Easter is the main Christian and family-orientated celebration in Russia
This year, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on 5 May. This is the most important celebration on the Christian calendar. During Soviet times, taking part in Easter festivities wasn’t encouraged; as a result, Soviet aspects still layer contemporary Russian Easter traditions. Easter festivities begin with a celebratory evening church service, accompanied by a cross procession. During the procession, priests walk around the church counter-clockwise, carrying banners and icons and singing prayers, parishioners join the procession. The popular belief is that when the procession finishes, this marks the end of Great Lent… then, people can eat whatever they please. Amongst the foods enjoyed on Orthodox Easter are Easter eggs, kulich, and “Paskha” (made with drained cottage cheese and raisins). These dishes are “blessed” during the church service. Traditionally, people keep one of the blessed eggs is until the following Easter; people say that the egg won’t rot for the entire year.
Despite the fact that the Soviets forbade many aspects of religion, practically every household still dyed eggs every year. There wasn’t a particular religious meaning attached to this tradition, but Easter was celebrated all the same. Natalia, a pensioner, said, “We had a favourite game, which meant we looked forward to Easter every year. Two people each took an egg and tapped them against each other. The one whose egg remained intact took the cracked one; so, as you went through the village from door to door, you could end up with quite a few. You didn’t necessarily have to eat all the ‘trophy eggs’ though; when we were quite full, we’d simply share the eggs with anyone who wanted them. My family wasn’t religious… my mum was a teacher, and my dad was an electrician and a war veteran. Yet, over the Easter holidays, I’d sneak off to church with my grandmother, where she’d always spoil me with sweets. Of course, I’d always be in trouble with my parents when I got home, for disgracing them”.
One of the traditions associated with the official prohibition of religious celebrations was the Easter custom of visiting cemeteries and tending the graves of relatives who’d passed away. People rarely neglected this traditional duty. After the liberation of the Church, when it began to enjoy government support, important public figures started attending all the main church services. Fr Aleksandr said, “Visiting cemeteries and leaving Easter eggs and cakes was originally a pagan tradition, which started to become popular again during the Soviet era. As it was difficult to practise the Orthodox faith during Soviet times, certain strong superstitions emerged. At Easter, it became essential to go to church. In general, I can say that people in Russia are Orthodox, although not many are in the habit of going to church. However, at Easter, people come to church, even though you’d never see them any other day of the year. Now, wouldn’t you call that a miracle of the Lord?”
After church, it’s time to break the Great Lent fast with a celebratory dinner, which marks both the end of Great Lent and the beginning of the brightest day of the year. However, it’s important to remember that a fast… especially, a strict one… puts serious stress on the body, which means that you must break it gently and gradually. Doctors don’t recommend that you start by eating heavy meat dishes. It’s better to begin with boiled meat and vegetables on the first day (perhaps, some salad and herbs), then, gradually introduce dairy products. Sergei, a computer programmer, said, “In my family, we usually celebrate with my mother-in-law and father-in-law, at their place. For them, this holiday isn’t so much about religion as it is about family. It’s an occasion that brings all their children and grandchildren together around the table. Strangely enough, I tend to miss dairy products much more than meat. I spend all day on Sunday drinking kefir (a fermented milk drink) and eating yoghurt, though not uncontrollably. Everything happens quite calmly, without any fuss; you can see your body has acclimatised to itself to a modest diet due to the fast. In the middle of the day, we have lamb, Paskha, and a little alcohol”.
Of course, on the night before Easter, all the churches are full of people, although, for some “parishioners”, this is just an excuse to drink. Night falls and the whole city is out celebrating… rather like New Year’s, right? Some even swear that they’ve seen people actually handing out glasses and drinking alcohol in the church itself, during the service. Roman, a fire-inspector, said, “Every year I take part in the Easter service; although, admittedly, not as a parishioner, but in the line of service. I make sure there aren’t any emergencies, although, unfortunately, they do occur more often than you might think. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to rescue women whose clothes have caught fire from the candles. All it takes is that an elderly lady in a fluffy scarf holding a candle leans forward… then, suddenly, she’s ablaze. Nowadays, if I ever see someone in a scarf during the service, I go up to them straight away and remind them to be careful”.
The Easter celebrations continue for a whole week after the Resurrection of Christ; celebratory services take place in churches all week long. Even if there are burial services during this time, the ritual itself takes place with a special Easter sermon and a large number of joyful prayers about the miracle of the Resurrection. Easter week also has another unique facet… it’s the only time of year when anyone can ring the church bells. Sergei said, “My children look forward to ringing the bells all year long. We usually get together with friends who have young children and go to church. It’s best to arrive just after the evening service finishes, around seven at night. All that you have to do is to go up to any of the priests and ask, ‘Please, give your blessing that I might ring the bells to the glory of Christ’. I’ve never known a priest to refuse. Ringing the bells gives you an unforgettable feeling. At first, it’s a little difficult, but as you get the hang of it, you understand the rhythm… you can play something more or less intelligible. Moreover, of course, the children are just delighted. The main thing is to keep an eye on the really little ones though, as the bells are still quite high”.
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4 May 2013
Russia Beyond the Headlines
Nicky and I laid Easter eggs on “our” graves at Jordanville on Saturday night. Nicky tended the graves of his family members… I guess that this makes us more “Soviet” than “White”. As one can see, the Soviet period wasn’t all darkness… indeed, it burned out all the rot in the Mother Church (it didn’t burn out all the sin… it did burn out all the rot, though). Now, we must do the same here in the diaspora… God DOES will it.