Faith, hope and love are the emotions that run rampant during Russia’s most popular spring festival, Ïàñõà (“Paskha”), known by Americans as Easter.
So widely loved is Paskha that it is the only religious holiday that was still widely celebrated during the days that the Russian-speaking nations were under Soviet control. Its traditions have been lovingly handed down through the generations, even by those who call themselves atheists. Today, it is celebrated by devout Christians and non-believers alike.
The name Paskha comes from the Jewish word ‘Pasqua’ which means deliverance from death. For Russian Orthodox Christians, this means that through his resurrection, Christ opened the door to heaven for all. This is expressed in how people greet each other throughout the day beginning on the morning of Paskha. The greeting begins with:
“Khristos Voskrese” – “Christ is risen.”
The proper reply is:
“Voistinu” or “Voistinu voskrese” – “Indeed!” or “Indeed! He is risen.”
This is followed by three kisses on the cheek to symbolize sealing of the Holy Trinity.
An important distinction to keep in mind is that Russian Catholics belong to the Orthodox church. However, like in many Roman Catholic European countries, Paskha does not really begin on the morning of the actual holiday. It starts with a 40 day period of fasting where one abstains from animal products such as meat and eggs. In former times, entertainment such as theatrical and musical presentations were forbidden. Nowadays, only the strict Orthodox limit themselves. This time of deprivation is known as Quadragesima, which is comparable to the European period of Lent.
In regards to when the beginning of Quadragesima and the day Paskha is celebrated, it all depends on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one used in the United States. Some years, such as in 2014, the calendars coincide and the Orthodox Paskha and Roman Catholic Easter share the same date. Other years, the two celebrations may fall weeks apart since the Julian calendar limits the time of Paskha to the months of April or early May.
Hope of moving beyond the restrictions of Quadragesima begins on the eve of Holy Week on the day that Americans call Palm Sunday. Since palms are scarce in Russian-speaking countries, pussy willows or twigs are gathered and brought to the Orthodox church where they are placed at the foot of the religious icons.
The week that follows is a busy one. Though the methods may differ, Russian families dye eggs just the same as families in the United States. The traditional color of choice in Russia is red as it symbolizes the blood of Christ. While Americans use fabricated dye kits, Russian families get their colors from natural means – from boiling onion skins into shades ranging from crimson red to red-brown. While American children glue on store bought stickers, Russian children cover wet eggs in gauze and then roll them in rice to make beautiful patterns before dipping them in the dye. After they dry, the gauze is removed and trimmings of such materials as silk are pasted on.
In Russia, these eggs have greater significance than they do in the United States as they are believed to possess magical powers that ward off evil spirits and will thus protect the community’s houses and crops. Many people hide an egg in the foundation of their home in accordance with this belief.
The kitchen is also full of activity, particularly on the Saturday before Paskha. Yeast (bread) cakes, known as Kulich, are baked. A pyramid cake make out of cottage cheese called paskha, like the name of the holiday, is also prepared.
Saturday, just before midnight, families make their way through dark streets, traditionally thought to be haunted by evil spirits, to the interior of an unlighted church. The gloom of the interior is meant to make worshipers feel the sense of despair in a world where Christ’s presence is absent. Even those, who don’t regularly attend church, join those inside. Some of the eggs are brought to the church to protect them on their way. That evening, the priest will consecrate them with a blessing.
As midnight draws near, the Orthodox congregation lights candles. At the stroke of the hour, church bells peel, announcing the resurrection of Christ and the return of light and hope to the world. An enthusiastic liturgical service follows. All participate until dawn.
A huge breakfast feast awaits the congregation when they finally return home. All partake of the special foods that they were obliged to abstain from such as sausage and cheese. Afterwards, the family leaves the home once again, carrying baskets with the decorated eggs. After greeting friends and neighbors as described earlier, they offer the baskets as a token of love. There is a saying that an egg given from the heart will never spoil, so each is embraced as a special gift having great worth. Even dead relatives are remembered as families make their way to the cemetery with offerings of more of the eggs, bread and beer.
Left over eggs are still put to use. Children like to play a game called “Cracking” where they roll the eggs down a hill with the goal of breaking other children’s eggs without cracking their own. Still more eggs are broken to bits by having nails driven into them to symbolize the Crucifixion of Christ and His sacrifice of deliverance.
For all Russians, religious or not, Paskha is a day much celebrated and loved. Therefore, couples getting to know each other will want to make a special effort to reach out with a greeting or gift expressing faith, hope and love on this special spring holiday.