April 26, 2011

Bright Week Customs and Beliefs In Old Russia

By Sergei V. Bulgakov

The feast of Pascha represents the most cheerful and solemn festival in all Rus. Not in vain did our ancestors surround this feast with special beliefs and customs living up to then in the popular way of life. Spring and the awakening of nature, incorporated with the great religious paschal celebration, gives the feast special attraction and charm: nature at this time, according to popular belief, empathizes with the resurrection of the Savior and expresses this joy in its appearance. So, our ancestors were quite sure that on the Bright Resurrection the flash of the morning dawn in the eastern sky is redder, rosier than on other days, that the sun in its rising is flashing, playing.

According to popular belief, the brightest paradise is opened on the first day of Pascha, and its gate remains opened during all of Bright Week. Therefore any one who dies during Bright Week becomes a saint, his soul entering directly into paradise. This idea was easily born in the popular mind partly under the influence of the sacred hymns proclaiming forgiveness in general, partly under the influence of the tradition to keep the Royal Doors open in the temples during all Paschal Week, itself signifying "an opening of the heavens". The Book of Needs explains why very little of the usual Burial Service for the Laymen is kept for their burial during the days of Pascha, saying that "the dead person has died in repentance (during these days); but even if he has not yet made satisfaction for his sins, these are remitted to him through the prayers of the Church and he will be freed from its bond".

Closely connected with the idea of the opened paradise is the superstitious idea, against which Maxim the Greek in the 16th century spoke, that if the sun does not set during all Paschal week, and the whole week is as though one long day, also is often the pagan conviction that during this fertile time the gods of light descend from heaven to earth and bestow fertility on it.

According to popular stories, the Savior and the Apostles wander over the earth in beggarly sackcloth from the first day of Pascha and until the Ascension of the Lord, testing human mercy, and rewarding good and punishing evil. The belief that Christ the Savior wanders about the earth departs from the Gospel narratives frequently mentioning the appearances of the Incarnate God after His resurrection from the dead. These popular views on the feast of the Resurrection of Christ were expressed as if they were of antiquity, and are now also the most advanced.

In the ancient Christian Church the feast of the Resurrection of Christ was preferentially devoted to deeds of philanthropy. During Pascha in Rus our sovereigns visited hospitals, alms-houses, imprisoned strangers, and convicts, and with the paschal salutation brought them clothes, money and food. In general, our tsars and tsarinas spent all Bright Week as pilgrims, traveling to near and far monasteries, with generous charity to the needy and the lame. And now during the whole week food is taken from the table and is hospitably offered to each traveler and

But of all the paschal customs the most widespread and oldest included in Russian popular life is the use of colored eggs on Pascha. Besides the use of eggs during the Paschal kissing, simple people used them as symbols of all that is vital and flowers in nature.

The paschal egg, especially the first received after the Paschal kissing in the opinion of the people, has some superstitious meaning. It carefully protects as a talisman, they find treasures with its help, are released from misfortunes, fire, robbery, illnesses. With it they go to the cemeteries to give the Paschal kiss to the departed, in full confidence that the departed will hear their greetings when this egg is there with them. They go into the fields to sow grain with Paschal eggs in the firm hope for a good crop. In some places during harvesting of hemp they snack with paschal eggs and scatter the eggshells in the fields, saying: "O God, they whipped crops of hemp like eggs".

On Ascension Day they go to the fields and toss up the red eggs so that the rye will rise as high as the tossed egg. In choral dancing games and songs for the days of St. Nicholas and Pentecost, Paschal eggs play a role as a symbol of fertility and the rebirth of nature. With the end of spring the symbolical use of eggs by the people diminishes.

Also from of old the Russian people have an egg, especially on the feast of Pascha, to serve as some kind of toy: it is used for rolling, hitting and other entertainment. However, such reference to the paschal egg even from antiquity was not considered decent and proper and is why in the monastic decrees of the 17th century, signed by rectors and bishops, it is forbidden for peasants along with a number of other superstitions to beat themselves with eggs as an activity opposed to the faith and degrading the importance of the feast.

And at the present time it is required for the shepherds of the Church to care about uprooting customs connected with the paschal eggs through edification and exhortation, inasmuch as their use is connected to the superstitions opposed to the spirit of Christian teaching, but certainly is exactly the same as all other sorts of superstitious views and customs, and with every other, attached to the feast of Holy Pascha (Rukovodstvo dlia Selskikh Pastyrei [Manual for Village Pastors] 1894, 15).