Celebrating Orthodox Easter in Russia, Ukraine, East & Central Europe

Celebrating Orthodox Easter in Russia, Ukraine, East & Central Europe

In 2019, most of the western world’s Christians observed Easter on Sunday, April 21st. For those of this faith, Easter Sunday is a day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ with musical fanfare, prayers of thanksgiving, and springtime flowers placed upon once-stark crosses. It is the most important and sacred day in the Christian calendar.

Orthodox crosses are distinguished by three bars, each with its own meaning <br>Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Orthodox crosses are distinguished by three bars, each with its own meaning
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Easter, Twice-Observed

In contrast, Orthodox Christians in many MIR destinations such as Russia, Siberia, the Balkans, South Caucasus, and Central and East Europe celebrate Easter this year one week later, on April 28th.

Why the difference? The western Christian world follows the Gregorian calendar’s date for Easter, while most Orthodox Christians calculate it by the older Julian calendar – as much as five weeks difference.

Waiting and Watching for Easter

Orthodox Easter is called Православная Пасха/Pravoslavnaya Paskha” in Russian, “Velikden” in Bulgarian, and similar variations in other languages. Solemn preparations lead up to this sacred day, including 40 days of Lenten fasting and prayer. The Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, known as “Pussy Willow Sunday” in Russia and other countries because these branches are used instead of palm fronds.

Pussy willows abound on Palm Sunday and in Easter bouquets; they're easier to grow than palms <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Pussy willows abound on Palm Sunday and in Easter bouquets; they’re easier to grow than palms
Photo credit: Helen Holter

After Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the final events of Holy Week are on Great Saturday, the day before Easter. During the day Orthodox faithful attend church, bringing their Easter baskets filled with cylindrical Easter cakes (kulich in Russian); a rich, festively-decorated cheese dish (pascha in Russian) made of ingredients given up during Lent; eggs (symbolizing eternal life) which are dyed reddish brown using onion skins; and other meat and dairy products foregone during Lent. These Easter baskets are blessed by the priest.

Designs on Romanian wooden and real hollowed-out eggs were once secret languages of local residents <br>Photo credit: John Baker

Designs on Romanian wooden and real hollowed-out eggs were once secret languages of local residents
Photo credit: John Baker

Meeting Easter at Midnight

The final moments of waiting and watching for Easter begin in a late-night church vigil, as lights gradually dim into darkness except for one flame, representing Christ. At the stroke of midnight – Easter – the priest lights a candle from that flame, in turn lighting other candles until the entire church is filled with candlelight.

A single candle illuminates the church at midnight Easter services <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

A single candle illuminates the church at midnight Easter services
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Bells peal into the night; the priest leads the congregation around the church three times; and the door of the holy iconostasis is flung open. The service may continue for hours as parishioners come and go, the fragrance of melting candles and precious incense permeating the air.

From one candle, many flames at midnight Easter services <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

From one candle, many flames at midnight Easter services
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Easter Feasts and Fun

While each country is different in its observances, Russia is representative of the traditions and rituals of Orthodox Easter. When morning breaks, the food and festivities begin. The Orthodox house is spic-and-span, tidied up earlier on “Clean Thursday” before Easter. Believers are clean as well; some may have visited the banya on that day to symbolically wash away their impurities. Eggs are already boiled and dyed red using onion skins, symbolizing the blood of Christ. Fresh flowers brighten the table.

A rich breakfast feast is laid out, highly anticipated after 40 days of Lenten avoidance of many banned foods. In Russia, the tall cake-like bread called kulich is served, and will be given as gifts in the seven days following Easter Sunday. Pyramid-shaped pascha is offered, including a cottage cheese-like variation (tvorog) that is white, the liturgical color of purity and celebration. The letters “XB” are added to many dishes, standing for “Христос Воскресе/Khristos Voskres” – “Christ is risen” – in Russian. Sausage, bacon, and rich desserts also will be served.

Easter eggs inscribed with 'XB' – 'Christ is risen' – are often passed over children's faces, blessing them <br>Photo credit: Lena Potapova

Easter eggs inscribed with ‘XB’ – ‘Christ is risen’ – are often passed over children’s faces, blessing them
Photo credit: Lena Potapova

Easter holiday buns are marked XB, Russian letters for "Christ is risen"

Easter holiday buns are marked XB, Russian letters for “Christ is risen”
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


After this Easter feast, families visit friends and neighbors, offering Easter bread and eggs as gifts. They will also visit the cemeteries of their relatives, placing on their graves food foregone during Lent, including kulich and red-dyed hard-boiled eggs – all symbolically announcing Christ’s resurrection.

Along with flowers, relatives place food and eggs on the graves of loved ones at Eastertime <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Along with flowers, relatives place food and eggs on the graves of loved ones at Eastertide
Photo credit: Helen Holter

From beginning to end, the egg is a holy symbol of Orthodox Easter: of new life, eternal life, and hope. Russians say that an Easter egg given to someone from heart and soul will never go bad, but last forever.

Happy (Orthodox) Easter!

A whimsical Easter egg tree welcomes Orthodox faithful in Kiev, Ukraine <br>Photo credit: Luba Rudenko

A whimsical Easter egg tree welcomes Orthodox faithful in Kiev, Ukraine
Photo credit: Luba Rudenko

Travel with MIR, Celebrating Easter

Learn more about Orthodoxy’s sacred celebrations as well as its centuries-old folklore, handicrafts, and traditions on MIR’s scheduled tours to Orthodox Christian countries including:

MIR can also create a handcrafted custom itinerary specific to your interests, destination preferences, and schedule.

(Top photo: Kremlin spires in Moscow, Russia. Photo credit: David Charney)

PUBLISHED: April 7, 2015

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