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Maslenitsa: the pancakes and the many ways to greet Spring around the world

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Winter is the time when most people enjoy it just enough to be ready for the spring to come.

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Usually at the end of winter most of us are ready for it to be over and we are looking forward to the spring’s warmth, sun and longer days, not to mention we can’t wait until everything starts to bloom and blossom and we can finally get rid of the coats, sweaters, hats and boots. That is why it makes sense why there are so many ‘greeting spring’ traditions and celebrations around the world. I grew up with one of them, which is called Maslenitsa, known as the Butter/Crepe or Cheesefare Week in other parts of the world.

It’s a Russian tradition of celebrating the spring sun and as a symbol of ‘sun’, the Russians make pancakes – the color and shape of which are associated with sun.

It’s also widely celebrated in the former Soviet Union countries like Ukraine and Belorussia – and in other countries where there’s a big influence of the Eastern Slavic religion. Originally, Maslentisa was a religious holiday, but during the years of Soviet Union it has lost its ‘religious’ connotation and now this holiday is more of a spring folk holiday than a religious holiday, which is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent—on the seventh week before the Russian Easter.

Maslenitsa is a celebration of the end of the winter, although, most often, when it happens, there’s still a sense of winter in Russia, often this holiday happens while the snow still covers the grounds of Russian towns. Maslenitsa is also the last chance to eat dairy products and do those social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful, sober and introspective Lenten season, when meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden, as well as all the 'carnival'-like activities.

First and foremost, Maslenitsa holiday and traditions are associated with the pancakes.

On the day of Maslenitsa Russian people make pancakes, and no matter where they live – be it in Russia or in other parts of the world, most often they still celebrate this holiday with families and make pancakes. Pancakes is one of the most favorite ‘breakfast’ and weekend foods of the Russians and the pancakes are served with the most diverse fillings you can think of – from honey, jams and sour cream to red caviar and meats and cooked vegetables like potatos and mushrooms. As a matter of fact, if you ever go to a good Russian restaurant, most likely they will have the pancakes with the red caviar on the menu. Here's the time to mention that there are two kinds of pancakes in Russian cuisine, one of which is the most common to make on Maslenitsa - it's the thin, large circle ones, knowns as crepes around the world. And there's also another type of pancakes - the puffy, small ones, which in Russian are called "oladushki" and are made with the fermented sour (spoiled) milk - Kefir or as it's commonly called in USA - buttermilk. These are less likely to be made during Maslenitsa, because unlike the crepe type of a pancake, oladushki are too small to hold all the fillings that are usually served inside and/or on top of crepes, which is one of the Maslenitsa must-haves.

During the celebration of Maslenitsa in many cities and towns of Russia, people engage in the street fairs, which offer a wide variety of Maslenitsa traditional activities, like snowball fights, sledding, riding on swings, pillow fights, jumping rope contests, all-over body 'showers' with cold water out of buckets, as well as folk dances, story telling and puppet shows. In some regions, each day of Maslenitsa has its own specific traditional activity, like: one day for sleigh-riding, another for the sons-in-law to visit their parents-in-law, another day for visiting the godparents, etc.

The mascot of the celebration is usually a brightly dressed straw effigy of Maslenitsa, formerly known as Kostroma, which is always present during the street fairs and gets burnt at the end of the celebrations - as the culmination of the celebration, Kostroma is stripped of her finery and put to the flames of a bonfire. Any remaining pancakes are also thrown on the fire and Kostroma's (Lady Maslenitsa) ashes are buried in the snow to "fertilize the crops".

The last day of Maslenitsa Week is called "Forgiveness Sunday", indicating the desire for God's forgiveness that lies at the heart of Great Lent. At Vespers on Sunday evening, all the people make a bow before one another and ask forgiveness, and thus Great Lent begins in the spirit of reconciliation and Christian love. Another name for Forgiveness Sunday is "Cheesefare Sunday," because for devout Orthodox Christians, it is the last day on which dairy products may be consumed until Easter. Fish, wine and olive oil will also be forbidden on most days of Great Lent. The day following Cheesefare Sunday is called Clean Monday, because everyone has confessed their sins, asked forgiveness, and begun Great Lent with a clean slate.

Some of the very old authentic traditions of this holiday have been, unfortunately, during more than seventy years of Communism – during the Soviet times most of the religious holidays were prohibited and public displays of these holidays were prohibited, so many Russians who chose to celebrate it regardless, did it at their homes with just a close circle of friends and family and most of these celebrations bore little significance to the religion. Maslenitsa in Soviet Union became a sort of a family holiday when everyone makes pancakes and shares them with each other. It’s only during the late 80s, when the Perestroika period has began with the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev that the street – public - celebrations of Maslenitsa have resumed, trying to bring back and restore some of the abandoned traditions. In the early 90s more and more Russians were returning to practicing Christianity and the religious holidays were once again celebrated at the churches, homes and streets around the country.

A small fact from my personal life. During the Soviet times when I was born, my parents were still in college and young people were especially advised not to follow any religious celebrations – the Soviet party did not believe in the religion and those who wanted to partake in the religious activities were very often punished – they could have either lost their jobs and/or school/university enrollments. However, most of the older people didn’t want to compile to the Soviet ‘rules’ and continued practicing religion by going to church and following religious holidays like Easter and Christmas. So, when I was born, my parents, obviously, were unsure about risking their studies and baptizing me, and my grandmother did it secretly. She and her sister – who is now my Godmother – took me to the church and baptized me, however, I didn’t get to wear my Christian cross until I was about 15 years old and the religion was allowed in the country; by that time I was already no longer living in the country. Up until this day my parents have been always feeling that my grandmother did the right thing. Many Russians did the same thing with their children.

