Whilst we wait around for the details of this year’s UK Maslenitsa Festival (touched on last week), it’s a good opportunity to look at more of the origins and traditions behind this full-on Pagan, end of winter party.
The origins of the festival are dark and sombre; it was initially held in remembrance of the dead. That must have been the grim icing on the proverbial cake: 6 months of brutal Russian winter with a dour festival of the dead to look forward to!
It comes as no surprise that over time, the week-long festival was transformed into something more joyous and celebratory, with the emphasis on looking forward to spring, bidding farewell to winter and enjoying the state of just being alive. Naturally with spring being the planting season, one aspect of Maslenitsa was ritual encouragement towards the delivery of a good harvest after all the rural labours.
It’s hard to appreciate the importance of such pursuits to earlier societies, tied in as they were to a cycle of life that most of us are completely divorced from. With food available wherever we turn (often imported to avoid the natural constraints of our climate and its seasons), a failed harvest is just something that we hear about on the news. To those dependent upon localised, ancient agriculture, it was something that you lived or died by. As a result, the rituals and the celebrations were decidedly a “big deal” to all concerned.
So much so that a distinct, Maslenitsa timetable of events was organised to fill the week before Lent, and any disregard for the festivities and their time-honoured plan could result in genuine animosity and ill will.
Monday would see the symbolic creation of a straw-stuffed effigy in the form of an old woman dressed in Babushka clothing; a visual representation of the soon-departing winter. With similarities to our tradition of our bonfire night “Guy”, this figure was then mounted on a sleigh and conveyed around the village accompanied by the songs of the participants, before being sent down a local hillside slope. The day was relatively sober compared to the rest of the celebrations. The party had only just begun.
Tuesday would see the main event start in earnest. It was a costumed and masked affair with entertainment provided in numerous forms: concerts, folk festivals, actors, puppet shows, “performing” bears, sledding and group troika rides (a troika is a traditional, 3 horse Russian sleigh or buggy). Not surprising then that Tuesday was also known as game day, although the games certainly didn’t stop there.
Wednesday was feast day, but similarly to Tuesday’s games, the eating and drinking certainly wasn’t confined to a single 24 hour span. Open, neighbourly feasts were held at various homes and more food and drink was sold from tents. Ever-present was blini: Russian pancakes (Maslenitsa is pancake week after all).
Thursday was the game day revisited, although like the feasting and the music, the fun and games hadn’t exactly gone away. It was the day though, when the partying and playing around reached their pre-ordained climax. The rest of the week’s celebrations were set to be decidedly more formalised, so: enjoy it whilst you can.
Next time: The Maslenitsa weekend starts here.