Russian Maslenica – “Fatty Week”
Maslenica (mas-len-EAT-sah) is a unique Slavic holiday, and is a mix of Orthodox and pagan traditions. It lasts for an entire week and takes place during the last week before the Great Lent and is followed by Easter.
Since Lent excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from spiritual life, Maslenica represents the last chance to take part in social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful, sober, and introspective Lenten season. It is a time when societal rules are broken including wearing masks, cross-dressing, role-playing, gorging, and of course, consuming large amounts of alcohol (did we mention that it’s in Russia?)
This holiday is almost like Salvic version of “Carnival” or “Fat Tuesday” as celebrated in other countries.
This famous holiday combines Orthodox and Pagan traditions — the feasting is typical of followers of Orthodox, who feast before the Great Lent to prepare the body and soul for a month of a strict diet and rules. While the tradition of sending off winter in order for spring to come has Pagan origins.
Typical Food and Origin of the Name
During the whole week people celebrate the coming spring and the departure of winter by preparing an assortment delicious (and fattening) foods. The most popular are: bleeni (often spelled ‘blini’) which are similar to crepes, sirniki which are fried cottage cheese cakes, vareniki which are Belorussian dumplings, and pelmeni which are Siberian meat dumplings. These are all eaten with large quantities of milk and tons of other dairy products.
The Russian word for butter is “maslo”, which is the root of the name of the holiday “Maslenica”. Although, because of the practice of (over)eating, Maslenica is also affectionately known as: “bleeni eater”, “overeating week”, “voracious week”,”fatty week”, “milk week”, and “cheese week”.
Maslenica Week Schedule
Each day of Maslenica has a prescription for the traditions and activities to be held. Let’s take a look at a traditional week of this festival:
Parents send their daughter in law back to her parents, just for one day and in the evening visited them. People start cooking bleeni (pancakes). The very first pancake to be cooked must be given to the poor, for him/her to commemorate the deceased. People gather old shoes and clothing to put together a straw figure of a women, (like a scarecrow) symbolizing winter, these are attached to poles to be carried through the streets.
This day is important for all families with unmarried children, and is used as a day for looking at possible future husbands. Young people go out to play in the snow, slide down hills, and have snowball fights. Girls who find a guy interesting, would invite him to her parents’ house to eat pancakes, so that the whole family could meet the young man.
On this day, married men visit their mother-in-laws, who prepare fresh bleeni for her guest.
Beginning on Thursday, any tasks related to work come to a halt. People participate in a variety of fun activities including: dancing, singing, horse-riding, tobogganing, and pranking neighbors. The festivities are highlighted by participating in a gigantic snowball fight and building snow fortresses.
A hallmark of Maslenica is burning big fires and jumping over them. This practice has pagan roots, the fire serves to clean the body.
Also, starting from Thursday, young people go caroling door-to-door and the owner of the houses had to give singers some money, sweets or a bit of wine.
The mother-in-law goes to the house of her daughter and daughter’s husband, to eat some more fresh blini. With the help of such visits, parents and young couples demonstrate their kindness.
On this day young married girls to invite and serve their husband’s sisters and other young relatives of the husband, as well as all of her personal unmarried female friends.
Sunday is the most important day of Maslenica week, it also called “Forgiven Sunday”. All relatives ask each other for forgiveness for all of their offenses from the preceeding year.
On this day, churches held special memorial services for the deceased. Also people go to Russian baths (‘banya’) to wash off all old dirt from the past year. Leftovers of food had to be burned and all dishes must be washed.
At the very end of the day, everyone goes out into the street to burn the straw figure of the woman, (from Monday) symbolizing the cold winter. The ashes of figure are to be poured over fields, as a call for good harvest.
This unique holiday, lives on today through its timeless traditions and the themes of returning to the earth and burning the old in honor of new life. But maybe this holiday has continued for as long as it has because of all of the blini eating.