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High Days and Holidays

Orthodox Easter
A Moveable Feast
Its that time of year, when the toll of bells for the celebration of Easter can be heard all over Russia. Easter is the most important holiday of the Orthodox Church, because it marks the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
by Irina Sheludkova

Church of the Resurrection of Christ, Novoiyerusalemskiy Monastery.

In 2005 Easter falls on Sunday, May 1. The date of Orthodox Easter, however, is not fixed on the same day every year, but is calculated according to a table that dates back to Julius Caesar in 45 BC (hence the Julian Calendar). According to the Julian Calendar, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon following the spring equinox (March 21st). The changes in the dates for Easter are the origins of the phrase a moveable feast.

The Catholic and Protestant churches use the later 16th Century Gregorian Calendar, which sometimes coincides with the older Julian Calendar; in 2007 both Orthodox and Catholic Easter will be celebrated on the same day.

The origin of the Russian name for Easter, (Paskha), can be traced back to two possible sources; an ancient Judaic holiday called Pasah which was celebrated every year during one week in spring, to mark the date when the Jews were released from Egyptian slavery; and to the Greek word pasho which means to suffer.

The 40 days before Orthodox Easter is called Great Lent, and is a period of preparation. The last week before Easter is called Holy Week. During these days church services remind worshippers about the last moments of Christs life on Earth.

Maundy Thursday during Holy Week has a special significance; this is the day when Jesus shared the Last Supper with his followers and was betrayed by one of them. The Twelve Gospels telling the history of all Christs Passions are read in the church; during the service people stand with burning candles in their hands. In olden days, people brought the candles home and made a sign of the Cross on the door jambs with the holy fire.

Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and Russia, at the Easter worship service. Yuzhnoye Botovo, Moscow, April 2004.

The common name of this day is Pure Thursday. People clean their houses, crockery and all utensils. This is a time to prepare dishes for the holiday: painted eggs, kulich, and paskha. The reason for this is that during the last three days of Holy Week it is forbidden to work or to do anything around the house.

A few ceremonies before Easter have a clearly pagan character (though not all are still observed today): silver and gold are submerged into water in the hope that their owner will be rich and strong in future; women will cut tips from their braids so that the hair will grow thick and long.

Holy Friday is a day of mourning, and people are not supposed to eat anything. On the eve of Holy Saturday, devout Christians do not leave the church after the liturgy, but remain there until nightfall, and consume only bread and wine. 

The night of Sunday is the culmination of the Easter celebration, with the midnight service, the procession around the church with burning candles, and the joyous Morning Prayer and Communion service bringing people together in a spiritual joy. Priests change their black vestments to white ones; eggs, pashka and kulich are blessed, and Great Lent is over.

Orthodox Christians greet each other with the words: ! (Christ has risen!), and reply, ! (Truly He has risen!). 

Easter Traditions

Each day of the Easter Week had a name and certain traditions are observed. Many of these traditions are a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs.

  • Triple kissing and the giving of eggs as presents are the distinctive features of celebrating Easter in Russia.  
  • On the first day of Easter people marvel at sunrise early in the morning and predict weather for all of the summer. 
  •  People put on new clothes as a symbol of new life, a tradition that goes back to the early Christians who were baptized at sunrise on the first Easter day.  
  •  After the end of Lent, it is allowed to wear bright and colourful clothes. The most popular colour is red.
  •  It is believed that the gates to heaven are open during Easter week and everybody who dies during this time goes straight to heaven.

Monday and Tuesday: Bathing; Water is poured over those who overslept the morning service.

Wednesday: Hailing; It is believed that nobody should work on the Wednesday of this week, so that crops wont be beaten with hail.
Thursday: The Dead are remembered in prayers.

Friday: Forgiveness Day; relatives and friends ask forgiveness from each other.

Saturday:  Round-Dancing takes place (images of this dancing are often used on lacquer boxes)

Sunday: Red Hill is the day for meeting spring. A straw dummy is placed at the top of a hill, and here men and women meet to sit in a circle, and sing and dance. The day is thought of as a holiday for virgins, because it is now that matchmaking starts again, and  weddings can take place (weddings are not allowed during Lent).

Easter Eggs

The egg occupies a central place in the Orthodox Easter holiday. The egg that has been blessed in the church is the first thing to be eaten after the Easter service. People exchanged eggs, presented them to relatives, friends and neighbours, and families brought eggs to the graves of descendents, and shared eggs with poor people. 

The tradition of colouring eggs goes back to the history of Mary Magdalene, who came to Rome to meet Emperor Tiberius, and presented him with a red egg saying: ! (Christ has risen!), and then started to preach about the Resurrection of Christ.

