous: if the first three days still permit performing daily chores and working, on Thursday, the so-called Wide Maslenitsa begins, when the celebration hits its climax, any labor is prohibited. On Sunday the Church commemorates Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, while for the rest it is just a farewell to winter.

Originally, the pagan festivities were held to honor the pagan deity Veles (or Volos also), the patron of cattle and farming. People associated him with a bear, or leshy (wood-goblin), therefore, the bear was a sacred animal possessing magical healing power. Some even thought of a bear to be a creature stronger than the Devil himself. Dancing like a bear around the house was supposed to protect it from burning down.

Such behavior was considered sinful and therefore condemned by the Church. It tried to uproot the tradition, but, confronted with the all-embracing popularity of the Veles character, it capitulated by shifting the focus of the celebration from the pagan God to the Christian saint Vlasiy. It is customary for devout Christians to bring pancakes to his icon during Maslenitsa to please him and assure plentiful crops and healthy livestock in the coming summer.


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.

On the other hand, the circle has been considered a sacred figure in Russia, protecting people from evil. Hence is the habit of going on horseback around the settlement several times, decorating a cart wheel and carrying it on a pole along the streets, and dancing the khorovod (round dance). Such ceremonies were believed to butter (in Russian, the figurative meaning of the verb “to cajole”) the Sun and make it kinder.

Pancakes also symbolize birth and death; in old Russia a pancake was given to a woman in labor, and is a ritual funeral repast in many homes.

At Maslenitsa pancakes are cooked in very large quantities to be used in almost every ritual, they are given to friends and family all through the week. Pancakes are served with caviar , mushrooms, jam, sour cream, and of course, lots of butter. To view the recipe for real Russian blinis, click here.

Traditional Maslenitsa Schedule:

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.

The rich start baking pancakes on this day, while the poor can only afford it doing it on Thursday or Friday. Traditionally, the first pancake goes to beggars to pay the tribute to the memory of deceased relatives. It was a common knowledge that if one doesn’t have as much fun as he or she could during Maslenitsa, they are doomed to grow old in loneliness and misery. Daughters-in-law are sent to their parents’ homes, with their husbands’ families joining them by the end of the day for a substantial holiday meal.

Photo by Natalia Makarova, RTPhoto by Natalia Makarova, RT

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. Petrushka shows are put up in balagans. Groups of mummers go from home to home and surprise everyone with on-the-spot performances.

Men can kiss any passing woman on the streets during this day. Guests are welcomed at the gate and treated to various delicacies including pancakes.
Groups of friends drive around in sledges.

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

On this day sons-in-law would pay a visit “to enjoy their mothers-in-law’s pancakes”. Besides her daughter’s husband a mother-in-law would invite other guests as well.

In the old times there was far more than just one son-in-law in one family, so the occasion demanded that they throw an elaborate and substantial dinner for her relatives. Pancakes, of course, again, would be the center of attention. They come in great variety – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats.

This profuse eating can accounted for by the general belief that at Maslenitsa one has to eat as much as one’s stomach would please. As the saying has it, “Have as many servings as many times as a dog would wag its tail”.

Sometimes, mostly in the villages, “women’s rally” would be organized as part of the “mother-in-law pancake party”. Several women would be harnessed together in threes and take rides around the village. Normally, these are newlywed wives who have to demonstrate their stamina and endurance, to prove they will succeed riding in the “family team”.

At the end of the day people sing hailing songs to praise the hospitable mother-in-law and her abundant home.

Photo by Natalia Makarova, RTPhoto by Natalia Makarova, RT

Thursday – Revelry

This is the time for Broad Maslenitsa to start. People are no longer allowed to work, and all the fun reaches its boiling point.

On this day fist fights traditionally take place. Fist fighting is said to commemorate Russian military history, when soldiers supposedly fought each other in hand-to-hand combat. “Never hit a man when he is down”, states a Russian proverb, and its roots are found in this Maslenitsa.

Violations of this rule are supposed to be punished severely, but, of course, rules are made to be broken. One of the witnesses, a Brit, Dr. Collins, residing in Moscow during the mid-17th century, recorded that once, more than 200 men were killed on this day.

The effigy of Maslenitsa is carried around in sledges. Children dressed for the occasion walk around from house to house, singing: “Ankes-pankes, bake the pancakes” thus asking for delicacies to enjoy at their festive parties. It is possible that this tradition was adopted by the American children, when they dress up in carnival costumes on Halloween and go trick-or-treating.

