Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица) is a Russian holiday of pagan origin: it takes place before the entry into the seven-week Russian Orthodox Great Lent. Preparations are made for Lent, and this is the time when people stop eating meat. Dairy products are allowed every day even on Wednesday and Thursday, the traditional fast days, when they are normally forbidden. They then become forbidden during Lent.
Maslenitsa is the last holiday before Orthodox Lent
Orthodox, or Byzantine, Lent is extremely hard: only one meal a day, no animal products, no oil or wine. On Saturdays and Sundays, which are feast days, we relax a little with two meals in which we can consume oil and wine.
It is therefore easy to understand the importance of Maslenitsa in countries where the cold weather requires a rich diet and where the total absence of animal products is very difficult. In fact, in the absence of fats, soups or stews of vegetables cooked in a pot and fruit were the only thing eaten.
The rituals of Maslenitsa
This is the last moment of sharing and conviviality before Easter!
The week is prepared by tidying up the house, throwing away or giving away anything old, damaged or no longer useful. A traditional Maslenitsa meal would include blini, sour cream and a number of traditional dishes: mushrooms, herring, salmon, eel, potato and beetroot salad, vatruchka and wine and vodka. One could still enjoy a coulibiac, if it was made from salmon, without any meat.
Blinis are particularly important because they symbolise the sun. The more blinis you make, the more you prepare for a sunny and auspicious year.
Maslenitsa ends on a Sunday, Forgiveness Sunday, when everyone asks forgiveness from their neighbours. People also put away their colourful clothes and put on dark, neutral colours and clothes without any decoration. Until Easter!
A tradition that survived the Soviet period
The Soviet period, of course, banned Maslenitsa, but the festival continued to be celebrated in private, even without any religious intention: just an opportunity to share good pancake meals. Since perestroika, the numerous public events have resumed. And Maslenitsa is now celebrated by Russian communities in exile as a marker of their identity.
Indeed, Maslenitsa is a bit like Carnival: there are many festive activities, troika rides, masked balls, outdoor snowball fights and more (snow castles are stormed), stenka fights, a traditional Russian wrestling, etc.
It is also the beginning of spring: bonfires are lit and a mannequin representing the Maslenitsa mascot, "Lady Maslenitsa", also known as Kostroma, is burned.
Kostroma and the Semik: pagan rites taken over by the Orthodox Church
Kostroma is a goddess of Slavic mythology, a goddess of the fertility of the earth. In June, a whole week was dedicated to her, the Semik (Семи́к), which was also called the green week (for the colour of the fields) or the week of the Russalkas, simply because Kostroma was a Russalka.
The myth of Kostrama is very similar to others related to the goddesses of fertility, with alternating life on earth and underground. Like Isis and Osiris, Kostrama was the twin sister of Koupalo, the sun god. The brother and sister marry without knowing who they were (reminiscent of some versions of the Arthurian legend) and then both commit suicide when they find out. It is at this point that Kostrama transforms into Rusalka, which saves him from dying.
Finally, the gods decide that they have been a little too cruel, and resurrect Koupalo and Kostrama. Unable to give them back a human body, they transform them into a very pretty yellow and blue flower, the woodland cow-wheat. It was called "the flower of Kostrama and Koupalo" before the Orthodox renamed it Ivan-da-Marya, Flower of John and Mary… and moved the Semik to the beginning of Lent.
The main purpose of Semik was to increase the fertility of the soil; it was linked to the cult of the dead and included rites concerning spring and crops. During the Semik, Kostroma was represented by a young girl in disguise or by a straw mannequin, similar to a scarecrow. After being honoured, the dummy was "killed", either by fire, drowning or burial. The ceremony ended with the mourning of Kostroma.
I discovered this tradition this year, and decided to adopt it: it's another good reason to make blinis after Russian New Yearand Candlemas!
And finally, I can't resist putting side by side the picture of this inflatable samovar, during the Maslenitsa celebrations, and this inflatable teapot taken during the Rose Festival in Morocco!