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Russian Holidays: Maslenitsa

Perhaps the most cheerful and delicious holiday in Russia - Pancake week

The history and meaning of Maslenitsa

Russians celebrate the week before the beginning of Lent as Maslenitsa, which means "Butter Week" (from ‘maslo’ meaning butter). Since the dawn of time people have celebrated an ancient Slavic holiday related to the Vernal Equinox which, after Christianity, was implemented in the orthodox religious tradition. During this week, Russian Orthodox Christians ease into their Lenten fast by removing meat from their diet. Butter, milk and cheese remain. So, the week before the Great Lent is also the last opportunity to try delicious and filling pancakes. But not just this. Butter Week includes many celebrations and entertainments which people avoid during Lent, aimed at the cleaning both their body and soul.

In past times, traditional Butter Week entertainments included strolling through public places in fine clothes or in masks and costumes, visiting friends and relatives, enjoying rich foods, taking sleigh rides, attending plays put on by troupes of traveling actors, playing winter games, such as sliding down specially constructed hills of ice, and participating in rituals marking the death of winter.

Maslenitsa celebrations, Russia

Maslenitsa celebrations, Russia

Seven days of Maslenitsa

Every day of the Maslenitsa week has its own traditions.

Monday is the meeting of Maslenitsa, who is personified in a giant straw doll, dressed in old woman clothes, and snow games including tobogganing.

Tuesday a day of merriment, when everyone participates in games and competitions for adults and children including, folk festivals, puppet shows, sleigh rides, ice-skating and horse-riding. Pancake Week in 18th century Russia was hard to imagine without bear shows; trained bears amused the audience. Bear fun was very popular among all classes of the population of towns, cities and villages.

Wednesday is a day for those with a sweet tooth, as people begin to eat pancakes, honey gingerbreads, drink brewed beer and hot sbiten (alcoholic drink made from water, honey and spices), and every mother-in-law is to treat their son-in-law.

Thursday is a day of revelry, with the hottest fist-fights, games and fun.

On Friday, every son-in-law must treat their mother-in-law.

Saturday is the celebration of daughters-in-law, including presenting a gifts and pancakes.

On Sunday, everyone asks forgiveness from each other, followed by the response, “God will forgive you”. On this day, also called ‘Clean Sunday’, people visit a banya and burn everything left from this festival, including a solemn burning the Maslenitsa doll in a great bonfire. Burning it symbolizes the farewell to winter. On this day people also besiege and occupy the snow fortress, once again signifying the defeat of winter and, the arrival of spring.

Nowadays, many Russian cities offer Maslenitsa celebrations. Events will take place throughout the city’s main streets and parks, and include pancake tasting, fairs and concerts, as well as workshops and presentations. London will also play host to numerous cultural events from 19th to the 26th February. The programme of events is available on the official website of the Maslenitsa Festival celebrations in London.

Blinis - round, yellow and hot as sun

Blinis with red caviar

Russian blinis with red caviar

Pancakes, or blinis, have become a symbol of the celebration. They signify warmth and prosperity. Russian blinis should be thin, golden brown, and about the size of a saucer. After removing them from the pan, Russians roll the blinis up around a variety of rich fillings. These fillings include farmer cheese, meat, sturgeon, caviar, sour cream and jam, apples, mushrooms and onions, poppy seeds and much more.

Later this week our culinary blog comes back with the ultimate pancakes recipe, and filings, to share with you the genuine spirit and taste of the Russian Maslenitsa.

If you are interested in Maslenitsa and would like to experience Russian' culture, why not get in touch with our travel experts about arranging a trip.

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