One of the merriest holiday in Russia is certainly Масленица (Maslenitsa) also called сырная неделя (the cheese week). This ancient Slavic festival has its origins in both pagan and Christian traditions. From the pagan tradition, we are celebrating the imminent end of winter and the coming of spring, it’s a celebration to the sun, which shines longer everyday. But Maslenitsa also marks the last week before Великий пост (the Great Lent), during which, according to the Christian tradition, people are not allowed to eat meat, fish, dairy product and eggs for seven weeks, until Easter.
During Maslenitsa, people get a chance to party, dance, sing, eat and drink a lot. The pancake is an evident element and symbol for this celebration, both from a Christian or a pagan point of view. Indeed, pancakes are prepared with milk and eggs, and usually filled with fish or meat, everything that will be forbidden for the seven weeks to come. On the other hand, by its form and its colour, the pancake is a representation of the sun that is celebrating during that week.
In ancient times, distractions during Maslenista included masquerades, games in the snow and sleigh rides, tracing a semi-circular path in the snow, the way the sun does in the sky.
Чучело Масленицы (the Maslenitsa doll or “Lady Maslenitsa”), a straw puppet often dressed in gaily colours, is part of the festivity, until Sunday evening, when she will be escorted through the village, stripped from her finery and offered to the flames. If there are any pancake left, they are also thrown into the fire, for as soon as Lady Maslenitsa is reduced to ashes and the ashes have been buried in the snow, the Lent has begun.
Here you can learn about how the week was traditionaly scheduled.