Maslenitsa (Cheese Fair Week)



Maslenitsa (Cheese Fair Week, or Pancake week) is a Russian religious and folk holiday. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent—that is, the seventh week before Easter—though some of its traditions date back to the pagan times. Maslenitsa corresponds to the Western Christian Carnival, except that the Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday instead of a Wednesday. In 2007, Maslenitsa was celebrated from February 12 to February 18.

Maslenitsa has a dual ancestry: pagan and Christian. On the pagan side, Maslenitsa is a sun festival, celebrating the imminent end of the winter.

On the Christian side, Maslenitsa is the last week before the onset of Great Lent. During Maslenitsa week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians. During Lent, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden. Furthermore, Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life. Thus, Maslenitsa represents the last chance to partake of dairy products and those social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful, sober and introspective Lenten season. The most characteristic element of Maslenitsa is bliny (Russian pancakes), popularly taken to symbolize the sun. Round and golden, they are made from the rich foods still allowed by the Orthodox tradition: butter, eggs, and milk.

Maslenitsa also includes masquerades, snowball fights, sledding, riding on swings and plenty of sleigh rides. In some regions, each day of Maslenitsa had its traditional activity: one day for sleigh-riding, another for the sons-in-law to visit their parents-in-law, another day for visiting the godparents, etc. The mascot of the celebration is usually a brightly dressed straw effigy of Lady Maslenitsa, formerly known as Kostroma.

As the culmination of the celebration, on Sunday evening, Lady Maslenitsa is stripped of her finery and put to the flames of a bonfire. Any remaining blintzes are also thrown on the fire, and Lady Maslenitsa's ashes are buried in the snow (to "fertilize the crops").

Religiously, the beginning of Great Lent is traditionally tied to the beginning of Spring, an association found in the Greek Triode (containing hymns for the Lenten season), going back to at least a century before the Baptism of Rus—thus having no connection with pagan Russian customs. The ancient hymns refer to the "Lenten Spring," a natural link because of the time of year during which Lent always occurs in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The church services during this week are very similar to those served during Great Lent itself, though they are shorter. This is also the first time the Prayer of Saint Ephrem is said and the Divine Liturgy is forbidden on Wednesday and Friday (as it is on every weekday of Great Lent).

The last day of Cheese Fair Week is called "Forgiveness Sunday", indicating the desire for God's forgiveness that lies at the heart of Great Lent. At Vespers on Sunday evening, all the people ask forgiveness of one another, and thus Great Lent begins. Another name for Forgiveness Sunday is "Cheesefare Sunday," because for devout Orthodox Christians, it is the last day on which dairy products may be consumed until Easter. Fish, wine, and olive oil will also be forbidden on most days of Great Lent. The day following Cheesefare Sunday is called Clean Monday, because everyone has confessed their sins, asked forgiveness, and begun Great Lent with a clean slate.

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