In old Russia, the lavish Easter table – the crowning feast of the Russian Orthodox year – remained set for an entire week, during which guests were invited to drop in to exchange Easter greetings. Affluent families shared food with the indigent, for whom the holiday dishes – rich in butter, eggs and cheese – were beyond their means. Much of the population scrimped throughout the year in order to celebrate Christ’s rebirth in appropriate fashion.
Along with all sorts of other delicacies, three symbolic foods always graced – and continue to grace – the Russian Easter table: colorfully dyed eggs, kulich (a tall, enriched loaf of bread with a beautifully mushroomed crown), and paskha, perhaps the most glorious version of cheesecake in any national cuisine. The lavish use of dairy products at Easter not only reflects a release from Lenten proscription, but the consumption of fresh curd cheese (tvorog) as the days lengthen harks back to the most ancient rites of spring. In many cultures, fresh cheese – milk’s protein-rich essence – symbolizes rebirth and fertility.
Preparations for Easter begin during Holy Week, which precedes Easter Sunday. Thursday is considered particularly important for ritual cleansing – of the house, the body and, by extension, the soul. In peasant cottages and barns, juniper branches were often burned for their antiseptic properties, to ensure good health in the coming year. On Thursday, too, the preparation of paskha, kulich, and other baked goods began. Many families prepared “Thursday salt” as another preventative against illness, baking coarse salt with rye dough in the hot Russian stove, then pounding the salt and crumbs into brown granules. This salt, along with the other ritual Easter foods, was brought to the cathedral to be blessed before eating.
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