Slavic spring traditions maslenitsa kolodii

Parading an effigy of the goddess Morena through the city before burning and/or tossing her into a river is a tradition shared by the Poles and the Slovaks (pictured here).

Maslenitsa, Masliana, Marzanna: Spring Holidays of the Slavs

Published: March 2, 2024

Rites of welcoming spring and saying goodbye to winter are some of the oldest holidays preserved across Slavic cultures. While Russia’s Maslenitsa is by the far the best-known, multiple versions exist across the diverse Slavic landscape. Amazingly, despite the fact that these societies are now deeply Christian, all of these holidays are still celebrated in unabashedly pagan ways.

This article will briefly introduce you to three versions of the holiday and how they compare and contrast with each other: Russian Maslenitsa, Ukraine’s Masliana (Kolodii), and Poland’s Marzanna.

 

Russian Maslenitsa

Maslenitsa (Масленица) is the oldest surviving Russian holiday; archeological evidence suggests it may have been celebrated as early as the 2nd century A.D.

The holiday for Russians remains a loud and boisterous one. Associated with fertility and rebirth, feats of strength and competition are held such as public boxing and pole climbing.

While today Maslenitsa is more a celebration of tradition itself, the holiday originally revolved around gods and agricultural powers. The main god of the celebration, according to most accounts, was Veles (also known as Volos or Chernobog), a god of cattle, the earth, and the underworld. Maslenitsa was thus as much a recognition of the power of death as it was a celebration of rebirth and life.

The main food eaten was the blin, a thin pancake which could be eaten with a range of fillings including sweet and savory, but meat was forbidden. In fact, linguistic evidence suggests that name Maslenitsa (“Butter-Week”) was formally called “Myasopusta” (“meatless,” though the word form is now archaic).

This forgoing of meat was done not only in thanksgiving, but also as a method of purification as Russian culture has long regarded eating too much meat as a source of lust and violence.

Meanwhile, the round, golden blin symbolized the sun, which was ruled by Dazhbog, the god of life and abundance.

Maslentisa was a threshold time between the reigns of two gods, between death and life. Both forces were to be paid respect on this day – with a farewell to one and welcoming of the other. As it was a threshold time, it was a time when rules could be broken; in addition to gorging themselves on blini, people often wore masks and clothing of the opposite gender, role-played, consumed large amounts of alcohol, and generally made merry.

An effigy, often called “Lady Maslentitsa,” is still erected at start and burned at the end of the celebrations. Originally, the doll was seen as the personification of the holiday and its focus on the powers of fertility. Burning the doll was seen as the destruction of spent fertility and, carrying her ashes to the fields was planting the beginnings of a new season of growth.

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 mothers-in-law cooked blini for their son’s wives. The last day of Maslentisa was “Forgiveness Sunday,” a day when debts and grudges were to be forgiven so that life could begin anew. Almost no one recognizes these special days today, although city festivals and cooking blini even at home will often extend for much of the week.

 

Ukraine’s Masliana (Kolodii)

Ukrainian ethnologists argue that traditions of Masliana likely extend back all the way to Trypillian culture, one of the world’s oldest settled civilizations. The Trypillians existed, in part, in what is now Western Ukraine from 5500 to 2750 BC.

Many Ukrainians prefer to call their holiday Kolodii, which is significant in multiple ways. The main god of the holiday was Koliada, the god of solar cycles who ensures that each season passes to the next. For this holiday, he was personified by a small log, known as the koloda. This log would be tied to the legs of unmarried youths to “shame” them for having not yet passed the cycle of life to the next generation.

Married women would also adopt a koloda who symbolically “lived” for the week. The women were obliged to entertain the god during this time, which often involved taking it to pubs and leaving the husbands at home to care for the house. This type of gender reversal was fairly common in ancient threshold holidays. As the week progressed, the koloda would die and would be buried in the fields and mourned.

Rites honoring the goddess Makrosh were also associated with this holiday. Makrosh was the supreme goddess of the earth with power over life and to protect from death. She ruled over the fields in which the koloda would be buried. By her power would the fields bear fruit in the spring.

