Masha grew up in the north of Russia but has been living outside of her homeland for the last six years. She says that she had never realized what a great variety of rites and superstitions Russian people have until she moved to a different country. For example, Russian people do not whistle indoors or hand things to each other over thresholds. However, the first thing that Masha thought of when asked about Russian customs was Maslenitsa, the Russian Butter Week in spring. When Masha was a child, Maslenitsa was one of her favorite times of the year.
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The word Maslenitsa comes from “maslo,” which means “butter” in Russian. For the entire week, the custom is to eat a lot of dairy products. Maslenitsa’s main food is bliny, a sort of thin pancake that is traditionally eaten with sour cream, honey, or jam. Sometimes, bliny are used to make wraps with cottage cheese, mushrooms, or caviar inside. The reason for the celebration is that Maslenitsa is the last week before Lent, which entails seven weeks of refraining from any animal-based foods, including dairy and eggs. Many people who do not plan to fast during Lent still celebrate Maslenitsa.
Masha points out that although today the tradition is linked to the Orthodox fast, it is older than Orthodox Christianity. Many centuries ago, Maslenitsa was a pagan Slavic celebration of the end of winter. It featured singing, dancing, playing games, and competing in sports, similar to carnivals or Mardi Gras (Zhbanova, Rule, & Tichy, 2015). Bliny symbolized the sun, which was especially worshiped by the Slavs. Another important part of the original Maslenitsa festival was the burning of a big straw-stuffed puppet called “chuchelo,” which represented winter. Burning the chuchelo is still practiced in Malsenitsa celebrations even now.
Kazakhstan: Fetters Cutting
Bauyrzhan is from Kazakhstan, where, according to him, rites and customs from the nomadic times are still highly respected today, even by urban people. There are many rituals to mark particularly important transition points in a person’s life. One of them, called “fetters cutting,” is devoted to the moment in a child’s life when he or she starts to walk. When the child takes his or her first steps, the parents gather all the friends and family members for a “toy,” which is the Kazakh word for a feast, a big celebration with music, many guests, and a lot of food. The central moment of the feast is the cutting of fetters.
The fetters are varicolored threads (or, sometimes, plant stalks or sheep tendons) that tie the child’s ankles together. The colors of the threads are symbolic: white represents nobleness, green represents long life, red (or yellow) represents wealth, and so on. According to tradition, it is very important who gets to cut the fetters. There is a belief that in the future, the child will be similar to his fetters cutter, so parents pay special attention to finding the right person. The honor is usually given to a respected righteous person. Also, this person should not be physically impaired and should have a nice walk.
For the cutting, a white carpet is laid in front of the child. Then, the chosen person cuts the fetters. The child, held by the hands of two family members, steps over the fetters and walks down the carpet while other guests throw money and sweets at his or her feet. This ritual symbolizes liberation and the beginning of an active life in this world (Edelbay, 2012). After this, the person who cut the fetters is given a generous present from the family, and the “toy” continues.
Edelbay, S. (2012). Traditional Kazakh Culture and Islam. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3(11), 122-133.
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Zhbanova, K. S., Rule, A. C., & Tichy, M. L. (2015). Hands-On Russian Culture Lessons. Creative Education, 6(03), 283-294.