Call me optimistic. Or hopeful. Or perhaps desperate. But this weekend we bid farewell to winter, celebrating the ancient Russian end-of-winter festival, Maslenitsa.
This ancient pagan ritual was sort of co-opted by the Christians, so it morphed into a pre-Lenten festival, similar to Carnival or Mardi Gras. But the date is usually different (as it corresponds to Orthodox Easter), and the feasting and celebrating also takes a different form.
The food of choice is bliny, thin pancakes that are similar to crepes. That explains the name of the festival, which roughly translates as “butter week”. In retrospect, I can affirm that this is an appropriate name, as I used four sticks of butter to prepare dinner. Four sticks in one meal. That’s hardcore, right?
This was the first time I have ever hosted a Maslenitsa party, and it made me realize that this is a serious kid-fun holiday that is not being exploited in our country (because we really need some more excuses to eat and drink).
Basically, there are three traditional activities for Maslenitsa:
(1) Eating bliny. For my party guests, we served them with caviar, mushrooms and gruyere cheese, and salmon and sour cream. For my kids, I served them with yogurt and strawberries (for breakfast) and straight-up cheese (for lunch or dinner). No exaggeration, we’ve been eating bliny for three days straight and the twins are still not tired of them. I’m not saying they are the healthiest thing the twins have ever eaten; but they certainly are not the unhealthiest thing either.
(2) Sleigh rides. Okay, we skipped this one, aside from the thematic artwork. But if there was snow on the ground, and if there was a way to make it happen, the kids would love it. Come on, entrepreneurial people, this is an opportunity!
(3) Burning an effigy of Lady Maslenitsa. Although the food we served at the party was pretty excellent (if I do say so myself), the highlight was probably the surprise at the end of the night: the burning of the effigy. This symbolic act represents the end of winter and the beginning of spring, fertility and new life. The ritual takes place on the last day of the festival week, a day that is also dedicated to forgiveness and renewal. Even without the symbolism, there is something primal and exhilarating about watching a flame as it ravenously consumes its prey: it’s powerful and beautiful and frightening.
The twins had helped us make our effigy, which was a dried-up little Christmas tree, dressed in brightly colored clothes and scarves and ribbons. She had the face of a bear, thanks to a package of animal-themed paper plates we found in a drawer. Considering that she came into being on the morning of the party, she was pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, the boys could not stay up for the bonfire. It was too late; and I think it would have frightened them anyway. But older kids would definitely get a charge out of this event – and we will surely let the twins participate in a few years.
By then, I’m sure somebody at Hallmark will have picked up on this greeting card opportunity, and bliny will be made from a box, and burnable Maslenitsa effigies will be available at your local Walgreens. Remember… you read it here first.