Russian Language Blog

Happy Cheese Week! Posted by on Mar 3, 2011 in Culture, language, Russian life, Traditions, when in Russia


This week Russians are celebrating «Масленица» [Maslenitsa], also known as «сырная неделя» [lit. cheese-fare week]. And even thought it’s already Thursday, the real fun stuff is just beginning. So read on. Also, I’d like to thank one of our readers, Olga Tarn, for reminding me to write this post as well as for finding awesome sites about Maslenitsa. Without you, Olga, this post wouldn’t have happened! The painting, by Boris Kustodiev, is called “Maslenitsa”.

For me spring starts on March 1st, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I can’t imagine having to wait 19 more days until March 20th to say «прощай, зима [so long, winter!]. So to all who argue and urge to wait a few more days, I say «весна не просто время года, а состояние души [spring is not just a season, but a state of one’s soul!].

With this in mind, let’s celebrate Spring 2011! Right away, the first holiday is «Масленица» [Maslenitsa] which is all about «проводы» [send-off] of winter and «встреча» [welcoming] of spring. And this year Maslenitsa started on February 28th and goes through March 6th. Not too late to join in.

Last year Josefina did a wonderful post about Maslenitsa that included a step-by-step instruction for making «блины» [thin pancakes, crepes, or just blini]. Definitely try making them. Just keep in mind that «первый блин комом» [the first pancake is always a failure].

This is, in general, a very helpful and widely used expression worth remembering even if you end up not making the blini this year.  Just like its closest English-language equivalent – “practice makes perfect” – its uses are practically unlimited. Although using it to describe your eldest child, however, is a bit insensitive, regardless of the child’s age.

But Maslenitsa is about a lot more than cooking and eating delicious pancakes and learning fun and immensely useful Russian expressions. Each day of Maslenitsa has its own name and associated traditions.

Here’s what you’ve missed:

Monday – «встреча» [welcoming] –  on this day «пугало Масленицы» [the Maslenitsa scarecrow] is made with «солома» [straw] and «старая одежда» [old clothes]. It is paraded around in «сани» [a sleigh].

Tuesday – «заигрыш» [flirting] – young single people go sledding together and then – off to eat blini. «смотрины» [viewing of brides] were traditionally held on this day.

Wednesday – «лакомки» [feasting, particularly on sweets] – that’s the day when «зять» [son-in-law] visited his «тёща» [mother-in-law] to eat pancakes. This tradition gave rise to another widely used expression, «к тёще на блины» [lit. to go eat mother-in-law’s pancakes]. Its meaning outside of the tradition itself is similar to “a cakewalk”. «Это вам не к тёще на блины ходить» means that something is no cakewalk.

Fortunately, the real Maslenitsa fun is just beginning. You see, the last four days of Maslenitsa are known as «Широкая Масленица» [Broad Maslenitsa]. One is not supposed to work on these days.

Thursday – «разгуляй» [carousing] – You’ll need all your energy for «гулянье» [open-air celebration]. Traditionally, this is the day for merriment of all kinds, including «кулачные бои» [knuckle fighting], playing «штурм снежной крепости» [attack on a snow fort], and various competitions. Whatever activities you choose to do this day must end in «пирушка» [a small feast]. Note that, as in many other cases, the diminutive is used self-deprecatingly and in no way refers to the actual size of the feast or the amount of «угощение» [food] served there.

Friday – «тёщины вечёрки» [mother-in-law’s evening] – no work today either. Instead, men get ready for a visit from their mothers-in-law. What exactly do men do to prepare is a mystery since their wives are the ones who are supposed to make pancakes. And the «тёща» herself is supposed to send all the tools and ingredients. I guess, men are to spend the day preparing selves mentally for the challenge. After all, mothers-in-law are supposed to bring her «родственники» [relatives] and «подруги» [female friends] along.

Saturday – «золовкины посиделки» [sister-in-law’s visitation] – young wives invited their husbands’ sisters and other relatives over. The way it works is if the sister-in-law is «замужем» [married] then married «родня» [relatives] are invited to the party. If she’s «незамужняя» [single, not married], only girlfriends are invited and the party turns into «девичник» [girls-only party]. Take one last picture of your Maslenitsa scarecrow before setting it on fire. Scatter the ashes around your potted plants.

Sunday – «проводы» [farewell party] – the last day of Maslenitsa is also called «Прощёное воскресенье» [The Forgiveness Sunday]. Call all your friends and family and ask their forgiveness for any wrongs and hurts you inflicted on them. A frequent response to «прости меня» [forgive me] is «Бог простит» [God will forgive]. Once that’s done and over with, «сходите в баню» [go to a steam bath]. If none is nearby, then take a bath or shower. Finish up as much of the delicious food as you can, then burn the rest (ok, I’m going to compost it).

Once the holiday is over, «Великий пост» [the Lent] begins. It’s just like the saying goes «не всё коту масленица, будет и Великий пост» [it’s not all Maslenitsa for the cat; the Lent is coming]. The meaning is the clearest on the last day of Maslenitsa – every day is not Sunday.

Happy Maslenitsa! How are you celebrating Maslenitsa this year?

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  1. Minority:

    Strange, I never heard from anybody that Maslenitsa is a cheese week… I guess “блинная неделя” (pancake week) is better name for it.

    btw, «первый блин комом» [the first pancake is always a failure] isn’t really meant to be “failure”. There was a tridition in the past to lay first pancake on the window-sill “комом” (don’t really know how to translate – “put it clod-like” may be…) in memory of your dead relatives. Tradition is gone, and everybody thinks that it’s about bad result of making first pancake. 🙂

    Anyway, I love Maslenitsa, and really fond of pancakes! 🙂 I made some this week already, it was absolutley delicious )))))

    • yelena:

      @Minority Minority, I didn’t know that (about the first pancake). It does make sense since Russians have a lot of rituals for honoring “предки” [forefathers]. Then I started digging on Internet and found another explanation, that the original was not “первый блин комом”, but instead “первый блин комАм” and “комы” meant bears (possibly because of their bulky shapes) or spirits that lived in the roots of the forest trees.

      Yes, I’ve just had some delicious pancakes myself and plan on making more on Saturday.

  2. Janani:

    The name cheese week in russian “syrnaya nedelya” is recorded in their sacred books I think. Its called myasepusto n maslenitsa is how this festival is known to us

    • yelena:

      @Janani Janani,

      you bring up another great word used in connection with Maslenitsa and the one that I didn’t mention in the post – “мясопуст” (myasopust), meaning [meatless]. Thank you!

  3. Tom:

    «Масленица» is considered “Cheese Week” because in Orthodox Christianity it is Cheesefare week, the last week to eat any kind of dairy products until Easter «пасха». Even though historicaly «Масленица» pre-dates the acceptance of Christianity in Russia, since the overwhelming majority of Russians are Orthodox Christians, this week is directly related to the Church’s calendar.

    • yelena:

      @Tom Tom, you are correct! Thank you for clarifying the “cheese” thing. Of course, I should’ve used “cheesefare week” since “сыр” [cheese] in Russian is associated mostly with hard cheeses, not with cottage cheese, etc.

  4. David (Девид):

    I am a new (adult) student of Russian, and I just discovered this! It is WONDERFUL! Thank you all for contributing to my understanding of a very interesting culture.

  5. David (Девид):

    Yelena: Is the reference to bears or tree spirits intended as a reverence to Nature in general? Afterall, Spring is Nature giving birth to a new year. ??? Maybe??

  6. ivac:

    What a holiday! Sounds very tiring.. yet delicious

    • yelena:

      @ivac Ivac, delicious doesn’t even begin to describe it 🙂