It finally seems like 2019 is shifting out of first gear. We’ve had the ice bathers of Epiphany and finally, Maslenitsa; the official end of winter, is currently in progress. Hopefully, the only way is up. Whilst we vaguely acknowledge Shrove Tuesday (pancake day); the Russian equivalent is spread across a whole week of themed days; each with their own activities and itinerary – for those who take such things seriously, of course. Realistically, there are enough days of celebration – with enough variation on offer- for all levels of interest to find something to partake of.
As with other significant “Christian” festivals; something a good deal more Pagan lies at the heart of Maslenitsa. We’ve touched on this before of course – and no doubt will again. It’s as if the incoming Christians knew that the population would never give up the ancient traditions, the sacred days and the magical sites of worship. No problem; just drape the old rituals and locales in new holy decor and carry on – with a few name and script changes, naturally.
It’s worth pointing out that Maslenitsa is painted here in broad strokes, with a view backwards to the days when tradition was upheld in ernest. As a Russian colleague confirmed: not everyone partakes of the festival to the greatest extent -though more do in rural communities.
Not only was Maslenitsa the crucial transition between winter and spring, but it was also the living (albeit:supernatural) embodiment of the icy, dangerous and gloomy outgoing season itself. There are other ancient pagan connections too; bear worship – for we are at the time when bears were thought to awaken from hibernation.
Maslenitsa is also linked to Volos; Slavic pagan deity of earth, water and the underworld. The former two being inextricably linked to the yearly crop-cycle of course. All of these seemingly disparate elements symbolically coalesce into the form of a straw doll: “Lady Maslenitsa”, who is still assembled, paraded and ultimately destroyed over the celebratory week. As winter figures in the proceedings; so does spring and the brightness of the sun. The numerous golden blini (pancakes) consumed during the week are miniature sun discs; to be shared, consumed and enjoyed by the participants. Yes, it’s pancake week, which unfolds something like this:
The start of Maslenitsa week sees the creation of the Lady Maslenitsa dolls and some initiation involving circle-dances: “khorovods” around the newly crafted effigy. When the dances are over the doll was /is then placed (traditionally) on a snowy hill whilst sledging takes places on the slopes. This is less likely to happen in the centre of Moscow, of course.
All manner of fun and games occur on Tuesday as more hill sledding takes place and pancake (blin) eating starts to get serious. Blini are shared with friends and strangers alike as community, family and neighbours come together. Mummers stage impromptu shows as they venture door to door, and men are permitted (still?) to kiss women in the street.
It’s also matchmaking day, when, historically: men would cruise around on sleighs looking for partners. Such match – making was instigated to encourage marriage on the first Sunday after Easter: “Krasnaya Gorka”, an especially favourable day for the occasion.
Wednesday: Regaling, Sweet Tooth Day
Mid-week was/is the time when young men met their mother-in-laws to sample her pancakes and general hospitality. Families usually had more than one son-in-law, plus the extended family and friends too. As such, the occasion could easily turn into a large and boisterous affair.
Traditionally work stopped here until Monday, and a long, pancake-fuelled weekend began. Typical pursuits included jumping over bonfires, magical practices, sledding competitions and organised fist-fights – to honour the tradition of the Russian military. Although supposedly carried out in good humour (believe it or not!); people have died as a result of pancake week violence (and that’s a sentence I never expected to write). Meanwhile, children parade Lady Maslenitsa through the streets, accosting house-holders for blinni and other treats, Halloween style.
Friday: Mother-in-law’s eve
In spite of the title, a good portion of this day was traditionally dedicated to recently married couples parading their status around the community and calling in those who had attended their wedding. Perhaps they would ride a ice-slope together on a sledge.
The second, (crucial) task was the responsibility of the son on law; to invite his Mother-in-law to a celebration in her honour. Following her acceptance, a delegation would be sent to escort her to the event. Family and friends would also attend -with pancakes for all.
Saturday: Sister-in-law’s Gathering
Now came the time to break some ice between the bride and her sister in law. There was a traditional animosity and suspicion from the groom’s sisters; directed towards the bride -as an outsider, or newcomer to the family. Quite simply; Saturday was traditionally a get-to-know-you day in order to allay fears and to win favour.
Sunday: Forgiveness day
This is the big finale; the last day of the big blow-out prior to solemn Lent. The effigy of Lady Maslenitsa would be finally be consumed by fire -along with (perhaps more significantly): the preceding year’s animosities and grudges too. It was a time to abandon the recent darkness of winter and of the soul, in a bid for purification and a clean start (again) for Lent. Leftover blinni and other food scraps were devoured, along with a pinch of salt and a slice of rye bread – as a nod towards the solemn season ahead.
When the blackened ashes of the fire-consumed doll were trampled by the sobering revellers: Maslenitsa was finally over.