Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Maslenitsa —A Pagan Holiday?

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 8 February 2010

Русский: Масленица—языческий праздник?

One often hears that Maslenitsa[i] is a pagan holiday and that it is not good for Christians to participate in such festivities.  Is this so?  There is not a simple answer to this question and many similar questions that meet at the intersection of Christianity and pre-Christian pagan culture and customs.  The answer to this question is complex.  That is to say, it consists of several parts.

Indeed, in the pagan religion of ancient Slavs, there was a feast of the spring equinox.  This feast consisted of a cycle of rituals which marked the departure of winter and arrival of spring; and the celebration lasted for two weeks—one week before the equinox and one after.  The main deity of the pagan feast was the sun: the winter sun-child Kolyada grew and became the man Yarilo.  The tradition of frying pancakes for Maslenitsa—hot, buttery-yellow, round—is connected to the worship of the sun.

When Christianity came to Russia more than a thousand years ago, the Church kept the joyous celebration of Maslenitsa, moving it to the week before the beginning of Great Lent.  Should one see here an inability to simply forbid the pagan feast?  Perhaps not.  The pagan religion of the ancient Slavs was not some idyllic veneration of gentle nature, as some have tried to portray it, but a harsh belief in angry gods, with horrific rituals, including human sacrifices (although much more commonly the sacrifices were of wine, food and animals).

Christianity quite successfully fought the most inhumane aspects of paganism: children are no longer sacrificially stabbed or burnt alive before a statue of Perun.  But not everything that is pre-Christian is necessarily inhumane and incompatible with the Christian gospel.  Only communists wanted to build their world after destroying everything that came before.[ii] The result of such a “perestroika” is well-known: those who were nothing became no one.  Christ came not to destroy the pre-Christian world, but to save it, heal it, and raise it up from its fallen state.  Perhaps this is the reason that the Church more often sanctifies and blesses than forbids and destroys.

Of course, those who in our time celebrate the pagan rites of the spring equinox and worship the sun are indeed pagans.  But should we suspect those Christians who are blessed by the Church to experience simple human joy before the beginning of Great Lent of practicing paganism?  Let us look at the example of Christ Himself.  At times He fasted and was sorrowful (Matt. 26:38), but at times He ate and drank (Matt. 11:19); He spent time alone in prayer (Matt. 14:23), but then He went to parties and banquets (Luke 5:29); finally, He did not marry, but He blessed marriage, turning water into wine and not the other way around (John 2:7-11).

Those who tend to get fanatical and see everything pre-Christian as anti-Christian, should really take off their wedding rings, since betrothal is a pre-Christian custom, even though the Church blesses and sanctifies it.  And marriage in general certainly comes from pre-Christian times.  Those who see the “pagan hydra” rearing its head in the festivities of the week of Maslenitsa likely understand neither the essence of paganism nor that of Christianity.  Paganism is not found in pancakes, and Christianity cannot be reduced to the avoidance of pancakes.  Christians are not ghosts who are devoid of all human joy.  Treating the natural world as something fundamentally evil is the heresy of Gnosticism against which theologians of the first few centuries of Christianity fought.  Christ came to save not only the spirit, but also to heal the soul, the body, and the whole man.

The Church teaches us not to destroy the world and time, but to sanctify them.  Everything must be holy: birth and death, labor and rest, a wedding party and a Church feast, Maslenitsa and Great Lent.  Of course, gluttony, debauchery, drunkenness, and other sins can be excused neither during the week of Maslenitsa nor during any other day of the year.  But these are not paganism, but rather demonic behavior.  On the contrary, a bright feast, with prayer and thanksgiving to God for His gifts, with joy and song, with the realization of the approaching Great Lent and preparation for it—this is a blessed time.  By the way, the first pancakes on the first day of Maslenitsa are traditionally given to the hungry and the poor.

So, what about Halloween?  Is this also a “blessed time” and not a pagan holiday?  Well, if one puts on a mask and wanders from house to house collecting “treats,” he really is participating in the pagan ritual that marks the belief that on this day the spirits of darkness and those of our ancestors come into our world and demand a sacrifice which should be left by the door to prevent these spirits from having to enter the house.  On the other hand, if on October 31 one decides to go to Mass, then he is not celebrating a pagan ritual, but the Roman Catholic Day of All Saints.  And if he chooses to have a meal on this day, he also would not be celebrating a pagan feast, but simply having supper.

All things must be treated with reason, not fanatism.  Without reason, the Nativity of Christ will turn into a feast of Sirius, Pascha—into a pagan fertility ritual, the sacrament of marriage—into a tribal rite, and memorial services—into ancestral cults.

May we be wise as serpents and simple as doves (Matt. 10:16), may we not find ourselves “in great fear” (Ps. 14:5), but let us strive to fulfill Christ’s commandments in joy and sorrow, during Maslenitsa and Great Lent, in church and at home—everywhere and at all times let us sanctify our whole life, and not bring it to God in pieces: ten minutes a day and two hours a week.


[i] From “масло”—Russian: “butter”; a week-long celebration before the beginning of Great Lent; an equivalent of the Western carnival.

 

[ii] See L’Internationale by Eugène Pottier, first stanza.

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