6:18 AM / Posted by Jason Woodgate /

Maslenitsa (Pancake week) is one of the most joyful and brightest holidays in Russia. The whole week people see off winter, make pancakes and visit each other. Some historians suppose that in ancient times Maslenitsa was connected with the day of spring solstice but after adoption of Christianity Maslenitsa went before Velikiy Post (Lent) and depended on its terms. However for the Slavs Maslenitsa coincided with the New Year celebration as far as up to the 14th century the New Year in Russia started from March. Even pancakes – essential part of the holiday - had ritual meaning: round, ruddy, hot pancakes symbolized the sun.
In 1724 in Petersburg the celebration of Maslenitsa failed. Peter the Great who liked different holidays intended to make entertaining sledge procession in a new capital of Russia but the whole night before the celebration day there was terrible snowstorm and hard frost. For several days the participants of the procession clothed in fancy dresses and masks were coming to the determined place but then because of frost went to visit friends to warm themselves.
Catherine the Great on the occasion of her coronation in Moscow organized immense masquerade procession named “Torzhestvujushaya (triumphant) Minerva”. For three days this procession traveled around the city and tried to show all human vices - bribery, peculation, red tape and others which were supposed to be eliminated during the reign of the wise Catherine.
In the course of time the variety of entertainments in cities became wider. On frozen rivers or in central squares of the cities people built wooden hills which were decorated by colorful flags, pine and fir twigs and wooden sculptures. In the beginning of the 19th century the hills of kupets (merchant) Podoznikov were the most famous. They were built in Saint Petersburg opposite the Senate and reached 26 meters in height. Near ice hills there was active trading – people sold sweets, hot tea, nuts, cakes and pancakes. But the most favorite and beautiful tradition was
sledding. Everybody who had horses went out to take part in races along the streets. Every day of Maslenitsa associated with some ceremony. Monday – meeting of Maslenitsa, Tuesday – games. On Wednesday mothers-in-law invited their sons-in-law to eat pancakes. On Thursday there was sledding. On Friday sons-in-law invited their mothers-in-law to eat pancakes. Saturday was devoted to daughter-in-law parties. And finally on Forgiveness Sunday people visited their relatives and friends and asked for forgiveness for any offensive words or deeds.
Straw man
In ancient times man and women took bunches of straw put them together in a pile and then made a doll, dressed it in female clothes – bright skirts, jackets, shawls and drove it around the city in sledges welcoming and celebrating Maslenitsa. After that people burned down the doll throwing in the fire pancakes as a funeral food. To the children people said that all rich food had burnt down in the fire thus explaining the reason why during the Lent one should eat only Lenten food.
Bear fun
Bear fun is a customary show of Maslenitsa celebration. The bear associated with the Leshiy (wood-goblin) and pagan god Veles that is why people thought that bear possesses magic healing power. Peasants believed that bear was stronger than evil forces and could save from misfortune.
Trained bears entertained people imitating rouging ladies and women making pancakes. The bear was always accompanied by “koza bodataya” (butting goat) performed by a boy dressed in a sack with attached goat head and horns. “Koza” danced around teasing the bear which became furious, growled, stood to its full height and went around its guide. That meant dancing. After that the guide gave the bear a hat with which it approached spectators who put money in the hat.
Sometimes the bear and his guide were treated with vodka and then the guide could fight with the bear. Such fights with the bear as a demonstration of human strength, smartness and courage were especially popular. Participants of the fights were not only specially trained men but also ordinary people.
Snow cities

During Maslenitsa on rivers’ banks people build snow cities fortified by towers. Many people come to this city and divide themselves in two groups: “dismounted” and “mounted” warriors. The dismounted warriors occupy the city and mounted are preparing themselves for the attack. The leader of the mounted warriors orders to start the struggle and people in the city are trying to prevent city capture by means of brooms. However the mounted warriors enter the city and then together with the dismounted joyfully destroy the snow city.
Comedy shows performed by Petrushka (see picture) were very popular in ancient times.
Petrushka’s success sometimes was based on topical and satirical performances in other cases – on simplicity and lucidity of short turns. Ususally the show started with a loud laugh from behind the curtain and then Petrushka appeared. He was dressed in red shirt, velvet trousers tucked in boots and a cap.
Fist fights is another entertainment during Maslenitsa. This tradition came from ancient times when Russian warriors fought with their enemies with fists. Face to face fight was always considered the best and the most interesting.