Maslenitsa – Celebrate the Russian Mardi Gras with Maslenitsa

Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnaval, Karneval . . . that’s Maslenitsa by any other name. If you haven’t heard of it, it wasn’t celebrated to much extent for 85 years in Russia. However, Maslenitsa is back in full force. Since 2002 it’s been officially organized in Moscow and is becoming a mainstay of Moscow’s holiday calendar. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent – that is, the seventh week before Orthodox Easter.

Maslenitsa 2011 takes place between February 28 and March 6th.

The old word for Maslenitsa, ‘Myasopust’ means “empty of meat;” the Orthodox Church, however, which dislikes people enjoying themselves too much, calls it ‘Cheese Week,’ because the meatless diet still allows cheese, butter and cream, which are also then forbidden during the seven weeks of Lent.

As Russian traditions are observed and people eat their fill of blini (Pancakes) the festivals help to bid farewell to winter.  “Blini” are Russian pancakes, and they are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Said to symbolize the sun—being warm, round, and golden—they are an appropriate warning to the lingering cold weather. Blini are given to friends and family all through the week and are topped with caviar, mushrooms, jam, sour cream, and of course, lots of butter.

Maslenitsa week began as a pagan ritual and has since been absorbed into the Eastern Orthodox religion. As it stands, Maslenitsa serves many purposes. Maslenitsa signals the exit of winter and heralds the coming of spring. The idea is to dispel the cold with symbols of spring: golden pancakes that represent the sun and an effigy – a Man of Straw that is burned on the last day of festivities to welcome warmer weather. Sledding, group fist fights, and troika rides are other traditional Maslenitsa activities.

As a part of pre-Lenten celebrations, it is also a pre-emptive strike to the upcoming fast. Because meat and dairy would traditionally be forbidden, Maslenitsa is the time for feasting (especially on pancakes). The name of the festival has its roots in the Russian word for butter, “maslo.”

The 7 Days of Pancakes Week

Monday – Meeting
Together with the grown-ups, children made a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and old women’s clothes. They set it on a pole and carried it around, singing. Then it was placed at the top of the snow hill, from where people were sliding down.

Tuesday – Games
Most of the amusement activities began on this day. Groups of friends drove around in sledges. Petrushka the clown was making people laugh in the wooden entertainment pavilions (balagan). Mummers visited homes in groups and surprised everybody with spontaneous concerts. Men were allowed to kiss any passing woman on the streets during this day.

Wednesday – Feasting
This day opened the feast in all homes, when pancakes and other delicacies were prepared in quantities. Each housewife had her own pancake recipe and kept it a secret. Pancakes were made in a great variety – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats. Street stalls were opened, selling ‘sbiten,’ a hot toddy (from honey, water and spices), nuts, honey cakes, tea and pancakes. This day sons-in-law went to their mothers-in-laws’ to eat bliny.

Thursday – Revelry, the Broad Thursday
Entertainment was at its most extreme. This is the day when fisticuffs happened everywhere. Many strict rules applied: “Never hit a man when he is down” goes the Russian proverb, and it comes from Maslenitsa. Violations of the rules were punished. Rules, of course, are made to be broken – a Dr. Collins, in Moscow during the mid-17th century, recorded that more than 200 men were killed on this day.

Friday – Mother-in-law’s Eve
Mothers-in-law were invited by their sons-in-law to a gathering with pancakes. Newlywed couples put on their best clothes and rode on decorated sledges. This was a day to visit all those who had been the guests at a wedding.

Saturday – Sister-in-law’s Gathering
Sisters-in-law and other relatives were invited for dinner by a young wife, where she was supposed to distribute gifts. After strolls and round dances, when darkness arrived Maslenitsa dolls were burnt in ritual fires, with cries and laughter. Pancakes were thrown into the fire with the words: “Burn, pancake, burn, Maslenitsa!”

Sunday – Forgiveness Day
People went to cemeteries and left pancakes on the graves of their ancestors. Everybody asked one another for forgiveness and bowed with the words, “God will forgive you.” All the food that was left was eaten, along with a piece of rye bread and salt, as a reminder of the coming Lent.

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