Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Farewell to Winter; the Evergreen Popularity of the Traditional Russian Carnival to Welcome the Spring

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Farewell to Winter; the Evergreen Popularity of the Traditional Russian Carnival to Welcome the Spring

Article excerpt

Farewell to winter

THE Russian carnival, Maslenitsa, whose origins are lost in the mists of time, is still celebrated with undiminished vigour. The celebrations include a number of ancient customs, such as the eating of blini (pancakes), tobogganing and sleigh rides. To these have now been added a host of other diversions, such as ski races, skating competitions and dancing and singing to the accompaniment of accordions and balalaikas, which make the "Farewell to the Russian Winter", as it is commonly called today, more of an entertainment than a rite. Even though certain ancient rites are from time to time resurrected, the deeper meaning of such traditional practices is being gradually lost.

The name Maslenitsa is derived from the Russian word maslo, meaning "butter". During the week preceding the six-week period of Lent that leads up to Easter, the eating of meat was forbidden by the Church and so people ate dairy products, fish, eggs and blini maslenye, pancakes to which melted butter was added to make them more creamy.

The word Maslenitsa signifies both the carnival itself and the grotesque doll-figure that personifies it. In Moscow, by the eighteenth century, the symbolic aspects of the carnival had already been lost, but they survived in the countryside and in some villages carnival was still being celebrated in its traditional form at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The festivities began with the welcome of the Maslenitsa, a doll made of straw and rags, usually in the likeness of a woman. It was dressed in a blouse and a sleeveless peasant's smock and a scarf was knotted on its head. Sometimes it was attached to a wheel at the top of a long pole, sometimes the role of Maslenitsa was actually played by a person. It was then paraded through the village, accompanied, on foot or on sleighs, by a noisy crowd of villagers who gave vent to their joy with shouts and bursts of laughter and by dancing and declaiming poems of welcome:

The worthy Maslenitsa, generous boyar,

Has come to descend our snowy slopes,

To feast on blini

And to abandon herself

To wholehearted enjoyment.

Then the Maslenitsa was placed on a mound or other high point where it remained until the end of the week.

It is sinful not to drink to the Maslenitsa

The welcome ceremony triggered off a variety of entertainments. These ranged from horse races, pitched battles between unarmed men and attacks by horsemen on the defenders of forts made of snow, to swings and seesaws. Above all there was tobogganing, which was very popular with the young men and women since it gave them an opportunity to get better acquainted with their wives or husbands to be. Young married couples would shoot down the slopes together in full view of the whole village with the wife sitting on her husband's knees. By popular demand, a couple had to kiss before and after making a descent. Sometimes a young couple would be buried together for a brief moment in the snow.

The richer families would begin preparing their blini on the Monday, the poorer ones on the Thursday or Friday. The women would make the batter in accordance with a given ritual. At moonrise some would add snow to the mixture; others, acting with the utmost secrecy, would set to work at night at the river's edge when the stars came out. In some districts, the first pancake to be cooked was placed on the window-sill for the souls of the departed. In other areas, it was given to beggars so that they could commemorate the dead. Pancakes, served very hot with sour cream, herrings and caviare, were lavished on relatives, friends and acquaintances. The laws of hospitality required open house to be kept throughout the carnival. People ate and drank their fill and more, as if sating themselves so as to get through the long period of Lenten abstinence. As the popular saying went: "It is sinful not to drink to the Maslenitsa. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.