RUSSIAN SPECIAL OCCASIONS
The predominant faith is represented by the Russian Orthodox Church founded by Vladimir the Great in 988 C.E. as an offshoot of the Greek (Byzantine) Orthodox Church. The main difference between the two is the translation of the service in the Russian Orthodox Church into what was known as Church Slavonic. Other Christian religious groups include Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic, the latter being found mainly in Lithuania and the extreme westerly regions of the former Soviet Union. Islam is the predominant religion in the Central Asian republics, while almost two million Jews live mostly in the larger cities.
In 1918, the Soviet government nationalized all properties of religious groups and disestablished the Russian Orthodox state church. In 1936, the constitution has stated that “Soviet citizens are granted freedom of religious worship and antireligious propaganda …” though in practice the churches became more like museums, with seasonal and national holidays replacing those with religious connotation, and overt atheism seeming to be the rule.
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, churches and any remaining synagogues and mosques have begun to open their doors not only for prayer, but also to link people to their former heritage. For many, the Russian Orthodox Church is a revered symbol of Russian spirit and identity even as the Greek Orthodox Church was for the Greeks under Turkish rule. Those who professed overt atheism are now gradually returning with renewed piety to their religious and spiritual traditions.
The Slavic spirit has always been attuned to mysticism, spirituality, and cherished superstitions and rituals. And these blend seamlessly with the symbols and rituals of each special occasion.
The highlight of the Russian calendar is Easter. It is a day observed by all with a Slavic heart whether out of nostalgia, faith, or simply because it is so good to have a celebration to welcome the long-awaited spring.
Traditionally the festival begins during still-wintry days with a week-long festival called Maslyanitsa, a gay time of carnivals, parties, and above all contests of blini-eating. Slathered with melted butter and dollops of sour cream, jam, sliced smoked fish or herring, blini are consumed in gargantuan quantities. Following this cheerful gorging of the “Butter Festival” are the forty days of Lent which the Orthodox Russian observes with a strict diet of vegetables, vegetable oils, and grains. This strict period is sometimes softened by a preceding week of the “Little Fast” in which dairy products and fish are permitted, hut no meat. After the Little Fast and the Great Fast, Easter is traditionally, celebrated with midnight mass, a service beginning with each worshiper carrying glowing tapers and ending with the victorious cries of “Christ is risen!”
With warm hearts the worshipers hurry home to festive tables laden with the preparations of previous days: ham baked in rye dough, pates, salads of beef herring and sour cream, pirogi, mazurka, and gaudy decorated eggs. The highlight of the rich meal is the towering rich fruited bread called kulitch served side by side on a special plate with the creamy smooth pascha, rich cream cheese molded with fruit and nuts.
In modern times the traditional Easter feasts and fasts and worship services are celebrated mostly by those Slays living in other countries. In the Russian Federation, the Maslyanitsa is reduced to rounds of blini parties in villages or private homes. Few fast, and those who attend services probably do so more out of nostalgia than faith. Nonetheless the Easter buffet of good foods is still ruled by the kulitch and pascha.
Although Russians adore any excuse for a party such as birthdays, anniversaries, name days, weddings, picnics, seasons, national holidays, the beginning of Lent, Easter, and Christmas, very often the gathering of friends and family and the spirit of conviviality overrides the need for special foods. If it is a gathering then it is a party!
Russians claim that their own patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra, was the origin of one of the world’s most beloved Christmas traditions – the joyous gift-laden visit of St. Nicholas. It is said that when Prince Vladimir declared Christianity the official religion of Russia in the latter part of the eighth century C.E., he also named St. Nicholas as the protector of the poor and oppressed.
For as long as people can recall, some speak of “Old Russia,” it was the beloved grandmother, called Babushka – after the kerchief worn over her hair and tied beneath her chin – who really brought small gifts to good children.
The traditional Christmas was always a quiet family festival and Orthodox Russians fasted (abstained from meats) for six weeks before. The traditional Christmas Eve dish was kutija, a blend of boiled grains mixed with sugar, honey, nuts and raisins. This dish has ancient symbolic meaning, is prepared with slight variations (wholewheat grains or rice), is always served at Christmas Eve and also from a larger platter to all mourners at an Orthodox funeral. Traditional Orthodox Christmas is called Rozjedestvo. The Christmas Day family dinner almost always includes a roast goose garnished with baked apples and preceded by zakusky.
For a time under the former Soviet Union, the religious and spiritual festivities of Christmas were downplayed and New Year’s Day became the major winter festival. The celebration included Grandfather Frost, with his long white heard and red costume, arriving in a sleigh, accompanied by the Snow Maiden distributing small gifts for children. These festivities, with music, clowns, magicians, dancers, and festive foods would take place with throngs of people in the “Palace of Congress.”
Other occasions on the Russian calendar also demand traditional foods, for example, the name day or Iminine. Orthodox Russians are named after saints and the name day is also the day of the patron saint. It is celebrated with pirogi krendel and steaming hot chocolate served somewhere between the vodka and the zakusky.
Weddings (Svadisa) are traditionally solemnized with a church service, the entire congregation standing for the service. Weddings often take place on Sundays since according to tradition fast days, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, are forbidden for weddings. The “Happiness Cake,” a rich yeast dough baked in a large round pan and topped with a small container of salt, symbolizes the bread and salt ceremony of welcome. Bride and groom have some first, then it is shared with the guests. Banquet foods, champagne, and vodka follow.
Picnics are a favored pastime and any collection of zakusky foods together with vodka and meat for shashlyk are deemed suitable for enjoying in the outdoors.