But in pre-Christian times painted eggs had been used by Slavs in their pagan rituals to celebrate the coming of spring. Some of the later Easter rituals concerning eggs go back to those times: an egg was put in a bucket with seeds of wheat grains and these were preserved for sowing.

The painted egg is the most popular Easter gift. Artists decorated natural eggs, such as chicken, duck, swan, goose. Craftsmen carved eggs from wood and bone, or fashioned them from papier-mache and glass. Thousands of small eggs were made by small commercial workshops across Russia.

Imperial Eggs

Since the reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in the early 17th Century it was traditional for the Tsar to give out eggs as presents (Tsar Alexei gave out some thirty-seven thousand). The Imperial Porcelain Factory began to make Easter eggs in 1748, and they became so popular that the number produced annually reached 15,365 pieces in 1916. These eggs were the most expensive: it took forty days to paint one egg, and cost 75 roubles, which was a large sum of money.

Russian Tsars and Emperors all zealously observed this Easter tradition. In 1885 Alexander III asked the fashionable jeweller Karl Faberge to produce an Easter egg as a present for his wife, Empress Maria Fyodorovna. Alexander was so impressed with the quality and beauty of Faberges work that he appointed him the chief supplier to the Court. In total fifty Easter egg masterpieces were created by Faberge for the imperial family, the last of them for Nicholas II.

Paint Your Own
The easiest and most common way to paint eggs is to boil them together with onion husks. Just put the husks in cold water, clean the eggs and boil for 10 minutes. When the eggs are ready, wipe them dry and then rub until they shine with a cloth soaked in vegetable oil. You can then paint them as you wish.

Easter Food

Ritual food is a significant part of the Orthodox Easter celebrations. Kulich, paskha (made from cottage cheese), and painted eggs are all blessed in the church before eating.

The Easter breakfast was, and still is, an important ritual, and brings together all family members to sit around a beautifullydecorated table for a sumptuous feast. The Lenten fast is broken by first eating the eggs blessed in church. Tradition said that the head of the family should take one egg and cut it in pieces, according to the number of family members sitting around the table; each part that was given out was believed to contain happiness for the entire year ahead. Kulich and paskha are next divided up in the same way. Only then was it allowed to proceed to other dishes of the feast.

The substantial Easter breakfast was then followed by a no less substantial dinner. But, despite all this feasting, it was not allowed to eat after sunset. The first day of Easter was spent with the family, and guests were not supposed to come; after that, everybody was welcome. Leftovers from the feast could not be thrown away, or given to animals, but had to be burnt or buried in the ground.

It is better to prepare a large amount of dough for kulich, so that it can ferment better. A lot of eggs, butter and sugar should be used so that the kulich will stay fresh for a long time. A special 1-1,5 cubic litre, tall cylindrical form, made from aluminium, is used for baking kulich. Forms are washed over with butter and half-filled with dough. Kulich is decorated with sugar frosting, candied peels, nuts and sugar powder.

Imperial Kulich

Yeast 50 g, single cream 3 glasses, wheat flour 1,2 kg, butter 200 g, sugar 200 g, 15 egg yolks, grounded cardamom (10 seeds), 1 ground nutmeg, chopped almond 50 g, candied peels 100 g, raisins 100 g, ground breadcrumbs 1 full tablespoon.

Dissolve the yeast in a glass of cream, add half of the flour and put the mixture aside in a warm place. When the brew rises, add egg yolks grated with butter and sugar, the rest of the flour, cream, cardamom, nutmeg, almonds, finely-cut candied peels and washed and dried raisins. Beat the dough well and put it aside in a warm place for 1.5 to 2 hours. Mix the dough again and put it in a tall form washed over with butter and sprinkled with grounded bread crusts. Fill the form to half its volume and let the dough rise again until it reaches half of the forms length, then put in the oven on a medium fire.

Paskha is another essential dish of the holiday feast. It is prepared using fresh cottage cheese  with various ingredients. All is carefully mixed and laid in a special form (from wood or plastic) which is then set under press for a few hours to separate the whey. The form is carefully opened  and the paskha is laid on the plate.

Moscow Easter Festival 2005

This year the traditional national Easter Festival will be held from May 1 to 11 and will feature more than 90 events in 19 cities across Russia. The programme will also include events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War.

Highlights will include the symphony orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre performing symphonies by Sergey Rachmaninov, and the opera War and Peace by Sergei Prokofiev.

The Moscow Patriarchy will present a programme of choral music with participants from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Bulgaria.

For full details of the festival programme please visit:

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