Maslenitsa (Russian: Ма́сленица, Ukrainian: Масниця, Belarusian: Масьленіца)
According to archeological evidence from 2nd century A.D. Maslenitsa may be the oldest surviving Slavic holiday. Maslenitsa has its origins in the pagan tradition. In Slavic mythology, Maslenitsa is a sun-festival, personified by the ancient god Volos, and a celebration of the imminent end of the winter.
It is a time when societal rules could be broken including wearing masks and clothing of the opposite gender, role-playing, gorging.
In some regions, each day of Maslenitsa had its traditional activity. Monday may be the welcoming of «Lady Maslenitsa» (чучело Масленицы). The community builds the Maslenitsa effigy out of straw (из соломы), decorated with pieces of rags, and fixed to a pole formerly known as Kostroma. It is paraded around and the first pancakes may be made and offered to the poor. On Tuesday, young men might search for a fiancée to marry after lent. On Wednesday sons-in-law may visit their mother-in-law who has prepared pancakes and invited other guests for a party. Thursday may be devoted to outdoor activities. People may take off work and spend the day sledding, ice skating, snowball fights and with sleigh rides. On Friday sons-in-law may invite their mothers-in-law for dinner. Saturday may be a gathering of a young wife with her sisters-in-law to work on a good relationship.
The most characteristic food of Maslenitsa is bliny thin pancakes or crepes, made from the rich foods: butter, eggs and milk.
Russian blini are descended from one of mankind’s oldest and most common prepared foods: fried flat bread. Russians, in fact, always translate “blini” as “pancakes” when speaking English, although the ultra-thin, slightly tart Russian blin is more akin to the French crepe and German blintz than it is the thick, sweet American pancake. Even the Mexican tortilla is similar, as the blin is also often stuffed with filling and rolled before eating. The simplicity and versatility of the food has spread it across the planet, yet it is doubtful that Russia invented it.
As with most ancient traditions, there are many explanations of why things developed as they did. One version says that Blini were eaten as symbols of the sun, personified by the ancient and powerful God Veles.
Another explanation of blini comes from the ancient slavic traditions of ancestor worship. It was believed that at springtime, the world of the living and the world of the dead were drawn closer. Blini were first cooked, some say, as an offering to dead ancestors who might be visiting at this time. Of course, the living partook of the food as well. The blini were very thin to symbolize the thinness of the barrier between this world and the next.
Whatever the reason for its start, Maslenitsa developed into a highly elaborate, multi-day festival. There was a day specifically for sharing blini with your sweetheart, a day to give blini to the poor, and a day when mother’s-in-law cooked blini for their son’s wives. Maslenitsa was also known as a “threshold time” in folklore jargon. It was a time when rules (both societal and natural) could be broken; in addition to gorging themselves on blini, people often wore masks and clothing of the opposite gender, role-played, and generally made merry.
With the arrival of Christianity this pagan tradition was kept and is now a sort of Mardi Gras or Carnival for the Orthodox, marking the week before Lent (Velikii Post).
In fact, it seems that neither Maslenitsa nor blini have changed very much over the last few centuries, having survived the official ideologies of both Orthodoxy and Communism. This is a fact Russians will point out often and with pride if asked.
To make sure that your blin are not pancakes or crepes, you should make sure that they are made from buckwheat flour and yeast, the two things which set the Russian variant apart from most of its counterparts. Some patriotic Russians will also insist that true Russian blini should be made by a Russian grandmother, since cooking the super-thin dainties requires much practice.