The History of Maslenitsa, or Pancake week has its roots deep in Russian antiquity. It is both a religious and folk holiday that celebrates both the coming of Spring and the beginning of Lent. As meat was forbidden for Orthodox Christians, Maslenitsa was the time to have one last celebration before the spiritual Lent season began.
Before the XIV century in Russia Maslenitsa was the celebration of the New Year as per the Orthodox Calendar. And to celebrate the New Year Russians used this week for fun and plenty of food with the main course being pancakes. The pancakes had a ritual significance: round, rosy, warm, they are a symbol of the sun, which flared up more brightly, lengthening the days and reminding the people about the end of the cold winter and the start of the Spring season.
During Lent meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs are forbidden and as a result the Russian pancake (bliny) is eaten in mass consumption all across Russia along with music and various festivities. Russian pancakes are similar to French crepes and are made with butter, milk, and eggs. Often pancakes are accompanied with various toppings including caviar, jam, fish, or meat.
Many Russian cities have a different festivity for each day of the Pancake week and can include sledding, making snow statues, snowball fights, dancing, songs, games, sleigh-riding, and of course visiting family. Although during Soviet times Maslenitsa was not celebrated officially, now this celebration is one of the grand events of the year in Russia and is certainly worth enjoying and for most Russian’s it represents a start to Spring more than a religious holiday.
In the past part of Maslenitsa fun included fist fights. All peasants both young and old would gather in the marketplace and the men would line up against each other in two groups. Then started the fighting, without any distinction between relatives, friends, or acquaintances and ending with the participants going home nearly naked: shirts and pants torn to shreds.
The last day of Maslenitsa was called “Forgiveness Sunday”: relatives and friends visited each other not to celebrate, but to ask for forgiveness for deliberate and accidental hurt and grief caused during the year. At a meeting (sometimes even with a stranger) people woud stop and bow three times and seek mutual forgiveness: “Forgive me, for that which I have done, or sinned against you.””Let God forgive you, and I forgive you” – answered the other person, then as a sign of reconciliation the people had to kiss.
The end to Maslenitsa was completed on the first day of Lent – “Clean Monday”, which was considered the day of purification from sin and perilous food. Men are usually “rinsed their teeth” ie, drink an abundance of vodka, supposedly in order to rinse the mouth and remain pure, and in some places for “shaking out the pancakes,” staged fist fights, etc. During Clean Monday the men went to the traditional Russian bath house (banya) to wash, while the women washed dishes and cleaned milk and fat from all the utensils.
Thankfully, visitors to St Petersburg can enjoy their own Maslenitsa at any time as pancakes are served all across the city at various restaurants. Your private guide in St Petersburg can bring you to some of the best pancakes places in the city and you can celebrate in Russian style during your private tour or shore excursion.