“In the pre-Revolutionary (pre-1917) days, Пасха had rich holiday traditions. Most were suppressed and forgotten during the 70 years of Soviet regime. In the last two decades the holiday has undergone a resurrection and revival of its own and so have its traditions.” -From the Master Russian site.
“Easter” in Russia is “Paskha”, by the way – I just thought I’d mention it. So far, we’ve concentrated on the formalities of the occasion, and whilst they are essential to members of the Russian Orthodoxy (don’t mess with the Russian church), it’s also important to acknowledge that Easter is also a family occasion, with simple, traditional pleasures at hand.
As with most (all?) Russian celebrations; food is involved, in significant quantities, that’s after the all-important spring-cleaning is completed of course. Yes, I am serious – cleanliness and purification have their place during Easter week as they had during the preceding season of Lent that started approximately one week after Maslenitsa.
Without going into too much detail (we are supposed to be looking at the fun aspect after all), the devout uphold a regime of fasting across the Lent and Holy week periods. During this time certain key foods, typically: wine, oil (for cooking), and meat (including fish) are forbidden, or permitted only on certain dates. It is for the individual to decide just how strictly he or she adheres to the form, with the very young or the sick allowed a free pass, so to speak. This period also encourages (requires?) some introspection and active devotion, with followers thinking upon the paths of their lives and attending church more often, performing good deeds and dedicating time to prayer and to the study of holy texts. On Easter day the fast is broken and the party begins. As with all parties: some over-indulge and painfully regret it but most have an enjoyable, family-oriented occasion.
Kulich is a staple of the Easter season. It’s a sweet, glazed yeast-bread, soft in texture, and often with added fruit. The exact recipe may vary from family to family, with the element of personalisation adding to the charm of sharing with others. It’s typically the centre piece of the Easter table, surrounded by meats and cheeses, all on the best table cloth, along with painted eggs, flowers and other Easter/Spring decor.
Speaking of cheeses, it’s time to mention the dairy overload that follows the fast. Foremost is Easter, or Paska Cheese – which is a pretty formidable concoction in it’s own right. Again, recipes are sure to vary between families, but expect to find an amalgam of cottage cheese, egg yolks, butter, sour cream and double-cream. Fruit, sugar, and brandy (!) may also be added, you have been warned. It sounds like a hardcore variation on cheese-cake (by our standards), ostensibly designed to clog your arteries solid just by being in its very presence. Good luck.
Easter could only be considered complete with the inclusion of eggs. Whilst most of us default to the chocolate variety, the hen-laid versions figure prominently in traditional Orthodox practice. The Thursday before Good Friday is considered the time to decorate eggs; usually by dyeing and painting them (unless you are Carl Fabergé). These will later be eaten, shared, given away as presents and/or retained as keepsakes. They are traditionally blessed in church (along with the bread, incidentally), but there’s an intriguing duality to their nature and origins. Although presented in a Christian context, the Russian traditions surrounding them really highlight the Pagan cross-over nature of these symbols of life, re-birth, resurrection; -or however you’d like to re-frame them.
They are considered to have magical powers, to bring good luck, good fortune, and to ward off evil. Their powers, historically, would extend to protecting crops and cattle, and even to enable a person to look young again. Believers may also take eggs to grave sites, along with bread and beer; thereby allowing the dead to participate in the festivities. How Pagan is that? Traditional egg-rolling games also survive with a belief that these blessed eggs make the earth beneath them fertile.
Finally, it’s important to emphasise the deed of giving in these Orthodox festivities. With the fast broken on Easter morning, the family will typically enjoy a large breakfast before venturing out to exchange good wishes, painted eggs and hospitality with neighbours. That’s something that we could certainly use more of here. Have a good Easter.