The week-long festival of Maslenitsa is a joyous, food and folklore filled time.
Dating from pagan times, this festival celebrates the end of winter, and welcomes in a new spring.
Maslenitsa began as a pagan spring festival with rituals that helped bring celebrants a good harvest. It was celebrated on the spring equinox, when the days started to become longer than the nights. However, when Christianity became the religion of Russia, something had to change. One of the problems was that it happened during Orthodox Lent, which was a time of strict fasting. Unwilling to give up the festival and rituals, the date was moved to the week before Lent. As this is the last week that dairy products can be eaten before Easter, it was called ‘butter week’ – Maslenitsa in Russian.
Happenings the Week of Maslenitsa
Each day of Maslenitsa is traditionally given over to a certain activity. It begins on Monday with the building of ‘Lady Maslenitsa’, a straw doll which represents winter. These are built in parks around the country, and some people make their own at home. The first blini of the week are usually eaten at 5 pm, and friendly gatherings continue into the small hours.
Tuesday people play games and dress up. Wednesday is a ‘sweet day’, for enjoying all that sweet food you may give up for Lent. Thursday is ‘revelry day’, a time to eat, drink and have some winter fun. Popular activities are ice-skating, horse riding, and organised fist-fights, followed by a good party. Friday people spend time with loved ones. The tradition is to see your mother-in law, and of course to make her some blini! Saturday is when observers enjoy winter sports for the last time. The parks will be full of people out and about enjoying the fresh air.
The final day of Maslenitsa is ‘forgiveness Sunday’, and is a day of joy and unity. This is the day when observers apologize and ask for forgiveness for things they have done wrong. It’s common that people will ask your forgiveness just in case they have wronged you in some way. Of course, the height of the festival is when Lady Maslenitsa is finally burned. Leftover blini and forbidden food are thrown into the fire, marking winter’s end and the beginning of the great fast.
Modern Revival of Maslenitsa
Like many religious festivals, public Maslenitsa festivals were stopped by the Soviets. However, some Russians continued the traditions with their families, and during Perestroika public celebrations began again. Some call it a ‘manufactured’ holiday whereas others see it as a chance to celebrate Russian traditions. As a result, folk music and dancing have become a mainstay of the modern Maslenitsa.
Though most people gorge on blini and sweets throughout, the focus of the festival is on the last two days. On Saturday and Sunday there are huge public gatherings, full of food stalls and folk performances. Dance games and traditional fighting competitions and other tests of strength are held. Of course, the biggest crowds form for the ritual burning of Lady Maslenitsa herself on Sunday evening.
Where to Celebrate Maslenitsa in St. Petersburg
Peter and Paul Fortress
Immediately after the daily mid-day cannon fire at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Maslenitsa festivities will begin. The festival at the fortress is considered the main one in the city. Events will take place just near the Naryshkin Tower (on the Neva river side) from 12 to 5 pm. It will include performances, contests, folk entertainment, master classes and blini. Interested participants will have a chance to make their own effigy and learn about folk customs and rituals celebrating the Shrovetide.
Boasting a full Maslenitsa village and with an extensive program of concerts, Pavlovsk is a picturesque place to celebrate. This festival has all the activities you can think of, from fun races to competitive log-sawing and boot-throwing. Running for the whole weekend, this is a full immersion into Slavic folk culture. Festivities begin at 10 am and end at 6 pm.
The Elagin Island Maslenitsa festival has a packed schedule filled with traditional food, music and dance. The diverse program culminates with the burning of the biggest Lady Maslenitsa in St. Petersburg. Festivities last from 11 pm -7 pm on March 1. There is a small fee at the island entrance.
This popular day-long festival at the Polytechnic University starts March 10 from 9 am to 8:30 pm. A full program of music, dance, workshops for kids and contests will be held throughout the day including a competition for the best effigy of Lady Maslenitsa. Crafts and blini will be sold on the territory.
29 University St. Polytechnic