Russian Language Blog

Celebrating Russian Easter Posted by on Apr 11, 2012 in Culture, Traditions

Let’s hope that all of us are done with taxes. This leaves us with just one problem to solve – what to do with hundreds of plastic eggs we have left over from Easter. So let’s tackle this problem and learn a bit about Easter in the process (and if you don’t celebrate Easter, you might still find this post interesting and helpful).

To get rid of the plastic eggs, ask your Russian friends if they can use some for Easter egg hunts. No, I don’t mean the ones next year. I mean the ones for Easter 2012. As you know, Russian Orthodox Church uses Julian calendar meaning that most of the times даты религиозных праздников (dates of religious holidays) in Russia are not the same as those in the West.

Easter is no exception. This year’s Светлое Христово воскресенье (Holy Easter Sunday) falls on April 15. If you are confused by воскресенье (Sunday) v. воскресение (resurrection), check out this post.

As you might have suspected, Russians do not celebrate just the Easter Sunday. After all, Пасха (Easter) is the single most important Christian holiday, the essence of the entire христианское вероисповедание (Christian faith). By the way, don’t you love the compound word вероисповедование? It is made up of вера (faith) and исповедовать (to profess).

Back to Easter holiday. Every day of the страстная неделя (Holy Week), the week before Пасха, has its own name and traditions, some Christian and others – pagan, associated with it. The three biggest ones are

Великий Четверг (Holy Thursday) – also known as Чистый Четверг (Clean Thursday), this is the day of Тайная Вечеря (The Last Supper).  Traditionally, on this day пекут из теста лестницы (ladders are baked with dough), the symbols of ascension to Heaven.

Великая Пятница (Holy Friday) – also known as Страстная Пятница (Holy Friday). Lesser known is this day’s other name Огнище (Fire) and the old custom of burning рухлядь (junk) on this day. This is also the day when бесы и домовые (evil spirits and house spirits) are especially active.

Великая Суббота (Holy Saturday) – last Saturday before Easter, this is the day when куличи и пасхи освящаются в церкви (Easter bread and paskhas are blessed in churches). What? You don’t know what these are?!

Кулич is a sweet bread with изюм (raisins), цукаты (candied fruit) and миндаль (almonds). In honor of the holiday, it is glazed with a white sugar glaze and letters ХВ for Христос воскрес (Christ is risen). As with any traditional Russian dishes, there are lots of variations in recipes. Here’s an English-language recipe I found, but haven’t tried yet.

Kulich is so much so an Easter tradition, that even in the Soviet days гастрономы (grocery stores) sold куличи in early spring, complete with sugar-glazed tops (sans the letters, of course).

If baking, especially with дрожжи (yeast) sounds intimidating (it does to me), then you might want to try making творожная пасха, another traditional Easter dish. Essentially, it’s a very sweet and rich cheese pudding. It requires some advance preparation, especially since finding an ingredient called творог is next to impossible in a typical American supermarket. It’s not exactly cottage cheese, but instead more like farmer’s cheese, only even drier. Just follow this recipe since it sticks very close to the traditional one.

With all these rich buttery dishes done, it’s time to красить яйца (color eggs). You see, I was just kidding about giving plastic eggs to your Russian friends. Пасхальный кролик (Easter Bunny) and поиск яиц (egg hunt) are not traditional Easter атрибуты (attributes) in Russia. Instead, there is катание яиц (rolling eggs) down a hill, a game that is a bit like marbles.

When it comes to egg coloring, eschew fancy egg coloring kits (even though they are now on sale). Instead, do it the traditional way, with луковая шелуха (onion skins). Boiling eggs for 15-20-30-40 minutes in water with lots of dry onion skins gives them a reddish-brown color. The longer you boil, the deeper the color. Pastels, such as green and yellow, are usually reserved for Радоница (Radonitsa), not Easter (read more in the follow-up post)

And now you are ready to celebrate! But keep in mind that Russian Easter is celebrated for 40 days, from Воскресение (Resurrection) to вознесение (Ascension). This, by the way, explains why in Russia поминки по усопшему (commemoration of the deceased) are held not only on the day of the burial (wake), but also on сороковой день (fortieth day).

Продолжение следует… (To be Continued…)

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  1. Delia:

    If you decide to cook творожная пасха, you can also try friendship farmer’s cheese (not cottage cheese). It’s available at Wegmans and Whole Foods. It is very close to Russian творог. I did it this year. It came out very tasty!

    • yelena:

      @Delia Thank you, Delia! We do have Whole Foods here and I saw the brand you mentioned. I might try making a paskha this year after all.

  2. Rob McGee:

    If there are a lot of Hispanics in your area, supermarkets may carry a type of Latin American cheese called queso fresco, which can sometimes be substituted successfully for творог — at least, it works for making сырныки (cheesecake-flavored fritters/pancakes), though I’ve never tried to make a пасха with it.

    However, different types of queso fresco vary in their saltiness — some are almost feta-like, others are quite mild. For a paskha, you’d want to look for a mild, unsalty version.

    An alternative might be to wrap some ricotta in a few layers of cloth and let it sit on a plate in the fridge for a couple days, in order to draw out as much moisture as possible. Then season the ricotta with a little salt and some crystallized citric acid (look in the kosher aisle next to the matzo and jarred gefilte fish!) in order to give it a tangy flavor.

    Again, this works to make “substitute tvorog” that’s suitable for some recipes, but I can’t guarantee it’ll work for a paskha.

  3. Rob McGee:

    traditions, some Christian and others – pagan

    Кстати о язычестве (“speaking of paganism”), more than one Slavic folklorist has commented on the — ahem — Freudian suggestiveness of the kulich!

    1) The cake is traditionally baked in a tall, cylindrical mold and may have a rounded, mushroom-like top;

    2) The top is glazed with white icing that drips down the side of the cake;

    3) The kulich is always served standing up on a plate;

    4) Sometimes there are colored eggs arranged at the base of the kulich. (Note that from a pagan standpoint, eggs do not only represent the feminine reproductive principle of the hen; their shape also suggests the masculine reproductive principle of male mammals, including humans.)

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Rob, your comments are great! We should totally write a post together 🙂 Maybe I’ll send you draft of my next one and you can add your insights.

  4. Rob McGee:

    Boiling eggs for 15-20-30-40 minutes in water with lots of dry onion skins gives them a reddish-brown color

    Variation: Wrap some dry yellow onion skins around an already-hardboiled white egg, and then wrap a paper towel around the onion skins to help hold them in place — loosely secure the towel with a rubber band or two, trying not to wrap it too tightly.

    Submerge the wrapped egg in boiling water for 60-90 seconds, then remove it from the water and unwrap as soon as it’s cool enough to handle.

    This creates a truly spectacular “marbled” effect with all different shades of yellow and golden brown (hardboiling the eggs with onion skins in the water will make the eggs solid-colored instead).

  5. Maria:

    I have made пасха for several years; this year I decided to make my own творог. It was easy to do, and made the best пасха ever!

    • yelena:

      @Maria Maria and Delia, it’s funny, just yesterday I was at a чаепитие with a bunch of other Russian women. The conversation turned to making kulichs and paskhas for this weekend. I seemed to be the only one who a) doesn’t bake and b) doesn’t make my own творог 🙂

  6. billy:

    very very nice.