The ancient Slavic tradition of Maslenitsa has a dual ancestry that is both pagan and Christian. On the pagan side, it was celebrated on the vernal equinox day as a farewell to winter and a welcome to spring. Many would honor the deity Veles, or Volos, the patron of cattle and farming. Veles was often associated with a bear, and people would dance like a bear around their house in a symbolic ritual to protect the house from burning down.
On the Christian side, Maslenitsa is celebrated the last week before the onset of Orthodox Lent. It is a time of celebration and indulging before the strict fasting begins. Each day of the week holds its own meaning up until the Sunday of Forgiveness. On Sunday, the climax of the week for many community celebrations is burning Lady Maslenitsa, an effigy that is made out of straw and dressed brightly. The rite is a way for people to let go of anger and grudges, and the effigy’s ashes are sometimes scattered across fields to fertilize crops, as a ritual symbol of death and rebirth.
Maslenitsa derives from the Russian word maslo, which means butter or oil. Russian “blini,” or pancakes, are essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa. Many believed that round golden pancakes embodied a little of the sun’s warmth and might help to warm up the cold earth. The circle is also considered a sacred figure in Russia as a protection from evil. Ceremonies like dancing the khorovod (round dance) and decorating a cart wheel were believed to “butter” the Sun and make it kinder. During Maslenitsa, pancakes are used in almost every ritual and are given to friends and family throughout the week.
This Maslenitsa, the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life especially holds Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in our hearts. Stay tuned for information on a Peace Vigil to be held next week in partnership with our students from the Ukrainian region. May peace and safety abound.
Shubnaya, Ekaterina. “Of Russian origin: Maslenitsa.” Russiapedia. 2021.
RFE/RL. “Pancakes and Pugilism: Russia’s Fiery Maslenitsa Marks Winter’s End.” RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty. March 16, 2021.