Friday – Mother-in-law’s Eve

Scarcely had mothers-in-law time to treat their sons-in-law to pancakes, when the sons-in-law are inviting their good-mothers to their gatherings. Newlywed couples are dressed in their best and ride sledges to show off their prosperity and well-being.

Invitations to the party would vary, with the honorary one being most desired. A mother-in law with all her kin is kindly asked to her son’s-in-law house for a dinner party in a special way: in the evening a son-in-law has to send the invitation to his mother-in-law personally, and the following morning he would send a group of “ambassadors” to her.

The bigger is the delegation, the greater the honor done to the mother-in-law. The mother-in-law would be flattered to receive such treatment therefore, people used to say, “The favorite son of the mother-in-law is her son-in-law”.

Valentin Serov, 'The Taking of a Snow Fortress'Valentin Serov, 'The Taking of a Snow Fortress'

Saturday – Sister-in-law’s Gathering

On this day young wives would invite their sisters-in-law for a feast to cajole them and win their favor. If husbands' sisters are single, young men are expected to attend the party. If they are married, she would invite all her married relatives along and the whole train would travel from one household to another.

This ritual was of significance, since the relationship between the young wife and her sister-in-law initially was expected to be rather tense. Even the origin of the Russian word denoting “sister-in-law” is pretty self-explanatory. In Russian it stems from the word ‘evil’ (zolovka from the word zlo).

Sisters-in-law initially were always suspicious and hostile toward her brother’s sweetheart, who in Russian is called nevestka, meaning “outsider”.

Photo by Natalia Makarova, RTPhoto by Natalia Makarova, RT

Sunday – Forgiveness Day

It is the day to ask for forgiveness. Young married couples visit their relatives, present gifts to their matchmakers, parents and friends, who cheered them at the wedding. They would also pay visits to their godparents to give presents to them, too.

The most honorary gift for a man was a towel. For a woman it was a piece of soap.
People would go to cemeteries and leave pancakes on the graves of their ancestors. When asking for forgiveness they would bow and normally hear the reply, “God will forgive you.” All the food that is left needs to be eaten up, followed by a piece of rye bread and salt, as a reminder of the upcoming Lent.

It is the day when Maslenitsa dolls has to be burnt; after it has turned to ashes, young people would walk over the fire, marking the end of the Maslenitsa festivities.

Photo by Tina Berezhnaya, RTPhoto by Tina Berezhnaya, RT

The burning of Lady Maslenitsa

The rite of burning the effigy is related to the ancient, both pagan and Christian, idea of revival through sacrifice and death. It stands for the awakening of fruit-bearing powers of nature, the renewal of its life force. This pristine holiday harbors profound meaning: the birth of life through struggle, death and revival. For this logic, the mascot of the celebration was chosen to be an effigy of a woman symbolizing the bearer of a new life.

Lady Maslenitsa, made out of straw and clad in brightly-colored garments, is the center of the celebration. It is carried around on a pole or driven in sledges throughout the entire holiday week. People sing songs about Maslenitsa, where it is referred to as a real person, that accuse it of its rampant nature on the one hand and responsible for the winter cold and the upcoming severe Lent to come on the other.

The climax of the holiday week is burning the effigy, which takes place on Sunday, the Forgiveness Day. Unlike the usual bonfires of brushwood and logs, this ceremonial fire was “powered” by hay and old rags.

Photo by Natalia Makarova, RTPhoto by Natalia Makarova, RT

People sought to take the load of the old possessions off their shoulders, as they were convinced that by doing so they liberated their lives from old gnawing pains, unresolved issues, and uneasy thoughts. In towns the bonfires served a different purpose: they would melt the icy hills and snowdrifts thus sending away what was left of winter.

This rite was a way for people to be purged, to let go anger and grudge they had built up the previous year and to enter the New Year purified and light-hearted. In many regions of Russia, pancakes, butter and milk were also burnt during that day, which signified the end of the Maslenitsa feast and marked the beginning of the seven-week Lent.

Once Lady Maslenitsa was reduced to ashes, they were either buried in the snow or scattered across the fields to fertilize the future crops. In the pre-Christian era instead of the effigy the real person was burnt, and torn into parts and scattered in the fields to assure rich crops, but starting from the 17th century, this ugly carnivorous tradition was banned.

Written by Ekaterina Shubnaya, RT