Feasting and Fasting
Maslenitsa (Butter Week)
by Irina Sheludkova
Maslenitsa (Butter Week) is the only ancient pagan celebration still included in the calendar of festivals of the Orthodox Church. In the pre-Christian age, at this time of year when the days were getting longer, tribes all over Europe celebrated the revival of nature, with pagan rituals for seeing off the winter and greeting the spring. Today, the festival is always on the last week before Lent (this year it runs from March 7 to 13).
Traditional Russian blinis.
The old word for Maslenitsa, ‘Myasopust’ means “empty of meat;” the Orthodox Church, however, which dislikes people enjoying themselves too much, calls it ‘Cheese Week,’ because the meatless diet still allows cheese, butter and cream, which are also then forbidden during the seven weeks of Lent. But church or no church, and knowing what was to come, people would indulge in feasting and wild merriment right up to the very end of Butter Week. Each day of Maslenitsa had its own name and was spent in specific ceremonies, most of them related to family affairs and marriage. The week was spent in visits to relatives, and newlywed couples were greeted with various ceremonies. Many activities were dedicated to household matters and some of them were magic rituals believed to strengthen the land’s fertility. Even a simple slide down an ice slope by a woman was a part of the ritual – “the longer the ride, the taller the flax will grow in the summer.” Maslenitsa week was spent in dressing up, riding sledges, building snow fortresses and heavy drinking.
The Maslenitsa doll, made out of straw, was an important figure in the celebrations. During the week it was carried around on a pole and driven in sledges. Many songs were sung about the Maslenitsa doll, who was cursed for its deceiving nature, and accused of prolonging the winter cold. The doll was burnt in a big ritual fire on the last evening of Butter Week, along with old rubbish in numerous fires across villages and towns. In many regions of Russia, pancakes, butter and milk were also burnt during that day, which signified the end of the Maslenitsa feast. Pancakes (bliny) also played their part during Maslenitsa. The pancake is a symbol of the sun and rebirth; in old Russia a pancake was given to a woman in childbirth, and today it is still a ritual funeral repast in many homes. In olden days bliny were cooked from buckwheat flour, which gave them a red colour, making the significance even more evident.
The 7 Days of Butter Week
Monday – Meeting
Together with the grown-ups, children made a Maslenitsa doll out of straw and old women’s clothes. They set it on a pole and carried it around, singing. Then it was placed at the top of the snow hill, from where people were sliding down.
Tuesday – Games
Most of the amusement activities began on this day. Groups of friends drove around in sledges. Petrushka the clown was making people laugh in the wooden entertainment pavilions (balagan). Mummers visited homes in groups and surprised everybody with spontaneous concerts. Men were allowed to kiss any passing woman on the streets during this day.
Wednesday – Feasting
This day opened the feast in all homes, when pancakes and other delicacies were prepared in quantities. Each housewife had her own pancake recipe and kept it a secret. Pancakes were made in a great variety – from wheat, buckwheat, fine-ground barley and oats. Street stalls were opened, selling ‘sbiten,’ a hot toddy (from honey, water and spices), nuts, honey cakes, tea and pancakes. This day sons-in-law went to their mothers-in-laws’ to eat bliny.
Thursday – Revelry, the Broad Thursday
Entertainment was at its most extreme. This is the day when fisticuffs happened everywhere. Many strict rules applied: “Never hit a man when he is down” goes the Russian proverb, and it comes from Maslenitsa. Violations of the rules were punished. Rules, of course, are made to be broken - a Dr. Collins, in Moscow during the mid-17th century, recorded that more than 200 men were killed on this day.
Friday – Mother-in-law’s Eve
Mothers-in-law were invited by their sons-in-law to a gathering with pancakes. Newlywed couples put on their best clothes and rode on decorated sledges. This was a day to visit all those who had been the guests at a wedding.
Saturday – Sister-in-law’s Gathering
Sisters-in-law and other relatives were invited for dinner by a young wife, where she was supposed to distribute gifts. After strolls and round dances, when darkness arrived Maslenitsa dolls were burnt in ritual fires, with cries and laughter. Pancakes were thrown into the fire with the words: “Burn, pancake, burn, Maslenitsa!”
Sunday – Forgiveness Day
People went to cemeteries and left pancakes on the graves of their ancestors. Everybody asked one another for forgiveness and bowed with the words, “God will forgive you.” All the food that was left was eaten, along with a piece of rye bread and salt, as a reminder of the coming Lent.
On this day the Maslenitsa dolls continued to be burnt; after they had turned to ashes, young people jumped over the fire, and this action ended Maslenitsa.
The last day of celebrating was called Pure Monday, the first day of Lent. Everybody went to the banya, women scrubbed the dishes of grease and what the cats had not eaten: “Maslenitsa won’t last forever for the cat, as Lent will come.”
One other thing (you’ll like this one): on the first day of Lent men were supposed to gargle with vodka, and then go to the banya…
Catherine the Great once gave a dinner during Maslenitsa, where she distributed more than a hundred and fifty diamonds to her guests, who ate off gold-plate encrusted with jewels.
