26 April 2008
No, it's kulich! (coo-LEECH)
Tomorrow is Orthodox Easter; for the past few days, kulichi have been springing up in every bakery in town. While it may look like a giant cupcake, it's not quite that exciting inside:
Kulich, a sweet bread made with sour cream, sugar, spices and raisins, is a Russian Easter tradition, along with paskha (which just means 'Easter'), a pyramid-shaped mound of curd cheese, sour cream, eggs, and sugar symbolizing Christ's tomb. Both are made with all those rich ingredients to celebrate the end of Lent, which Orthodoxy takes extremely seriously. I'm not sure of the exact rules, but I think it's something like no meat and no alcohol for all 40 days, adding in a ban on oil, eggs, milk, and fish for the last week. Russians are often surprised when I explain that American Catholics usually only give up one food or vice for Lent and Protestants don't sacrifice anything. (Always looking for ways to bend the rules, one of my students suggested that a smart Catholic would just give up something they didn't like much anyway. I bet that trick has occurred to pretty much every kid ever made to observe Lent, and gotten shot down every time.) Then again, the relative laxity means that many more Americans than Russians actually observe Lent – I haven't met anyone here who actually follows it, which is why I don't know what the rules are. Without knowing really anything about religious history, my guess is that the rules relaxed in the U.S. in the 20th century, when nothing was really changing in Orthodox tradition because Russian Orthodoxy, based in the USSR, was largely underground.
But Lenten fast or no, Russians who observe the holiday celebrate Easter with gusto. Kulich and paskha are just two of the foods at the Easter table, which also, according to a friend here, includes "as many kinds of meat as possible. And vodka. Russians can't have a holiday without vodka." The Easter meal is eaten as early as possible – the religious go to midnight Mass on Saturday into Sunday (which seems to me to be jumping the gun a bit, but I guess if you've been fasting you just want to get it over with) and get Easter eggs and a loaf of kulich blessed by the priest. The blessed eggs are placed in front of the icon at home, and the blessed kulich can be eaten a bit at a time each day before breakfast, for spiritual cleansing. As soon as Mass is over, everyone goes home and breaks the fast with a feast.
This is at least what I've been told happens; it seems somewhat uncommon now, and several people have told me that they used to make paskha and kulich, or their mothers did, or their grandmothers did, but they don't have time or the desire to do so anymore. Paskha is allegedly quite difficult to make, requiring between one and three days and a special mold. There's no Easter bunny or chocolate associated with the holiday, although fuzzy chicks and plastic eggs and such do seem to be seeping in from the West.
On the amusing side: I was actually warned by a colleague to watch myself on Sunday, because there will likely be a lot of drunk men behaving like hooligans on the street. Hmm. It seems to me that if you're pious enough to abstain from alcohol for the whole 40-day fast, you're probably pious enough not to get blasted on Easter, but I guess I'll be extra careful not to walk down any deserted streets tomorrow.
Anyway, this year if a drunk hooligan or a happy babushka greets me with a hearty, Христосъ воскресе! (Christ is risen!), I'll know to respond Воистину воскресе! (He is risen indeed!), unlike last year.
Coming soon: a kind of Russian spring cleaning we definitely don't have in America.