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The tradition of celebrating Maslenitsa is more than 1000 years old. This is a Winter’s End festival that lasts for a week.
Russians are generally believed to be maximalists. They say that nothing in Russia is moderate or by little. All or nothing. For example, Orthodox Christians have the Lent that starts in the end of winter or beginning of spring. The Lent lasts for one month and a half and it implies a strict diet and praying. And just before the Lent they have the most roaring and indulgent festival. It is called Maslenitsa and the celebrations last for exactly seven days.
Celebrating Maslenitsa, farewell to winter festival, is a very old tradition that appeared before the Rus was Christianized. The main celebration traditions appeared at those times, more than 1000 years ago and these are directly linked to paganism. Ancient Rus was Christianized in the 10th century, however, they still celebrate Maslenitsa at a large scale. What is so pagan about this festival? For example, the celebration ends by burning a straw-stuffed ritual figure of Winter. The main dish of the week is called bliny (pancakes). Long time ago this was sacrificial bread offered to the Slavic gods. Pancakes were offered to the gods as part of prayer to warm the frozen ground.
During the Cheesefare Week they eat much and drink alcohol. Apart from pancakes, they also eat fluffy pancakes and pies with different types of filling. They eat pancakes with sour cream, caviar, meat, jam, meat paste, and honey. Today, almost all Russians gladly follow this tradition. They bring pancakes to their work to treat their colleagues, they cook pancakes at home and in restaurants, almost everywhere. Every housewife has a recipe of her own.
Though, Maslenitsa means not only eating, but also other winter entertainments, like dancing, sliding down the ice slides, fistfighting, singing, jumping over bonfire, and outdoor parties.
Traditionally, the Cheesefare Week is divided into two periods, the ‘narrow’ Maslenitsa (first three days of the festival) and the ‘wide’ Maslenitsa (till Sunday). This is during the ‘wide’ Maslenitsa that the festival widens. Russian traditions prescribe for the special menu and rites for each day of this week. Thus, on Wednesday, sons-in-law should pay visits to their mothers-in-law to eat pancakes. On Thursday, they normally have fistfighting. On Friday, mothers-in-law pay return visits to their sons-in-law. Maslenitsa is also a festival of familial consolidation.
The culminating event of the festival is burning of Maslenitsa, a straw-stuffed ritual doll, on Sunday. On the first day of the week, a straw figure, personifying the winter, is dressed in women's clothes and put on a pole. It waits for Forgiveness Sunday, a special day when it's common to ask forgiveness from all those close to you for the grievances you've made to enter Lent with a clear conscience and a calm heart. This tradition is still observed in Russia very widely, like most Maslenitsa customs. Most, but not all. For example, you don't have to specifically wait for Maslenitsa for matchmaking as it was before. In the past, almost all rituals of this holiday were dedicated to matchmaking. If successful, the wedding was scheduled for the first Sunday after Lent.
And then comes Sunday. There is less than a day left before the Lent starts, and the festive week has passed. Stuffed winter is put on a mountain (although a large crowded square will do), and then it's burned to songs and dances. People scold winter for the cold and thank it for the fun. People in Russia believe that the better you celebrate Maslenitsa, the sooner spring begins and warm weather sets in.