The Tsar’s Pancakes
The Imperial Romanov Family strictly observed all of the Orthodox Church religious observances, feast days and fasts. During Maslenitsa they would eat pancakes, like all of their subjects. Here is a recipe that was used in the kitchens of the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo.
1/2 pound of butter,6 egg yolks,1 full teaspoon of sugar
1/4 pound of wheat flour, 1.5 glasses of single cream
1/2 tablespoon of orange-blossom water,1/2 glass of double cream
Fruit jelly or preserves for dressing
Mix the butter with the egg yolks and sugar (butter mix). Set the bowl on ice, and beat the mixture until it is aerated. Prepare a bechamel sauce: dissolve the wheat flour into the single cream, then bring to the boil on a low flame, stirring all the time until the mix becomes thick. Add the butter mix to the bechamel sauce, then pour in the orange-blossom water and the double cream. Fry in a small pan. Do not take off with the knife, but topple over the plate, sprinkle each pancake with sugar and pour over lemon juice. Dress a pile of pancakes with fruit jelly or preserves.
Maslenitsa In Moscow 2005
This year Maslenitsa is happening from March 7 to 13.
The old ways of celebrating this ancient holiday are now being renewed. In Moscow the main festivities will be staged on Vassilyevsky Spusk (just off Red Square), where the “Maslenitsa Fair” with stalls and playgrounds will be open during the whole week. Last year a world record for the biggest pile of pancakes was set there – the pile came to 14.58 m high.
On March 10, Thursday, a competition of weight-lifting will be carried out. Freshly baked pancakes will be piled into special bowls attached to a weight bar, until athletes won’t be able to lift them up. On Friday, March 11, the best mother-in-law will be chosen. On Sunday, March 13, guests will be offered to compete in kissing skills. The Maslenitsa doll won’t be burnt for real, as fires are not allowed near the Kremlin, but with the help of visual effects and a change of decorations it will turn into spring.
The All Russian Exhibition Centre (M. VDNKh) will host Maslenitsa on 12 March, Saturday, with stalls and festivities. Izmailovsky Park and Kolomenskoye (12 and 13 March) are in for a treat as well.
2 glasses of buckwheat flour, 2 glasses of wheat flour, 4 glasses of milk, 3 eggs, 100 g of cream, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 25-30 g of yeast, 2 tablespoons of butter, salt to taste.
Dissolve the yeast into 2 glasses of warm milk, put the buckwheat flour into an enamelled bowl, then add the milk and yeast mixture. Stir well and put away into a warm place. When the dough rises stir it with a wooden spoon, put in the rest of the milk, wheat flour and stir well. Put the dough in a warm place again. After it rises, add the egg yolks grated with 2 tablespoons of melted butter, sugar and salt. Stir the mixture well. Beat the cream, add the egg whites and beat the mixture until it is aerated. (Double cream from a shop is not enough as it is, so beat it up well. Boil down and chill the cream before beating). Add the cream and egg whites mixture to the dough and keep in a warm place for 15 to 20 minutes. Fry the pancakes in the usual way.
This recipe is kindly provided by 1 Red Square restaurant.
1/2 Red Square (entrance via the Historical Museum)
M. Okhotny Ryad
Tel: (095) 925 3600
Pancakes from leavened dough
1 kg of wheat flour, 3 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 eggs, 40 g. of yeast, 1,5 tea spoons of salt, 5-6 glasses of milk
Stir the yeast in a small amount of milk and put the mixture into 2-3 glasses of warm (30C) milk. Pour in 1/3 amount of flour and stir the mixture well. For fermentation keep the dough in a warm place (25- 30C) for 2-3 hours. When the dough is ready (at first it starts to bubble, then it rises after 1-1/2 hours), pour in the rest of the warm milk, add melted butter, eggs, salt, sugar and stir everything well. Then put in the rest of the flour and stir again until the mixture is even. Let the dough rise and stir again. When the dough rises one more time it’s ready. Fry on a heated, oiled pan on a medium fire.
Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev
State Russian Museum St Petersburg
Smelling of Roses
On the 8th of March it is International Women’s Day; the day when even the metro smells of roses. But would you ever think that the 8th of March, when femininity is celebrated all across Russia, has such a strong political background?
Apologies to our Russian readers but the origins of this holiday can be traced back to the US Socialist Party! At the turn of the 20th century American socialists actively promoted equal rights for women, and inspired socialists from other countries to continue the struggle.
Thus, in 1910, the leading German woman socialist Klara Zetkin proposed an International Women’s Day. The next year it was marked by socialists from Germany, Austria, Denmark and other European Countries; they didn’t exchange flowers, however; they went on strike and marched through the streets. Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian revolutionary and feminist, remembered one march as a “trembling sea of women.”
But these two women, Zetkin and Kollontai, played an even more significant role in world history. On March 8th, 1917, they organized a women’s strike “for bread and peace” in St Petersburg. A general strike spread through the city immediately after. This was a trigger for the March revolution which brought down Nicholas II. Later, Kollontai became a minister in the first Soviet Government and persuaded Lenin to include March 8th in the list of official communist holidays.
The holiday has today lost its political significance, now it is an opportunity for the flower sellers to increase the price of roses.