Russia, Easter and Holy Week in

Russia, Easter and Holy Week in

Before enduring the rigors of Lent, Russians enjoy a week-long Carnival celebration known as Maslenitsa, or "Butter Week." At the close of the festival observant Orthodox Christians will begin a strict Lenten fast, in which both meat and dairy products are removed from the diet.

Most Russian Christians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa. It split away from Western Christianity, which later divided into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, about 1,000 years ago. Orthodox and other Eastern Christians follow a slightly different schedule of religious observances than do Western Christians and preserve many distinct customs. In addition, they maintain a separate calendar system which usually causes their Lent and Easter season observances to fall on different dates than those celebrated by Western Christians.

Holy Week

Russian families begin a major housecleaning campaign during Holy Week so that the house will sparkle when the Easter feast arrives (see also Spring Cleaning). Women and girls beat rugs, polish brass, sweep, mop, launder, paint, and prepare new clothes for Easter. Baking and other culinary preparations for the Easter feast also take place during Holy Week. Devout Orthodox Christians will continue to fast during Holy Week, and many others who have not observed the rigorous dietary regimen during the rest of Lent will fast during this week.

Palm Sunday

Youngsters gather willow branches in preparation for Palm Sunday, when they are used in church services (see also Palm). Those who attend services often bring blessed willow branches home from church and place them beside their icons, religious images used in prayer and worship.

Maundy Thursday

People who attend church services on Maundy Thursday may attempt to carry a lit candle home from church. Those who manage to keep the flame alive make the sign of the cross with the candle above their front door. Upon entering the house they use the flame to light the candles standing before their icons.

Holy Saturday

Preparations for the Easter feast are finalized on this day. Many people bring baskets of special Easter foods to church to receive the priest's blessing. In the old days priests visited the homes of their more influential parishioners on Holy Saturday in order to bless their Easter table. Those who plan to attend the late-night Resurrection service set their tables before leaving for church (for more on this service, see Easter Sunday).

Easter Sunday

In the Russian Orthodox Church the Resurrection service, which begins late at night on Holy Saturday and continues on into the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, celebrates the Easter miracle. It resembles in some ways the Easter Vigil service observed by Roman Catholics and certain Protestants. More people attend the Divine Liturgy on this evening than on any other day of the year.

This dramatic service features a candle-lighting ceremony which begins around midnight. At this hour the priest emerges from behind the screens that enclose the altar holding a single lit candle. The flame represents the risen Christ. As he holds the candle before the congregation the priest declares, "Come ye and receive light from the unwavering Light; and glorify Christ, who has risen from the dead." Then he passes the flame to several worshipers, who in turn light their neighbors' candles until everyone in the church is carrying a glowing candle. Next the priest leads the candle-bearing congregation in a procession around the church, which represents the arrival of the myrrh-bearing women at Jesus' tomb early on Sunday morning (see also Mary Magdalene). The priest announces what the women discovered: the tomb is empty and Jesus has been raised from the dead! Upon hearing this joyous proclamation members of the congregation turn to one another and give the Easter greeting, "Khristos voskres" (Christ is risen!) to which the proper response is "Voistinu voskres" (Indeed, he is risen!). They complete this greeting by kissing each other three times on the cheek, alternating from right to left to right. Especially observant Russian Orthodox will greet friends and family members in the same way throughout the fiftyday Easter season, though others may continue this practice for only a few days after Easter.

In past times many country people visited the local graveyard after the Resurrection service, still carrying their lighted candles from church. Thus they brought the good news of the Resurrection to their departed relatives. Sometimes they hung little porcelain Easter eggs from the arms of the cemetery crosses, thereby including the dead in the joyous celebration of Easter. Russian tradition calls for the Easter feast to begin directly after the Resurrection service. This means that the meal begins well past midnight and ends in the early hours of the morning. Traditional Russian Easter fare includes roasted meat, for example, roast suckling pig. The meal will also include many toasts, usually with a powerful Russian liquor called vodka, although other alcoholic beverages may be drunk as well. Egg-tapping games also accompany the Easter feast. Russians top off the Easter banquet with paskha, a sweet, creamy dairy dish made from pot cheese, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and dried fruit and nuts, as well as kulich, a tall, sweet bread, studded with dried fruit. This cake-like bread is baked in coffee cans in order to ensure that it reaches a dramatic height, which creates a visual symbol of Jesus' rising from death. After letting the cake cool bakers cover it with white icing. An Easter bread called paskha may also be served. Many cooks put the finishing touch on Easter foods like paskha and kulich by decorating them with the initials "X B," which stand for Khristos voskres.

During the Soviet era (1917-91), Communist political authorities disapproved of Easter celebrations. Though they did not succeed in preventing people from baking at Easter time, they did encourage people to call their holiday bread "spring cake" instead of kulich, since the latter name was associated with the ancient Easter holiday. After the fall of communism Russians stopped using the term "spring cake" and went back to using the word kulich to describe their special Easter bread.

Russian folk tradition proclaims Easter a time to free birds from cages and to make charitable donations to prisoners. Russians also visit friends and family on Easter Sunday, dressing in their finest clothes and partaking of one another's Easter fare. Russian etiquette requires that each person present offer every other person the Easter greeting. Many Russians also exchange Easter eggs with one another on this holiday. The most popular color for Russian Easter eggs is red. The red color is said to represent the blood of Christ. Many Russians also enjoy painting elaborate designs on their eggs, especially images of Jesus Christ. Girls may be presented with small porcelain charms made in the shape of an Easter egg. These are collected and worn on necklaces. In past times the Russian nobility exchanged bejeweled eggs made out of precious metals. The most famous of these, made by goldsmith Karl Fabergé, are still prized by today's jewelry collectors (for more on these eggs, see Easter Eggs).

Another old Russian tradition casts open church belfries to all who want to ring the bells on Easter Sunday. This privilege extends throughout Easter Week. In past times the constant ringing of church bells during this week inspired people to call it the "Week of Chimes." The Soviet government outlawed this festive custom in 1929. In addition, government officials destroyed almost all of Russia's church bells. According to one writer, before the Russian revolution in 1917 the nation boasted eighty thousand bell towers, each housing between five and one hundred bells. Only two bell towers, one in the town of Vologda and the other in Rostov, survived the Soviet period with all their bells intact. Since the fall of communism in 1991, however, Russian foundries have been casting new bells to replace those previously destroyed. What's more, the school for bell ringers in Arkhangel'sk is now training a whole new generation of bell ringers to carry on Russia's bell traditions.

Further Reading

Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Papashvily, Helen, and George Papashvily. Russian Cooking. Revised edition. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977. Pavlova, Elena. "The Week of Chimes: Reviving an Easter Tradition in Russia." The World and I 11, 5 (May 1996): 202. Utenkova, Yelena. "Kulich: The King of Easter Cuisine." Russian Life (April 1, 1996).

Web Site

"Christ Is Risen! A Russian Easter Celebration," posted by Clever Hedgehog Translation Services at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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