Butter Week

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Maslenitsa (Butter Week, Cheese Week)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian), Folkloric
Date of Observation: Last week before the beginning of Orthodox Lent
Where Celebrated: Russia, Greece Customs and Symbols: Blinis, Burning Festival Effigies, Maslenitsa Legend, Outdoor Activities, Snow Fortresses
Related Holidays: Carnival, Forgiveness Sunday, Lent Maslenitsa


Maslenitsa is a Christian holiday celebrated by Orthodox Christians. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ. Christ is a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus's death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Maslenitsa is the Russian name for the last week before the beginning of LENT. It may be translated as "Butter Week." This festival grew out of the Orthodox Christian custom of fasting during Lent. Devout Orthodox Christians refrain from eating meat and dairy products during Lent. One week before the start of Lent they stop eating meat, although they continue to eat dairy products. During this week, observant Russian Orthodox people sate themselves on butter-rich dishes, such as BLINIS , knowing that they will soon have to forego these treats. In Greece, this same festival is known as Cheese Week. Although Greeks also enjoy dairy-rich foods during this period of time, many of their festival customs differ from those associated with Maslenitsa.

Maslenitsa may be thought of as the Russian version of CARNIVAL, a European festival that takes place during the last four days before the start of Lent. The earliest historical document noting the occurrence of Carnival celebrations in Europe dates back to the year 965 C . E . In those days, Christians living in Western Europe also practiced the rigorous fasting regimen still maintained in Orthodoxy today. So they were inspired to indulge in as many rich foods as possible in the days before the start of Lent. Religious teachings also insisted that people maintain a somber demeanor and introspective state of mind during Lent. In fact, church officials insisted that people officially confess their sins on the day before Lent began. This day became known as SHROVE TUESDAY . These foreboding religious customs encouraged medieval Christians to celebrate Carnival with frivolous, outrageous, and often irreverent behavior. Wearing masks and costumes gave people the opportunity to frolic in the streets, and also to play pranks on one other while remaining anonymous. Under the cover of disguise and holiday humor, clowns or jesters offered social commentary that might otherwise have landed them in trouble. Many communities burned or buried an effigy of Carnival on the last day of the festival.

Some of these customs can be seen in the Maslenitsa celebrations of past centuries. In the nineteenth century, Russians donned masks or costumes to celebrate the festival. They also enjoyed the antics of traveling troupes of actors. The well-to-do took sleigh rides, often carrying a warm basket of BLINIS on their lap. One old custom encouraged people to visit the gravesites of their relatives on the first Sunday of Butter Week, bringing with them blinis that had been blessed in church and leaving some at the grave. Some Russians thought each day of Maslenitsa should have its own special activity. They believed that Monday was the day on which to construct the winter effigy, Tuesday the day for costumes and pranks, Wednesday the day for feasting, Thursday the day for rougher activities (such as boxing), Friday the day for newlyweds to visit their mothers-in-law, and Saturday the day to entertain one's sister-in-law. Most of these customs died out during the Communist era (1917-1991).

Old Maslenitsa customs that still remain include eating blinis and participating in OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES , such as sledding, snowball fights, and sleigh rides. B URNING FESTIVAL EFFIGIES and building SNOW FORTRESSES are also popular Maslenitsa activities. Forgiving friends, family, and neighbors for any way in which they may have offended takes place on the last day of the festival, known among Orthodox Christians as FORGIVENESS SUNDAY.



Blinis are thin buckwheat pancakes about the size of a saucer. Nowadays they may be made with other types of flour, but the batter usually contains both butter and eggs. The warm pancakes are rolled around a variety of fillings, including sour cream, butter, mushrooms, caviar, sturgeon, jam, and many other delicacies.

Some commentators feel that the association between blinis and Maslenitsa may date back to pre-Christian times. They see the round pancakes as symbols of the sun and believe that Russians of past times celebrated the return of the sun at this Maslenitsa

time of year. Indeed, the return of the sun and the hope for warmer weather is still one of the important themes of this holiday, though it may still be quite cold in Russia at this time of year.

