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Butter Week, Maslyanitsa

Russians celebrate the week before the beginning of Lent as Mas- lenitsa (or Maslyanitsa), which means "Butter Week" (see also Cheese Week). Russian Orthodox Christians ease into their Lenten fast during this week by removing meat from their diet. Butter, milk and cheese remain, however, and offer many rich menu possibilities which Russians take advantage of during Butter Week. At the end of the week, when Lent officially begins, observant Orthodox Christians complete their Lenten fasting regimen, removing both meat and dairy products from their diet for the duration of Lent.


In past times traditional Butter Week entertainments included strolling through public places in fine clothes or in masks and costumes, courting and flirting with the opposite sex, visiting friends and relatives, enjoying rich foods, and taking sleigh rides, sometimes accompanied by a basket of blinis to munch on. Other activities associated with Maslenitsa include attending plays put on by troupes of traveling actors, playing winter games, such as sliding down specially constructed hills of ice, and participating in rituals marking the death of winter. During the Communist era (1917-91) many of these customs began to die out. Today enjoying winter games and amusements, visiting friends and family, and consuming stacks of blinis are the most characteristic activities of the holiday.

Certain holiday activities used to be associated with specific days of the week. For example, some people visited the gravesites of their relatives on the first Sunday of Maslenitsa, bringing with them baskets of blinis that had been blessed in church. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Butter Week were once viewed as the ideal time for newlyweds to visit their in-laws. Other people associate this custom with the following Thursday.

These days people indulge in sweet foods on Wednesday of Butter Week. Outdoor games and activities begin in earnest on Thursday and include sledding, snowball fights, singing, dancing, and sleigh rides. At the end of the week's festivities, many communities construct a straw figure dubbed "Prince Carnival." They pull him through the streets in a sleigh on the last day of Maslenitsa, begging him to stay and so to extend the festival. But Lent cannot be postponed, and so they sit Prince Carnival upon his throne, place his throne upon a woodpile, and set flame to it on the last evening of Butter Week.

The last day of Butter Week is known as Forgiveness Sunday. An old Russian folk tradition required people not only to ask forgiveness of family members, friends, and neighbors, but also to visit the cemetery in order to ask forgiveness from the dead. The living embraced one another as a sign of pardon. The dead were offered blini.


Blinis have become a symbol of this Russian Carnival celebration, so important are they to its proper observance. Russian cooks make blinis by preparing a thin batter which they then pour into a hot frying pan. The resulting crepes, or pancakes, should be thin, golden brown, and about the size of a saucer. After removing them from the pan they roll the blini up around a variety of rich fillings. These fillings include sturgeon, caviar (fish eggs), pickled herring, sour cream and jam, butter, mushrooms and onions, and much more. Russians consume these small delicacies by the dozens during Maslenitsa.

Legend and Origin

A Russian legend offers a fanciful explanation for the origins of this holiday. Long ago a peasant man walking in the woods encountered a merry young girl named Maslenitsa. To his great surprise he discovered that the fresh, red-cheeked beauty was the daughter of Frost, a minor yet forbidding deity personifying winter. The man begged the girl to return home with him to his village. The villagers were enduring a bitterly cold winter that year, and he thought the magical young lady might brighten their spirits. Maslenitsa did indeed return to the village with the peasant man. The villagers found warmth, joy, and hope in her presence. So great was their relief that they danced and laughed to the point of exhaustion. As Maslenitsa's visit neared its end, however, their spirits sank with fear of the dreadful cold. Their desperation wrung Maslenitsa's heart, and so she gave them a charm against the cold. She suggested that they prepare batter, fry it in the shape of the sun and feast on the resulting pancakes. Upon seeing this tribute, she advised, the sun would not leave them but stay and grow stronger. The charm worked and ever after the Russian people have celebrated the end of winter and the first flush of spring with a festival named in Maslenitsa's honor.

Folklorists believe that Russian Butter Week customs and celebrations predate the arrival of Christianity in Russia at the end of the tenth century. They suspect that in pre-Christian times the festival celebrated the first signs of the arrival of spring. Some interpret the traditional festival foods, blini and sunny-side-up fried eggs, as symbols of the sun. Today Russians still welcome the arrival of spring during Maslenitsa. At the end of the festival some country people make large scarecrow-like dolls stuffed with straw to represent winter and toss them onto lit bonfires. This act symbolizes the death of winter and the birth of spring. Spreading the ashes of this blaze over one's fields is said to improve the harvest. Some people toss the remaining Maslenitsa food onto the bonfire as well as any wooden objects that have broken over the past year. In other areas people build a snow fortress, sometimes over a frozen river. On the last day of the festival people besiege and occupy the fortress. This act, too, signals the defeat of winter and the arrival of spring.

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Matloff, Judith. "Bingeing on Hot Buttered Blini in Frigid Moscow." Christian Science Monitor (February 3, 1999). Available online through Northern Light for a fee at: . Document ID: BM19990 203010020782 Papashvily, Helen, and George Papashvily. Russian Cooking. Revised edition. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. Solovyova, Julia. "Holiday Mixes Paganism, Christianity." The Moscow Times (February 16, 1999). Available online through Northern Light for a fee at: . Document ID: EB19990216710000175 Utenkova, Yelena. "Hold the Aunt Jemima: These are Blini." Russian Life (March 1, 1996).

Web Site

"Russian Folk Holidays and Traditions," a page sponsored by the city government of Moscow, Russia:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

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

Passport Moscow Magazine
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Shrovetide), a name given in the 16th century to the ancient Slavic heathen festival that lasted many days and marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring farm work.

The Christian Orthodox Church included Maslenitsa as church holidays (before Lent). In ancient times it consisted of various ritual activities of a magical-religious character that later became traditional national customs and rites (burning a straw dummy; baking sacrificial bread, or pancakes; and masquerading). During many centuries Maslenitsa preserved the characteristic features of public merrymaking, accompanied by feasts, games, riding sleds down hills, and horse riding.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.