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Celebrating Russian Mardi Gras: Maslenitsa!

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

It's no secret that most countries in the world have a special way to celebrate the end of winter, for our ancestors it signified the beginning of farming and later bountiful harvests. With the arrival of Christianity these celebrations became known as carnivals, a word that comes from the late Latin "carne levare" meaning remove meat as it became a celebration done before starting the period of Lent.

Some of the best carnivals I've ever seen are the Slavic carnivals, but the one I would like to introduce this time is the one believed to be the oldest surviving Slavic holiday: Масленица Maslenitsa.

A mixture of Pagan and Orthodox Traditions

Maslenitsa was first celebrated by Eastern Slavic cultures as the sun festival, the welcoming of spring and the departure of Slavic god Veles, the representation of the underworld, darkness and cold. Unfortunately most information about Slavic mythology was destroyed with the arrival of Christianity. As it normally happens, Christians mixed pagan tradition with their own celebrations to create the festival we know today.

Maslenitsa changes dates depending on the beginning of Orthodox Easter by which meat is already forbidden, but eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products are still permitted. This gave Maslenitsa its characteristic name "Pancake Week" since the festival spans seven days and the Russian crepe or "blini" takes center stage as the most consumed product.

The round, buttery, and delicious blini represents the sun and the warmth it gives, Russians are supposed to eat as much as possible during the seven days of Maslenitsa, after that Lent will start. Most articles about Maslenitsa will state Russians say "you must have as many servings as many times as a dog would wag its tail", yet no Russian I know (like our official photographer, graphic designer and head of marketing: Anna) has ever heard of this.

Each day of Maslenitsa has a specific festivity and meaning to it, starting with the Welcoming and ending with Forgiveness Sunday, here's a typical schedule for this fun festival!

The Maslenitsa Schedule

1. Встреча - Welcoming: at the beginning of the week people of each community gather to construct the Maslenitsa doll, a doll that symbolizes winter, out of straw and then decorated in colorful rags. People then hold hands and dance around it in what is known as khorovods.

2. Заигрыши - Playing: as the name suggest people gather to play folk games also eat as much as possible. Single guys had a chance to meet single girls the idea to create new couples and get married. There's an old tradition, if you met on this day you should marry on the first Sunday after Easter, Красная Горка in Russian.

3. Лакомка - Sweet Tooth Day: once again the name gives it away, on this day Russians enjoy blini with different types of sweet toppings and fillings. Restaurants and cafes prepare a special menu during this day selling mouth watering pastries and cakes. A favorite occasion for kids and those with a sweet tooth. Pun intended.

4. Разгул - Revelry: we are approaching the end of the festival. Russians indulge in all activities possible, such as cross-country skiing and ice-skating. There's a skating ring in Moscow called Gorky Park which is particularly popular this day. There's another tradition known as the "стенка на стенку", wall-to-wall fighting where young and old men form two lines, one in front of the other, and spar traditionally wearing Slavic folk masks. It's important to emphasize that these are not supposed to be violent fist fights, it's forbidden to punch in the face (as well as the area above the solar plexus) or anyone that falls down.

5. Тещины вечерни - Mother-in-Law's Eve: the idea behind this is that Russian men will make the greatest effort possible to please and win the favor of their mothers-in-law. Sons-in-law are expected to invite their mothers-in-law for lunch and dinner, this being a great excuse for families to spend time together. Ancient tradition had Russian men sending invitations to their mothers-in-law in the evening, the next day a family delegation of said Russian men would arrive at her house to start a celebration.

6. Золовкины посиделки - Sister-in-Law's Gathering: the relationship between a Russian woman and her sister-in-law is supposed to be pretty tense, after all sister-in-law in Russian is "золовка" zolovka which it's said to come from the Russian word for evil "зло" zlo. To correct this both are expected to spend some time together thus getting to know one another and enjoying each other's company.

7. Прощеный день - Forgiveness Sunday: the end of the festival, time for the Maslenitsa doll to be burned. The name of this day comes from the tradition of forgiving all past sins and starting anew, to forget pride and be kind. As people ask others for forgiveness this creates a loving atmosphere. It's a mixture of fun and introspection for most as the Maslenitsa bonfire burns both the doll and the past away. There's a tradition said to be "give towels to men and soap to women as a present symbolizing purity" but once again no Russian I know can confirm this.

As a side note, during the times of the Soviet Union religious holidays weren't officially celebrated. However families would see it as an opportunity to prepare blini and share them with friends. It wasn't until the start of perestroika that the outdoor celebrations came back.

Costume parades, sleigh rides, dressing up, bonfires, snowball fights, pancake feasts, Maslenitsa is a festival that allows people to enjoy the beautiful things in life. Spending time with your loved ones whilst eating delicious food in a loving environment sounds like everyone's all time favorite thing to do and Maslenitsa not only allows it, it encourages it!

Avoid Fake News

Whilst writing this piece I had to point out things I couldn't find a source on, but were presented in other articles as "common Russian tradition". I have never done this since all my writing comes from personal experience or confirmed stories I'm allowed to share. Why did I do that? Because Russia is a country much like mine (Mexico) in the sense that people will write wild ridiculous nonsense in order to get clicks or sell an idea, thus it was my responsibility to ask Russian people that have lived their entire lives in Russia for fact checks on this "common Russian knowledge".

An example on why I did this: the 20th of March 2017 the centuries-old tradition of wall-to-wall fighting (стенка на стенку) was wrongly depicted and labeled as hooligan violent acts with no further context or information by British tabloid newspaper Daily Mirror. Maslenitsa then went to be known as a training ground for violent vandals. You can find the article titled as “Russia's Ultra yobs infiltrated amid warnings England fans could be KILLED at World Cup.”.

A simple question could have avoided that, unless the goal was to sell an idea, as I said before. I challenge their content not to state that I am the owner of the absolute truth but merely to say that no source was found on their claims.

Maslenitsa encourages unity and forgiveness. Not violence. Спасибо, русские люди.

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