Vareniki stuffed with farmer’s cheese were the main food for this holiday. The filled dumpling was meant to be representative of a womb and its fertility. Its half-circle shape was also meant to recall the moon, believed to be the feminine counterpart to the masculine sun. The holiday was heavily endowed with lunar symbolism in celebration of the feminine power to spawn life.

Ukraine’s Masliana also evolved to have seven distinct days. Each day came with a different stage in the life of the Koloda (ie birth, death, burial, mourning). Each day also had a specifically responsibility to one’s friends and family, culminating in Forgiveness Sunday when debts and grudges were to be forgiven so the that life could begin anew with a fresh start. Ukrainians still recognize and actively practice this last day.

In Soviet times, the traditions of Maslinitsa and Masliana began to merge, with blini taking over vareniki in Ukraine and sun symbolism taking over lunar, for instance. Many Ukrainians regard this as impositions on their native customs, driven by authorities who planned to Russify the Ukrainians. Today, while these elements can still generally be found in modern Masliana celebrations, there is a strong social movement to emphasize older, more Ukrainian elements to the holiday – including the name.

 

Poland’s Marzanna

Examining the Polish tradition is somewhat more complex, as there are in fact two holidays to now consider.

The first is Fat Thursday, a day which roughly corresponds to Mardi Gras and is recognized to have some pagan history. Today, however, Fat Thursday is mostly simply a day on which one eats many Polish filled donuts and most of the historical paganism is forgotten.

There is one legend of Fat Thursday from southern Poland, however, that is of particular interest. There, it is said, in one town, there was a mayor who would mistreat women in the marketplace. When he died, on Fat Thursday, it became a day of celebration on which the women would dance, eat, and accost passing men and demand from them offerings to apologize for the harm the former mayor had inflicted.

Here, although it has been made very specific and secular, we can see shades of Koloda and Maslenitsa in the legend – a celebration of death during the rebirth of spring as well as an empowerment of women for the day.

The second, and perhaps even more relevant holiday is Marzanna. The holiday is named for the Marzanna, a goddess of winter, frost, death, and agriculture. Her yearly death ushers in the warmer weather and agricultural season. To mark the occasion, effigies of the goddess are made and carried through town. They are then either burned or drowned. The process carries considerable folklore and superstition, with many saying that once the doll is thrown into a river, one must turn one’s back on it and not look back. If one does, bad luck or sickness awaits.

The second part of the celebration is to gather green branches, decorate them, and carry them home. In some parts of Poland, this would be combined with caroling – taking the branches from house to house to bring cheer and often receive edible rewards.

 

The Persistence of Spring Holidays

In each of these holidays, we see a respectful farewell to death and winter and a jubilant welcoming of spring and life. We can see the temporary embodiment of a god or a natural force which then dies and/or is destroyed. Through this death, life is seen as renewed.

All of these holidays faced stiff resistance from Christian leadership after the arrival of Christianity to their respective countries. In all three countries, however, the holidays persisted virtually unchanged. In most cases, the holidays simply became accepted acts of revelry before the advent of Lent, with its weeks-long fast. Marzanna, celebrated later on the spring equinox, simply persisted.

All of these holidays also survived Communist authorities who initially tried to ban them as part of a broader anti-religious policies. However, in all cases the holidays were allowed to officially resurface after political thaws and especially in the 80s, when Maslenitsa and Masliana even became nation-building efforts under the Soviets and large state-sponsored festivals were held.

These are not the only similar holidays within the area of Central and Eastern Europe. While each is unique in its own way, we can see some similarities in the ancient festivals that survive in places as diverse as Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Latvia.

While the holidays have generally lost their refrences to pagan gods, they have kept their pagan traditions and imagery. Today, they are celebrated to express pride of tradition and, often, pride in one’s national identity. That the holidays have survived so long and withstood so many attempts to oppress them makes them all the more powerful as expressions of personal and national resilience.

 

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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