EXPERIENCE MA S L ENITSA F EST I VAL
February 12–18, 2018
The Maslenitsa Festival is celebrated in the eighth week before Easter, also known as the Orthodox Pascha, held during the last week before the beginning of Lent. This Eastern Slavic religious celebration is thought to be the oldest of its kind still going today, with historians tracing the tradition back to the 2nd century BCE. It has its origins in the pagan worship of Volos, the god of the earth, waters, forests and the underworld. Believers held this ancient sun festival to usher in the spring. One of the main events of the festival still involves the pagan ritual of burning a straw effigy – the “Lady Maslenitsa” – representing winter, in the hope of bringing a good harvest.
In keeping with Christian practice during Lent, indulgence is forbidden, so Maslenitsa is the last week eggs and dairy products are permitted, which has earned the festival its other names: Butter Week, Crepe Week, or Cheesefare Week. The iconic food of the festival is the blini, a local pancake, combining all the rich foods that believers will be denied in the ensuing weeks. They are drenched in toppings that include cream, caviar, and jam – and lots of of butter! Even the not-sohumble blini is another nod to pagan tradition: They’re round and warm – symbolic of the sun. It’s tradition for the first pancakes to be given to the less fortunate.
It’s also the time of fun and games and parties, with much dancing and music ahead of the more sober weeks when such frivolities are denied. Skomorokhi (clowns) take to the streets with their gusli (harps) and petrushka (traditional puppets), the streets teem with folklore enactments and vendors selling souvenirs.
While everyone looks forward to the onset of spring, it’s also a chance to indulge in the last of the winter fun with sleigh rides and snowball fights and general merriment. Some of the traditions are bit more on the wild side: Organised fistfights and dancing bears have been reported as part of some festival programmes. The indulgent party comes to a head on the Sunday, when it’s time for the repentance of sin ahead of the long fast.
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