Burning Festival Effigies

Some Russian communities build an effigy representing CARNIVAL, or winter, out of straw. During the festival, these scarecrow-like dolls may be given a royal title, such as "lady" or "prince." On the last day, however, they are set upon a pile of wood and burned, as a means of officially drawing Maslenitsa to an end. In some places this ceremony is also understood as a farewell to winter. The ashes from the fire may be gathered and sprinkled on newly sown crops. An old Russian folk belief asserts that the ashes will enhance the crops' fertility.

Maslenitsa Legend

An old Russian folk tale explains the origins of the holiday and its connection with blinis. Long ago, on a bitterly cold winter's day, a peasant man is walking through the woods. To his surprise he finds a merry, rosy-cheeked girl wandering there by herself. Striking up a conversation, he discovers that she is the daughter of Frost, a fear-inspiring magical being who personifies the grueling Russian winters. Her name is Maslenitsa. The man feels hopeful in the pretty young girl's presence, so he asks her to return with him to his home so that all the villagers might draw strength and courage from her presence. Maslenitsa does so, and the villagers love her. They experience hope, joy, and warmth in her presence. They begin to dance and keep on till the point of exhaustion. Maslenitsa stays as long as she can, but after a couple of days she tells the villagers that she must return to the forest. The villagers beg her to stay. The winter had been especially cold that year, and they dread the return of the gloom and chill they will feel when Maslenitsa leaves. Maslenitsa feels sorry for their suffering. Before she departs, she teaches them a magical charm to drive away the cold. She advises them to cook pancakes in the shape of the sun and have a great feast. Seeing this, the sun will be attracted to them and grow stronger in the sky each day. Maslenita's charm works. Thus, the tale concludes, the Russian people established a festival to honor this event, named after the young girl who taught them how to drive away winter. It takes place just as the harsh grip of winter begins to fade and the first signs of spring appear.

Outdoor Activities

Many Russians participate in outdoor sports or games during Maslenitsa. Some enjoy the old-fashioned fun of a sleigh ride. Others thrill to the excitement of a snowball fight or a fast, downhill ride on a sled. Outdoor singing and dancing also takes place during this holiday.

Snow Fortresses

In a related custom, some people enjoy building snow fortresses during the last few days of Maslenitsa. These fortresses represent the harsh Russian winter. On the last day of the festival, people storm and conquer the fortress. Their victory represents the defeat of winter by the forces of spring.


Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002.


Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill www.unc.edu/depts/slavic/publications/brochure2.html

Passport Moscow Magazine www.passportmagazine.ru/article/196

Butter Week (Russia)

February-March, the week preceding Ash Wednesday
Carnival is known as Butter Week or Maslyanitsa (also rendered Maslenitsa) in Russia because Russians consume so many rich foods throughout this week, the last before the seven-week Lenten fast. Bliny, Russian-style pancakes served with sour cream or butter, are eaten all week long and have come to symbolize the feast. People enjoy one rich meal after another as the week proceeds. Lent begins on the Monday following the last Sunday in Butter Week. On this day observant Russian Orthodox Christians remove meat and dairy products from their diets.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Carnival celebration in St. Petersburg ended with a ceremony in which a folk figure called Prince Carnival rode through town in a cart pulled by 10 horses and bade farewell to the people. He was represented as a tipsy man, sitting before a table covered with food. When the Prince departed, the people celebrated the end of Carnival with a display of fireworks. In many areas people enjoy winter sports such as skiing, sledding, ice skating, and snowball fights during Butter Week. In some places people mark the end of Carnival by making huge hand-sewn dolls that represent winter and tossing them onto burning bonfires.
Department of Tourism
47 Myasnitskaya St.
Moscow, 107084 Russia
7-495-207-7176; fax: 7-495-207-3745
BkFest-1937, p. 289
EncyEaster-2002, p. 382
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 165
OxYear-1999, p. 641

Celebrated in: Russian Federation

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RUSSIAN Boris Isayev, 48, died on stage moments after winning a competition to mark the end of Butter Week - by eating 43 banana and cream pancakes.