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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Week: Eat Bliny Until You Drop

It all started 1, 500 years ago when the Slavs worshiped wood idols and lived in a world of holy trees, mysterious creatures and magic ceremonies.


Life centered around the passing of seasons. The coming of spring, a welcome sign that another deadly winter was over, was cause for celebration.


Called Maslenitsa, or "Butter Week", this ancient ritual of bidding farewell to winter survived the Christianizing of Russia and became a week of entertainment and celebration before the 40 days of fasting, Lent, that precede the Orthodox Easter.


The unusual name for the celebration, which is an equivalent of Mardi Gras, comes from the ritual dish maslyanye bliny, the thin, round pancakes meant to resemble the sun. During every day of Maslenitsa, Russians ate sacks of bliny at every meal; all restaurants and taverns served the little pancakes, piping hot and drowned in butter.


Tuesday marks the beginning of Maslenitsa, which ends on Sunday. The timing of the week-long celebration depends on the date of Easter.


Maslenitsa, which was the last occasion before Lent when rich foods could be enjoyed, was cause for the most grandiose feast of the year, the Maslenitsa menu included bliny, as well as a variety of fish and meat dishes. Gluttony was a necessary ritual, symbolizing a rich life for the rest of the year. Indeed, neglecting to celebrate Maslenitsa was widely considered bad luck.


Maslenitsa was not just considered a feast for one's stomach; it was also a feast for the soul. According to the 19th century Russian sociologist Sergei Maksimov, Maslenitsa was time to "drown in wine and entertainments all the cares and troubles of everyday life".


These entertainments included everything from sledding, tobogganing and swinging (on wooden swings made for the holiday) to less family oriented events such as wrestling matches. Cities and towns were turned into amusement parks, with mime shows and clowns entertaining the crowds.


Weddings were frequent during the holiday, as the rest of the year meant hard work and little time for romance. Newlyweds were lined along village streets facing each other and, as onlookers cried "Porokh na gubakh! " -- or "Gun powder on your lips! " -- the husbands and wives would embrace and kiss. If the audience was not satisfied by the amount of kisses, it cried for more. The event went on for hours.


Historically, Russian royalty loved Maslenitsa as much as their subjects, but celebrated in a more opulent fashion. Peter the Great held masquerades, where he appeared dressed as a navy captain atop a gigantic wood ship. Queen Elizabeth indulged herself in sledding as well as skiing. Catherine II and her entourage played ancient gods, with the Empress often taking on the role of Minerva.


In the villages, the main ceremony of Maslenitsa took place on the weekend. On Friday, villagers created a big straw figure, clad in female clothes, with a bliny in its hand. With the singing of sad and plaintive songs, this personification of Maslenitsa was burned as a farewell to the holiday. The ashes, believed to bring about a good harvest, were spread on the field.


As with many traditions during the Soviet era, Maslenitsa received an ideological overhaul, becoming similar in tone to other holidays, such as the anniversary of the Revolution or Worker's Day. Today, the return of performances in the streets or ice hills in Gorky Park hardly means a return to the great holiday that Maslenitsa once was. Making and eating bliny, however, was apparently too delicious a tradition to pass up. So don't be surprised if you're offered the little pancakes at a friend's house for dinner.