Saturday, April 23, 2011

Христос Воскресе! An Orthodox Easter Experience

Христос Воскресе! (Christos voskrese) - Christ is risen!

This is the paschal greeting given by Russian Orthodox believers on Easter. This year, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox liturgical calendars are aligned for Easter, so both churches will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ tomorrow. However, whereas back in Canada the shops will be currently stuffed with Cadbury creme eggs, chocolate Easter bunnies, and (my personal favourite) sugary marshmallow Peeps, the atmosphere here in Russia is much more sombre and religious. There is nary a chocolate egg or bunny to be found. The lack of commercialism is actually really refreshing, in my opinion, although I certainly wouldn't turn down a Peep if I was offered one!

Soooo good!

My friend Katya invited me to celebrate Holy Saturday (today, the day before Jesus rose from the dead) with her and her grandmother at the Church of the Holy Mother of Vladimir in Mytishi.

Traditionally, Russians will either bake or buy a kulich, a sweet cake with raisins that is only found during the Easter season. It is baked in a cylindrical tin, and decorated with white icing, flowers, sprinkles, and the letters "XB" for "Christ is Risen." Check out the beautiful kulichi that Katya baked:

Kulich is traditionally eaten with paskha, a festal dish that is a delicious blend of all those foods that were forbidden during Lent: tvorog (similar to cottage cheese, although the texture is a bit different - it is one of my favourite foods here in Russia), heavy whipped cream, sugar, eggs, candied fruits and nuts, vanilla, and various spices. Paskha is in the shape of a pyramid, meant to symbolize Christ's tomb, and is eaten as a spread for the kulich.

On Holy Saturday, everyone wraps up their kulichi and dyed Easter eggs, nestles the goods in wicker baskets, and heads for the church. I wasn't totally sure what was going to happen when Katya invited me earlier in the week. This morning, I went for a run and was astonished to see LINES of people - young, old, and every age in between - outside the church with their baskets of kulich and eggs. A few hours (and a perilous marshrutka ride that I count myself lucky to have survived) later, I met up with Katya and her grandmother and we headed for the church.

The first thing (or rather, person) that greeted us outside the church was this:

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Yes, that would be a man PASSED OUT DRUNK just mere metres from the church walls.

" he...alive?" I ventured.

Katya sighed and looked annoyed. "So Russian," she muttered. Her grandmother clucked her tongue. "Ne harasho," she told me. "Not good." Not good, maybe, but definitely not out of the ordinary unfortunately. There was no time for the Canadian devushka to gape, however, because Katya's grandmother was off and we had to hurry to catch up to her.

Before we entered the walls of the church yard, we had to put on scarves to cover our hair as this is part of the Orthodox faith. Another thing that is different from Catholicism is the way that Orthodox Russians make the sign of the cross - forehead, chest, RIGHT shoulder, THEN left shoulder. Interesting! I made the sign of the cross the way I am used to (the left shoulder first, then the right) and even though it doesn't seem like a big difference, people definitely noticed and gave me slightly weird looks.

We went around to the back where there were tables laid out in the sun. People placed their kulich and eggs on the table and the priest walked up and down, swinging his ...water flicker? (I actually have no idea what that thing is called!) These weren't just mere drops of water though, people. I mean, the priest was DRENCHING us with holy water. He prayed over the kulich and eggs, doused us all with a few more buckets of holy H2O for good measure, and that was that - the kulich and eggs were officially blessed and ready for Easter morning.

After the blessing of the kulich, we went into the church to pray. I've never taken any pictures inside a church before, not knowing if it would be seen as disrespectful or not, but Katya had my camera and was snapping away:

The altar and iconostasis

I have to admit this picture cracks me up:
I was looking at the beautiful frescoes on the ceiling
in awe and had no idea Katya was taking a photo!

An icon of Nicholas II and his family - the same
Nicholas whose statue I visited last weekend.
They were made saints by the Orthodox church
outside of Russia in 1981; this was recognized by the
ROC within Russia in 2000. For meeting their horrific deaths
with "Christian humility", they are given the titles of "Passion Bearers."

I am always struck by the powerful, quiet beauty of Orthodox churches. There are no pews or benches to sit on (the congregation stands throughout the length of the service!) which gives the church an open, wide feeling. However, it is usually quite dark inside, with lit candles, smoky incense, and beautiful icons - Orthdoxy truly encapsulates and involves all the human emotions of sight, hearing, scent, touching, and tasting.

With Katya's grandmother - at the end of the day she told
me to consider her my "Russian babushka" and asked me to
pass along a "hello!" to my Canadian babushkas :)
So kind, welcoming, and friendly!

Outside the church

We went back to Katya's grandmother's flat, and she showed me pictures from her travels (Egypt, Holland, Prague, and more!) as well as old photographs of HER grandparents. She has collected many interesting odds and ends over the years, and it was fascinating to see everything and to talk with her (although Katya was definitely working over-time as a translator!). Her flat was very "traditional Russian", with heavy carpets hanging on the walls for insulation during the long winters.

"Young Russians don't like this style," Katya told me, "because it's very old-fashioned!" I liked it though - the carpets added a cosy feel to the room.

"It's not much, but it's ours," her grandmother said humbly as we stood in her room looking at all her treasures from the past. "It's our home." What a beautiful sentiment.

When I put my coat back on to head home, she hugged me warmly and asked if I had a Canadian babushka. "Yes, I have two," I told her, smiling at the thought of my two wonderful grandmothers.

"Tell them I say hello," she instructed me. "And that they have a beautiful granddaughter. And I will be your Russian babushka, da?" Then she hugged me again and said, "Da svidanya - goodbye!"

All in all, today was fascinating and I feel so lucky to have met such a charming, friendly, and wonderful woman. Thank you Katya for sharing the Orthodox Easter experience with me, and for introducing me to your incredible babushka!

Happy Easter!


  1. Very interesting! Again, how fortunate you are to get these real Russian experiences. BTW, nice trench. Is it new?

  2. I grew up in a Byzantine Catholic (Greek Catholic) church, and it's interesting to see the similarities and differences compared to the Orthodox tradition!

    I also don't remember what the water shaker thing is called. :-\

  3. More & more americans join saint Orthodoxy
    And Orthodox service in english

  4. Christine - just googled "Christianity water shaker"! It's called an aspergillum apparently: here is the wiki article

    And yep, the trench is new Mum :) Getting ready for St Petes and the windy weather!

  5. The thing the priest was swinging is calld kadylo (кадило) or, thurible as Wikipedia tells us

    Nice kerchief by the way :-)

  6. Спасибо Андрей! :)