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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Likbez: How to Celebrate Russian Easter

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, preparations for Easter begin long before Easter Sunday, which this year coincides with Western Easter on April 8.

The Thursday preceding Easter Sunday -- or "Clean Thursday" -- is when you are supposed to begin cooking holiday dishes. It is customary to clean the house and burn juniper branches in the rooms to clear the stuffy winter air. Special salt to be used in Easter dishes was traditionally prepared on this day: Salt was wrapped in a piece of clean cloth and baked in an oven, then ground and sifted to be purified. On Thursday night, a long service of the 12 Gospel readings is held, at the end of which people go home with a burning candle and take the light around the house.

The next day, Friday, is the strictest day of Lent. It should be spent quietly, with kulich dough already rising before going into the oven late in the evening. There are dozens of recipes for kulich, a tall cylindrical Easter cake, from the simple egg-vanilla-flour combination to more elaborate concoctions with dried fruits, nuts and spices. Wealthy families traditionally made many, including a huge one for the family, where size depended on the number of family members -- sometimes it was as big as a bucket, since it had to last for the entire Easter week. Another traditional Easter dish is paskha, a sweet dessert made from tvorog and shaped like a pyramid (these days, most people use a ceramic flower pot as their paskha form).

Eggs are not only a dominant food item on the Easter table, but also a source of entertainment. Eggs are dyed, using red onion skins, colorful pieces of cloth or birch leaves (or egg dyes now sold in many stores). In Ukraine, women would get together to create artful pysanka eggs, decorated using the batik wax method, to give to friends on Sunday. Friends and relatives greet one another in a special way on Easter Sunday, with three kisses on the cheeks. One person says "Khristos voskrese!" ("Christ is risen!") and the other replies "Voistinu voskrese!" ("Truly he is risen!").

The tradition of decorating eggs and giving them as presents was taken to a new level by Carl Faberge in 1885, when he created a surprise Easter egg of enameled gold for Empress Maria Fyodorovna. People with more modest means would limit themselves to chicken's eggs, and children would play a game that involved rolling cooked Easter eggs down a slope and trying to hit other people's eggs. A simplified version of this game is simply holding and tapping one egg against another: The person with the toughest egg wins.