This is why I grew up with certain holidays being celebrated at home, rather than wide open in the public and only when I was older I got to experience some of the oldest traditions in person when I saw such holidays as Maslenitsa and Easter celebrated in street fairs, and also by seeing the photos of the celebrations from various parts of Russia on Internet that can now be freely displayed on the world wide web.

Russia is not the only country that has a distinctive holiday that is celebrating the coming of the Spring. Many other countries are celebrating this day.

In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, for example, Shrove Tuesday is also commonly known as "Pancake Day" or "Pancake Tuesday". In UK the Pancake Day is also an annual feature on the children's television show Blue Peter.

Also, in many communities in UK, e.g. Cornwall, hold "mob football" games, some dating as far back as the 12th century. The practice mostly died out in the 19th century after the passing of the Highway Act 1835 which banned playing football on public highways. Many towns also organize “pancake races” - the tradition is said to have originated when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying herfrying pan and pancake. The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, even today. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan whilst running. One other tradition that British small towns hold that I find very adorable is when the children go door to door and ask the households to ‘please a pancake’, which means – asking a family to reward the pancake with a certain filling. It could be an interesting way to discover what different families eat their pancakes with.

Catholic and Protestant countries (outside those mentioned above) call the day before Ash Wednesday "Fat Tuesday" or "Mardi Gras". The name predated the Reformation and referred to the common Christian tradition of eating special rich foods before the fasting season of Lent. In USA, many would agree with me, the best Mardi Gras celebration is in New Orleans, LA.

While, in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, it is known as Carnival. This derives from the wordscarne levare (to take away meat) and thus to another aspect of the Lenten fast. It is often celebrated with street processions and/or fancy dress. The most famous of these events is the Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, while the Venetians celebrate carnival with a masquerade. The use of the term 'carnival' in other contexts derives from here.

In Europe there are quite a few countries that hold similar celebrations and have similar names for the holiday, with a few differences in the food being made, although the pancakes, for the most part, still dominate the holiday menu:

In Denmark and Norway the day is known as Fastelavn and is marked by eating fastelavnsboller. There's even the Intercultural Museum in Norway that offers a whole experience of Fastelavn.

Fastelavn is the name for Carnival in Denmark which is either the Sunday or Monday before Ash Wednesday. Fastelavn developed from the Roman Catholic tradition of celebrating in the days before Lent, but after Denmark became a Protestant nation, the holiday became less specifically religious. This holiday occurs seven weeks before Easter Sunday, with children dressing up in costumes and gathering treats for the Fastelavn feast. The holiday is generally considered to be a time for children's fun and family games. In Germany, this day is known as Fastnacht Day.

In Iceland the day is known as Sprengidagur (Bursting Day) and is marked by eating salted meat and peas.

In Lithuania they make pancakes as well, but also the Lithuanian-style doughnuts called spurgos.

In Sweden the day is called Fettisdagen (Fat Tuesday) and is generally celebrated by eating a type of pastry called semla.

In Finland the day is called Laskiainen and is generally celebrated by eating green pea soup and a pastry called laskiaispulla (sweet bread filled with whipped cream and jam or almond paste). The celebration often includes sledging.

In Estonia the day is called Vastlapäev and is generally celebrated by eating pea soup and whipped-cream filled buns called vastlakukkel.

As you can see, there's quite a few similarities in the pastries across the countries.

In some parts of Switzerland (e.g. Lucerne) the day is called Güdisdienstag, preceded by Güdismontag. According to the Duden (semi-official dictionary of the German language), the term derives from "Güdel", which means a fat stomach full of food.

In Newfoundland small tokens are frequently cooked in the pancakes. Children take delight in discovering the objects, which are intended to be divinatory. For example, the person who receives a coin will be wealthy; a nail that they will become or marry a carpenter.

In India in the spring, north India celebrates a festival called Holi. The celebration is marked by lighting bonfires called Holika. Both children and adults chase each other and throw brightly colored water and water balloons at each other. It is a day when Indians shed their inhibitions regarding caste differences. In the afternoon everyone cleans up and partakes in festive meals. This is the time when mustard fields are in full bloom, appearing as yellow carpets, hence the choice of yellow clothing for this holiday. In Jaipur you will find lavishly painted elephants on the occasion of Holi.

In China they celebrate the Qingming Festival that occurs around April 5th, on the 104th day after the winter solstice. People visit the graves and burial grounds of their ancestors, sweep the tombs, and offer food and drink to the ancestors. It is also a time of family outings, singing, dancing, and the start of spring plowing.

In France the Spring also commensurate with the Foir de Paris, or Paris Fair, that takes place in April and May. It is a place to discover the latest innovations, the most unusual inventions, latest trends in interior design, and creative products. A myriad of exhibitors at the enormous Porte de Versailles will take an entire day or two to explore.

Click here for a Russian style pancake recipe.

Here’s just a few of the Spring celebrations that take place in March and April around the world. However, the ‘pancake’ celebrations are still the most common around the world, which is one of my favorites as well. I only wish I had my mother and/or grandmothers close to me on those days as no other pancakes can taste as good as theirs for me...

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