RS Culture & customs Maslenitsa celebrations

Maslenitsa celebrations

“You will not grasp her with your mind
Or cover with a common label,
For Russia is one of a kind –
Believe in her, if you are able…”

Fyodor Tyutchev, November 28, 1866
(Translated by A. Liberman)

Maslenitsa (prior to the XVI century – the pagan feast of Komoeyditsa) is one of the major pagan festivities of the ancient Slavs, a two-week holiday marking the welcoming of Spring and the beginning of the Slavic New Year on the Vernal Equinox Day (20 or 21 March the new style), as well as the beginning of the spring season agricultural labour. The celebration of Komoyeditsa would begin a week before the Vernal Equinox Say and be over with the first week after it.


Boris Kustodiev “Maslenitsa” (1816)

According to the pagan beliefs, this is the time when Jarilo, the Sun god, melts the snow awaking Mother Nature with the powers of spring. Ancient Slavs baked pancakes which symbolized the sun – they were just as yellow, round and hot smile - and, therefore, believed that eating a pancake was akin to eating a piece of warmth and power of the great celestial body.

Another Slavic god worshipped as part of this festivity was the Bear god, and pancakes were a sacrifice to the Great Beast, King of Honey. The ancient Slavic name for “bear” was “Kom”, hence the second ancient name for Maslenitsa - “Komoyeditsa”, as well as the popular saying “Первый блин комам”, i.e. “the first cake goes to bears”. As time passed and the word “kom” went out of use, the saying had assumed a totally different meaning and now goes like: “Первый блин комом” - («Practice makes perfect») – meaning the first failed attempt at something new! smile

The pre-Christian tradition held this feast as the time of various rituals related to both popular magic and the religious cult, heavily sprinkled with entertainment, games and feasts which, in response to the needs of the times, gradually transformed into more familiar folk celebrations and rituals (putting the straw effigy to the flames of the traditional bonfire, baking sacrificial bread, or pancakes, dressing up, etc). For many centuries Maslenitsa was primarily the time of folk festivities, invariably accompanied with feasts, games, and horse-riding. As soon as the celebrations were over, people dedicated themselves to agricultural work with the entire warm season being the high time in this respect.

For many centuries Maslenitsa was primarily the time of folk festivities, invariably accompanied with feasts, games, and horse-riding

In the XVI century Maslenitsa was embraced by the Orthodox church in the place of the Slavic Komoyeditsa, but since what was formerly a pagan festivity now fell on the time of Lent – the time of fasting when any festivity or celebration were strictly forbidden, the date was “moved” almost a month ahead of the vernal equinox, reducing the duration of the holiday from the previous two weeks to one, and it now falls on the week preceding Lent.

But, naturally, moving a festivity associated with an astronomical event is hardly possible, so it would probably be closer to the truth to say that a whole new holiday was introduced to replace an earlier pagan one.

The new church festival became known as “Cheese fare week” or “meat-fast week”. The religious “cheese fare week” now precedes Lent.

Today Russia only widely celebrates two of the multitude of ancient pagan Slavic holidays: the “displaced” in time MASLENITSA and the NEW YEAR’S EVE.

In his fairy tale “Snegurochka” (“The Snow Maiden”) the prominent Russian playwright Nikolai Ostrovsky described the customs and rituals associated with the ancient pagan feast of Komoyeditsa and the traditional Slavic welcome of the Holy Spring on the Vernal Equinox Day when Snegurochka –Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter – melted (In Russia, Santa Claus is known as Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz). Some time later the great Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a magnificent opera of the same name.


Vasily Surikov “Capture of the Snow Town” (1891)

The festivity had lost none of its merry spirit after the Orthodox church embraced it as a Christian holiday. There were special rituals for each day of the Butter week. Monday marked the welcoming of Maslenitsa, Tuesday was the day of “zaigryshi” – playful rituals. On Sweet-Tooth Wednesday mothers-in-law would invite their sons-in-law to come over (and that is precisely where the common Russian saying about going over to one’s mother-in-law for pancakes comes from! smile . Fat Thursday was dedicated to massive sledding and snowball fights. Fridays were when “evenings at mum-in-law’s” took place – sons-in-law would in their turn invite their mothers-in-law over for a meal. And Saturday was spent on “daughter-in-law parties”.

The most popular and, probably, the most colourful tradition associated with Maslenitsa was sledding. Everyone who owned a horse would parade along the streets of towns and villages, teams of horses racing ahead gaily: the wealthier citizens would flaunt well-groomed trotters and richly ornated sledge covered with carpets and bearskins, peasants’ horses would have been rubbed, no, practically polished to the point of shining, and decorated with ribbons and paper flowers.

The culmination of Maslenitsa is the burning of the straw effigy of winter to symbolise its departure and the coming of spring. This is usually preceded by songs, games, dancing, traditional reels, as well as opulent feasts of popular dishes – sbiten, a hot alcoholic drink with honey and spice, and pancakes. The sacrifice itself (and this is what it was originally all about) was in the form of a doll which was both scary and fun – an effigy of Lady Maslenitsa made of straw or rags, usually dressed as a woman, representing a sacred image of an ancient deity. It was then carried through the entire village, perched on a wheel into which a pole was stuck. Once the company was outside the village, the effigy was either drowned in an ice-hole, or simply burnt, or torn to pieces, while the remaining straw would be scattered about a field.

The culmination of Maslenitsa is the burning of the straw effigy of winter to symbolise its departure and the coming of spring

The ritual burning of the straw effigy of Maslenitsa also had its own significant meaning: destroying the symbol of winter was necessary for the subsequent return of its power in spring cereals.

The week of celebrations was concluded by Shrove Sunday the original meaning of which was to reconcile people with each other. Our ancestors - Rusichi, believed that they should enter the new year reconciled and at peace with each other.

So, on the last day of this very special week people used to say, and continue to do this today:

“Forgive me all that I owe you and all my trespasses against you”.