Cheesefare Week, also known as Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица), Butter Week, or Pancake week. It is celebrated during the last week before Great Lent—that is, the seventh week before Pascha (Easter). Cheesefare roughly corresponds to the Western Christian Carnival (Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday), except that Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday instead of a Wednesday, and the Orthodox date of Easter can differ greatly from the Western Christian date. In 2008, Cheesefare will be celebrated from March 2 to March 8.
Cheesefare is the last week before the onset of Great Lent. During Cheesefar week, meat is already forbidden to Orthodox Christians, making it a "meat-fast week" (Russian myasopustnaya nedelya (мясопустная неделя)). During Lent, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are forbidden. Furthermore, Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life. Thus, Cheesefare represents the last chance to partake of dairy products and those social activities that are not appropriate during the more prayerful, sober and introspective Lenten season.
The most characteristic element of Cheesefare in Russian tradition is bliny (Russian pancakes). Round and golden, they are made from the rich foods still allowed by the Orthodox tradition: butter, eggs, and milk.
Cheesefare also includes masquerades, snowball fights, sledding, riding on swings and plenty of sleigh rides. In some regions, each day of Cheesefare had its traditional activity: one day for sleigh-riding, another for the sons-in-law to visit their parents-in-law, another day for visiting the godparents, etc. The mascot of the celebration is usually a brightly dressed straw effigy of Lady Maslenitsa, formerly known as Kostroma.
As the culmination of the celebration, on Sunday evening, Lady Maslenitsa is stripped of her finery and put to the flames of a bonfire. Any remaining blintzes are also thrown on the fire, and Lady Maslenitsa's ashes are buried in the snow (to "fertilize the crops").
During Soviet times Maslenitsa, like all the other religious holidays, was suppressed. After Perestroika the celebrations resumed.
Many countries with a significant number of Russian immigrants consider Maslenitsa a suitable occasion to celebrate Russian culture, although the celebrations are usually reduced to one day and may not coincide with the exact date of the religious celebrations.
Religiously, the beginning of Great Lent is traditionally tied to the beginning of Spring, an association found in the Triodion (containing hymns for the Lenten season). The ancient hymns refer to the "Lenten Spring," a natural link because of the time of year during which Lent always occurs in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The church services during this week are very similar to those served during Great Lent itself, though they are shorter. This is also the first time the Prayer of Saint Ephrem is said and the Divine Liturgy is forbidden on Wednesday and Friday (as it is on every weekday of Great Lent).
Sunday of Forgiveness
The last day of Cheesefare Week is called "Forgiveness Sunday", indicating the desire for God's forgiveness that lies at the heart of Great Lent. At Vespers on Sunday evening, all the people ask forgiveness of one another, and thus Great Lent begins. Another name for Forgiveness Sunday is "Cheesefare Sunday," because for devout Orthodox Christians, it is the last day on which dairy products may be consumed until Pascha. Fish, wine, and olive oil will also be forbidden on most days of Great Lent. The day following Cheesefare Sunday is called Clean Monday, because everyone has confessed their sins, asked forgiveness, and begun Great Lent with a clean slate.