Pancakes, eggs, and effigies: springtime in Russia
Russia is a notoriously chilly place. And while snow may have its appeal, there comes a time when even the hardiest Muscovite starts willing for the first signs of spring and the chance to pack away their fur coat (shuby/шубы) for a few months. As the saying goes: vesna ne prosto vremya goda, a sostoyanie dushi (весна не просто время года, а состояние души!)! Spring isn’t simply a time of year – it’s a state of mind!
The end of winter is marked by Maslenitsa (Масленица), or ‘Pancake Week’: seven days of ceremony and celebration that also herald the start of Lent (in Russian: Velikii Post/Великий Пост, meaning ‘Great Fast’). There may still be snow on the ground, but spring is ne za gorami (не за горами, or figuratively ‘just around the corner’) – so what better time to tuck into some pancakes and sing songs around a bonfire?
Although Maslenitsa takes its name from the word for butter or oil, maslo (масло), the key ingredient to any pre-Lent celebration in Russia is the humble blin (блин, ‘pancake’). Thin blini – more like French crêpes than American-style pancakes – can be eaten with anything, although popular choices include cottage cheese (tvorog/творог), salmon (losos’/лосось), and honey (myod/мед). Not all at once, of course…
Each day of Maslenitsa brings a different ritual – from sleigh rides around the village to visiting your mother-in-law , and the week of festivities draws to a close with the burning of the chuchelo (чучело), a straw effigy of an old woman that symbolizes winter. As the chuchelo burns, the smoke chases away the cold weather and welcomes in the spring (or so the superstition goes).
After forty days of fasting and watching the snowdrifts turn to slush, it is finally time for Easter. The Christian festival is usually celebrated later in Russia than it is in many other European countries due to the Russian Orthodox Church’s adherence to the Julian calendar (юлианский календарь/yulianskii kalendar’) rather than the Gregorian calendar. Every now and then the two Easters occur on the same Sunday, but this year Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later than Western Christians (on 12 April rather than 5 April).
Easter in Russian is Paskha (Пасха) – not far removed from the French Pâques, the Spanish Pascua, or the English Pascal. All four words are related to the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning Passover, the Jewish celebration that occurs around the same time of year and marks the Jews’ safe passage from Egypt.
Wish your Russian friends a happy Easter with the phrase s Paskhoi! (с Пасхой!). On Easter Sunday you’re more likely to be greeted with the phrase Khristos voskrese! (Христос воскресе!), meaning ‘Christ is risen!’. Remember to respond with Vostinu voskrese! (Воистину воскресе!): ‘truly He is risen!’ The Russian word for Sunday, voskresen’e (воскресенье) is only one character removed from voskresenie (воскресение), meaning ‘resurrection’, so it’s probably worth considering your pronunciation when making weekend plans…
Eggs and cheese
A holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without its own edible treats and, while children in the US and UK gorge themselves on chocolate Easter eggs, their peers in Russia prefer to chomp on the hard-boiled variety. In Russia and many other Orthodox Christian countries, each festive hard-boiled egg (yaitso vkrutuyu/яйцо вкрутую) is dyed red. This custom is said to date back to the days of the Roman Empire, and an exchange between Mary Magdalene and Emperor Tiberius. Mary Magdalene visited Tiberius and proclaimed that Christ was risen, presenting a white egg to symbolize the stone that had rolled away. Tiberius exclaimed in disbelief that Christ rising from the dead was as impossible as the egg in front of him turning from white to red. Lo and behold, the egg reddened – beginning the tradition. These eggs are eaten as well as rolled: katanie yaits (катание яиц), or ‘egg rolling’, traditionally takes place around Easter, as does ‘egg tapping’. ‘Egg tapping’ players hit the tips of their eggs together in quick succession until only one undamaged egg remains, and the player with the strongest egg is the winner.
Eggs aren’t the only delicacy on the Easter table (paskhalnyi stol/пасхальный стол): kulich (Кулич) and paskha (пасха) are also seasonal must-eats. Kulich, a sweet bread-like cake similar to Italian panettone, is blessed during the traditional Easter service and normally eaten between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. Paskha is a rich, dense cheesy pudding that usually includes some of the ingredients that are avoided during Lent: butter, eggs, sour cream, and cream cheese. Both kulich and paskha are often decorated with the letters X and B – the first letters of Khristos Voskrese when written in Cyrillic.
Seize the season!
Although Maslenitsa and Pashka often seem to be over almost as soon as they’ve begun, there’s plenty more to look forward to during springtime in Russia: walks in the park, barbecues in the forest, and, of course, Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy/ День Победы) at the beginning of May. It’s time to get outside and seize the season!