March 01, 2011

Spring Rites

In 2001 I spent my first winter in the city of Novosibirsk, in western Siberia. That March my friends and I went to the central city park to celebrate the arrival of spring. The highlight of the event was burning a straw dummy in a bonfire, to drive off winter. As I watched children throw logs onto the pyre, I marveled at the fact that I was celebrating the onset of spring in –25º C degree temperatures after one of the harshest winters in recent memory. I was wearing a down coat (guaranteed to protect against temperatures as low as –40º C) and wool-lined boots, surrounded by people wearing fur hats and coats. But indeed spring soon arrived; piles of snow as tall as my waist melted in late March, flowers emerged in April, the white squirrels began their molt, turning a ruddy brown, accompanied by the arrival of the swallows and red-breasted bullfinches. That winter taught me why the spring rituals are the most beloved and elaborate of the Russian yearly cycle. Not only was the earth reborn in front of me, but the people were rejuvenated, shedding their winter clothes and becoming more lively and cheerful as the days passed.

In the nineteenth century, when the agrarian cycle was the primary concern of every Russian villager, spring rituals not only celebrated the shift in the seasons and beginning of a new growing season, but also the most important religious holiday of the Orthodox calendar, Easter. As a result, these holidays were all centered on Easter and calculated according to its location on the calendar. Easter itself is determined with a system originally based on the Jewish lunar calendar used to establish the date of Passover. Within Orthodoxy, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (April 3 old style/March 21 new style), typically after Passover. The main holidays of the season, Maslenitsa, Semik, and Troitsa all are dependent on the timing of Easter. But spring rituals were a multi-layered system that related to the life cycle as well. Most weddings in nineteenth century villages occurred in the fall and winter, so that the spring rites also celebrated newlyweds and the upcoming betrothals that would occur over the next six months. These rites also centered on commemoration of the dead, who were thought to return to the earth as part of the spring cycle and who could influence the crops in the fields. While this idea may well have had its base in pre-Christian religion, it formed a unified system with Christian doctrine relating to Christ’s resurrection at Easter. All three elements were blended to form a symbolic system that unified the major concerns of the villager: the agrarian cycle, the human life cycle, and Orthodox faith.


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