All during this week, Russians celebrate the festival of Maslenitsa (“Butter Week”). This tradition came to us from time immemorial. The celebration of this festival began many centuries ago, to the pagan Slavs, it symbolised the end of the cold days of winter. Therefore, the main food eaten during the festivities is blini (leavened buckwheat pancakes), round and golden as the sun. Maslenitsa was always celebrated, come what may, there was even a saying, “Indeed, no matter what, we swear to observe the Butter Week!” With the advent of Christianity, this tradition took on new meaning. True, at first, the Church struggled against the festivities, but, then, it decided to change its anger at a pagan holdover into an acceptance of a native folk custom.
“Today, the Orthodox Church sees Maslenitsa as a holiday with significance for all mankind”, said Fr Georgy Ryabykh. “Maslenitsa is, first of all, a time of meetings, contact, and rehabilitation of long-sundered relationships. It is a time of reconciliation, it strengthens ties of kinship and friendship, and it overcomes loneliness, old grievances, and differences. The festival is only a form; it is just a means to achieve these goals. Moreover, it would be correct and important to emphasise this facet of the celebration of Maslenitsa, reconciliation, friendship, and harmony”.
Although it was originally pagan, Maslenitsa has a solid place in the calendar, including for those who are deeply religious, for it heralds the beginning of the Great Eater Lent. During Butter Week, or, as it is called in the Orthodox canons, “Cheese Week”, believers abstain from meat, preparing themselves for the 48-day Lent, during which the Church strongly advises against the use of any animal-based food (i.e., animal oils, milk, cheese , eggs and other things, not to mention wine). Maslenitsa became an occasion to have some fun before the rigours of the long weeks of abstinence.
In Moscow, “Great Maslenitsa” is marked in a big way. Vasilievsky Spusk in Red Square beomes the centre of the holiday festivities, and the “Pancake Town” is located here. According to folk tradition, every day of Maslenitsa has its own name and meaning. Therefore, there is a special and distinct programme carried out in the Pancake Town for every day of the feast. For example, on Monday, they glorify the coming of Maslenitsa, singing song and dance round dances, so, the first day is called “the meeting”. The merriest and most fun day, the fourth of the feast, is called “Rowdy Thursday”. This day begins with fun competitions, such as the pancake speed-eating contests.
Maslenitsa ends on March 1, “Forgiveness Sunday”, when, according to Russian custom, we ask forgiveness from everyone for all the sins we committed during the past year, whether we did so wittingly or unwittingly, resulting in offence and distress. On Sunday, a Maslenitsa Parade shall pass on the central streets of the capital with orchestras, drummers, clowns on stilts, circus performers, acrobats and organ-grinders. By the way, the Moscow festival “Great Maslenitsa” officially listed in the catalogue of famous international carnival celebrations. Meanwhile, Maslenitsa is expanding its reach; the first Maslenitsa festivities in London will take place on 1 March (all those who want to eat Russian pancakes and party in the Russian style will be able to do so on to the square in front of the London City Hall). Next year, Maslenitsa will be noted in other European cities, as well.
24 February 2009
Voice of Russia World Service
Did your parish note “Rowdy Thursday?” If not, shame on you! Orthodoxy is not just canon-quoting, severe fasts, and long faces. Orthodoxy is joyous and FUN! This is why neophytes should stay away from reading for at least a year or two, at the minimum. Live our life; enter into the rhythms of it all. You won’t learn our life and faith by sticking your nose in a book. Attend the services (and leave the service-book at home, please, it shall not help), do good to those about you, help bake the kulichi and make the paskha, and hoover out the church-hall. God shall honour all of that far more than any prideful and arrogant reading of things beyond you.
It’s what God expects from you, after all. We are His beloved children; we are not His oppressed prisoners…