by Catherine Doherty.
Catherine often told us about her childhood in Russia, not because she loved to reminisce (which, perhaps, she did), but to give us glimpses, concrete pictures, and a vision of a culture in which life and faith were lived as an integrated whole.
Easter in old Russia, Russia before the revolution, was the feast of feasts! More celebrated in that country than Christmas in the West.
To the Russian, who went to confession and communion but four times a year at the most, Lent, the preparation for Easter, was a very holy, serious, and important time. It was a time of mourning, of cleansing.
During the somber days of Lent, Russia became busy with nothing but the spiritual. Life slowed down, became subdued. All ornaments were laid away.
During the first and fourth weeks and Holy Week, all public amusements ceased. Theaters, for example, closed their doors. Even businesses made way for spiritual needs and practices, for the services during Lent were many and long. Offices, homes, and factories adjusted their business hours, making special allowances for church attendance by their employees during the working day.
The fast was rigid, permitting no meat at all throughout the forty days. Fish was used on Sundays and a few weekdays, but not on Wednesdays, Fridays, or Saturdays.
In penance, prayer, and fasting, the Russian Lent passed slowly, mournfully. Holy Week drew near. Throughout Russia the atmosphere grew tense. Business stood almost at a standstill. All thoughts were with the Lord—in his passion and crucifixion.
Yet among all these spiritual exercises, every free minute was used for the physical preparations for the great day of the Resurrection. All Russia washed and scrubbed and cleaned feverishly, for everything had to be resplendent for the joyous day of days, Easter.
The kitchen, too, teemed with activity. For Easter, food was very special, and it had to be cooked ahead of time. The koolitch, a special rich bread, needed a lot of kneading and working at. And no matter how rich a family might be, no matter how many servants it might employ, each member took a hand. Father helped with the kneading, mother supervised the cooking, sister shelled the almonds, and brother cleaned the raisins. All were happy, flushed, and excited.
And the paska! Cottage cheese, sugar, butter, eggs, all beaten and thoroughly mixed together by every hand in the family until it was a creamy white delicious whole.
Then the mass was put in a special mold and under a heavy pressure, from which it emer-ged, days later, firm, about eight to ten inches high, with a cross clearly etched on each of its four sides and the letters IX (Jesus Christ in Greek) interwoven in it.
Then, oh joy, eggs were dyed. All the children, even the baby, took part in this. Yellow, green, red, gold, silver, they were the first notes of color in the grayness of Lent, the forerunners of joy and spring—and of Easter and the Resurrection.
Yet all during these activities involving foodstuffs, not once was the fast broken. Impossible as it may seem, it was true. Although I must admit that the heavenly smell of koolitch baking is almost more than a person can bear, yet such is the strength of faith and custom that I never have heard of anyone’s succumbing to the temptation.
Holy Thursday. In the evening the family went in a body to church, each person carrying a slender wax candle. This would be lighted during the long three-hour service of the Forty Gospels, when the life of Christ was read. Then everyone went home shielding the candle from the wind, for it had to be brought back to light the perpetual fire burning before the icon of our Holy Mother.
Many a Russian artist has rendered that homecoming of Holy Thursday night. The dark streets, the shadowy figures coming out of church, the lighted candles shielded by their hands, the light reflected on faces, old and young. A beautiful scene, worthy of the best talent, yet hard to paint because of the expressions on those faces.
For how can men paint God glimpsed in the faces of other men?
Good Friday. God is dying. It seems as if Russia died then too. Business closed down completely. No hustle or bustle in the streets. A hushed silence fell over the country. Government buildings were decorated in violet and black, the colors of mourning.
Only the churches were full to overflowing. In the middle of each stood a silver coffin surrounded by flowers offered by the faithful, symbolizing the death of the Savior.
An orderly procession of people entered, approached the coffin, knelt, and kissed the cross on its sides. Princesses, chambermaids, workingmen, and courtly officers all mingled in the greatest democracy of all—that of Christianity.
At last Holy Saturday. This was also a day of fasting that would end only at midnight, which in old Russia was considered the hour of the Resurrection.
But the fast could not suppress the air of great expectancy, or take the flow of happiness from human faces. From ten at night until midnight, multitudes, dressed now in the gay colors so beloved by the Russian peasants, or in their best finery, made their way to the churches.
At midnight Mass started at last. In a loud, penetrating voice, the priest proclaimed: “Christ is risen!” And the whole congregation answered, “Truly he is risen!” Then starting with the priest who kissed the deacon, everyone kissed those around him exchanging over and over again the joyous salutation of the priest: Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!
Beautiful and unforgettable was the sound of the “forty times forty” bells of Moscow. They echoed in every human heart bringing joy and gladness.
When the service was over, one more task was left: that of securing for the paska and koolitch and eggs that had been left in the sacristy, a special blessing.
Then home through the illuminated streets. A jubilant town, filled with multicolored, hungry throngs, singing, kissing each other, wishing each other “Happy Easter,” and hurrying home to eat, at long last, to repletion.
And at home all was ready. The house was clean and full of flowers, with a big table set in the middle of the dining room, the koolitch in the center of it with two paskas at each side. Further down the table were the multicolored eggs, then the roast turkeys, chickens, hams, the wine, the fruit, the candies. Food enough for three days of rest and rejoicing!
And the presents were lying there, too, for, in Russia, Easter was present-giving time, even more than Christmas!
And last but not least, was the fun of seeing “big sister” blush and blush again as a score of young men, having formed a line, were claiming the kiss of peace from her pretty lips. For no one could refuse a kiss at Eastertime. Easter was youth’s time. So the elders laughed a lot, teased a little, and let it go at that.
Now father would cut the koolitch, the symbol of the Bread of Life—Christ. And then a scoop of paska, which symbolized the Lamb led to the slaughter. Thus were blended the Old Testament and the new. Now an egg, the symbol of the eternal, the symbol of infinity, of life eternal.
Mother, bowing low, passed the plate with these three foods to family, guests, and servants, for all were gathered at the festive board. With these foods the Russians broke their fast, for it was symbolic food—food that had had a liturgical blessing.
Yes, Easter was the feast of feasts, the day of days!
Excerpted from My Russian Yesterdays, pp. 61-65, available from MH Publications.
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