Many cultures have grand celebrations to mark the end of winter, the beginning of spring and the onset of the Lenten season. These events are one last big bash before the 40 days of penitence and fasting. Most familiar to Americans are Mardi Gras, Carnival and Fat Tuesday.
In Russia, this celebration is called Maslenitsa ("butter week") and it runs the entire week prior to Russian Orthodox Lent, the season which precedes Pascha (Easter).
During Maslenitsa, the Orthodox abstain from meat.
During Lent all meat, fish, poultry, eggs, products containing animal fat and dairy products are prohibited. Since Lent is a penitential season in the Church, parties and celebrations are also banned.
Essential to Maslenitsa are blini. They are meatless pancakes made of milk and eggs and eaten with sour cream. These are foods which are coincidentally allowed during Cheese Week on the Church calendar.
Maslenitsa, like many Christian holidays, has pagan roots; in this case, the celebration of the sun. Blini are round and golden, like the sun. While Christianity officially came to Russia in 988, Paganism existed in Russia as early as the second century AD.
Maslenitsa was first recorded as such in the 500s AD. The Church knew that it could not completely do away with the pagan holidays and thus would typically align Christian observances with them. Such is the case with Maslenitsa.
Maslenitsa was and is characterized by more than just the eating of mass quantities of blini, however. Each of the days of the celebration feature such things like masquerade parties, visiting friends, sleigh rides and any form of merriment. Often, specific activities were assigned to the days, such as a day to visit one's grandparents.
On the Friday of Maslenitsa, a brightly dressed straw puppet of Lady Maslenitsa would accompany the merry makers as a symbol of the hope of agricultural prosperity to come. Since Maslenitsa leads into Lent, Lady Maslenitsa was burned in a bonfire along with any remaining blini on Sunday evening as Lent began.
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