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Orthodox Easter Traditions in Russia

Easter or Paskha is the most important religious observance of the year in the Russian Orthodox Church. Easter in Russia is a lot more than just a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The holiday brings people peace, joy and hope, cleanses souls and thoughts. Faithful and atheists, children and adults, everyone follows this old tradition and goes to church for the Easter Mass. And, of course, the Russians are looking forward to a big family feast held on Easter Sunday featuring numerous Easter treats like Easter bread Kulich, Paskha, Easter eggs and more.

When Russian Easter is celebrated?

In Russia Easter is usually celebrated later than in the West. This happens because Easter dates are determined by different calendars. When the Catholic and Orthodox churches separated in the 11th century, they both calculated the date of Easter in the same way. However, the Catholic church adopted the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century, and the Orthodox church continued to use the old Julian calendar. Because the two calendars had a difference of 13 days by the 21st century, and because both churches use March 21 for the date of the vernal equinox instead of the observed equinox, the date of Easter is different in both churches.

Preparations before Easter

Preceding Easter is a 40 day long Lenten fast during which no meat and dairy products, fish, eggs, alcohol are allowed.  The fasting begins with Maslenitsa or Pancake week which is celebrated during the last week before the Great Lent. Though meat is already forbidden, Maslenitsa represents the last chance to partake of dairy products (Russian pancakes, blini) and those social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful and introspective Lenten season.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday is a busy time in Russian families, when houses are cleaned and Easter food is prepared. On Holy Thursday, Russians paint Easter eggs using their traditional method of boiling them in onion peels or other natural dyes. Painted eggs are a universal symbol of Easter, but in Russia they take on even greater significance.

On Holy Saturday, a strict day of fasting in which no food at all is allowed, families are nonetheless busy preparing for the Easter feast. The feast, served to break the fast after the midnight mass, includes the Paskha cake and Easter eggs which are blessed by the priest on Holy Saturday.

Easter Mass

Sunrise services in Russia are not common on Easter morning, instead Orthodox churches hold a midnight mass, with a procession around the church.  When the clock strikes 12, church bells announce the resurrection of Christ. An intensely joyful Orthodox liturgical chant can be heard throughout the streets until the end of Easter Mass at dawn.

Worshipers return to their homes for a festive family meal. Tables are traditionally decorated with fresh spring flowers,  pussy-willow branches and, of course, painted eggs. In addition to the Easter bread and Paskha cake, foods prohibited during the 40 Day Fast, such as sausage, bacon, cheese and milk, are also served.

Traditional Easter Food in Russia

Kulich is the most famous Russian Easter bread, known for its tall narrow shape. It is usually made with lots of butter and eggs, as well as candied fruit, raisins, and nuts. The top is iced and decorated, usually, with Cyrillic letters XB standing for “Christ is risen“.

Paskha most often referred to as Russian cheesecake, is a dessert made from curd cheese in the shape of a truncated pyramid. It is white in color, symbolizing the purity of Christ, the Paschal Lamb, and the joy of the Resurrection.

Sharing food on Easter has been a long tradition in Russia. That is why after breakfast people visit their friends and neighbors exchanging painted eggs and Easter cakes. It’s believed that if the first egg you get on Easter is a true gift given from the heart, it will never go bad.

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