By Olga Bestemyanova
According to the church, the holiday is also known as Cheesefare Week. People would enjoy themselves and eat well, knowing that the longest and strictest Great Lent lay ahead. In the Orthodox church calendar, Cheesefare Week follows Meatfare Week, during which believers refrain from eating meat (though not from other modest food). The idea is to reconcile us with God as we ask him to forgive our misdemeanours. The time is devoted to good acts and to spending time with family, friends and those dear to us.
Pancakes are synonymous with Maslenitsa, being round like the Sun; in pagan times, people thought themselves to be eating a small part of the Sun’s warmth and power. Unleavened cakes were originally baked, with pancakes appearing once people learnt to make leavened dough. Naturally, rituals abounded, with hostesses preferring to cook in secret, so that no one could curse their work. The first pancake (often said to be a ‘failure’) was usually given to the poor, to honour dead relatives. Various types of pancakes were cooked for Maslenitsa: from buckwheat, wheat, semolina, maize or rye and lenten pancakes, alongside those with eggs, onions and whitebait, ‘Gurievskie’ and ‘Tsarskie’. Pancakes were also given various fillings.
Maslenitsa is linked to no definite date but is usually celebrated in the last week before Great Lent, seven weeks before Easter. It always begins on Monday and each day traditionally has its own title and meaning. The first is for greeting, when pancakes are baked and people play games while Tuesday (‘zaigryshi’) begins with ‘pancake’ eating and riding.
Wednesday is ‘lakomki’ (gourmand). When a son-in-law visits his wife’s parents, they often joke that he has come for his mother-in-law’s pancakes. Mothers-in-law cooked pancakes for their sons-in-law directly on Maslenitsa. The holiday’s culmination is Thursday — ‘revelry’. Friday is considered to be ‘mother-in-law’s holiday’, with sons-in-law inviting their mothers-in-law. Saturday celebrates sisters-in-law, with family gatherings and gifts presented.
Sunday hosts the farewell ceremony of Maslenitsa. Traditionally, a Winter effigy was burnt, alongside other unwanted old items — such as old ‘lapti’ (bast shoes). Any of the rural residents would be given a bright kerchief scarf and be driven through the village on a sleigh, with everyone showing their respect, until the party reached the last village fence. Then ‘Maslenitsa’ was thrown from the sleigh into the snow with a laugh.