Even before Orthodox blogging became popular, a young mother from Moscow, Masha [a diminutive form of the name Maria.—Trans.] Pospelova, had registered on Instagram. Through photographs of her everyday life she showed how bright and lively our Orthodoxy can be.
Masha once wrote that she lives very comfortably in the annual cycle of the Church with all its feasts, fasts and traditions. And she shared her experience of putting this tradition into practice creatively. I was especially inspired by the anticipation of Pascha with the children in her family. And I wanted readers to be inspired too.
Lent is about spring
“I can tell you about traditions—it seems I am competent in this field,” Masha smiles. “I think the creative power of our Orthodoxy is precisely in the fact that it can absorb any traditions and fill them with new deep meanings. This is what happened, for example, with ‘larks’, which are baked on March 22. ‘Soroki’ (‘Magpies’) was a pagan festival that invited spring back, when children climbed hills, shouting: ‘Fly O lark, bring spring on your wings’, and released a bird into the sky. It became the festival of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, whose holy souls flew to heaven. The pagan festivity was given a new understanding and Christian content.”
Masha says that Maslenitsa, which was initially non-Christian, has now become for us a symbol of spiritual rebirth and the beginning of spiritual spring.
“I really like it that in English the word for this season is ‘Lent’— ‘spring’.1 This is so beautiful, and there is a deep symbolism in it. In the spring everything bursts back to life, and so our souls should also be revived. We need to tell children about the awakening of the soul using the example of what happens in nature. Kids see how trees and the earth come back to life after their winter sleep, when young grasses and the first flowers break through. With such examples it is easy for us to explain what should be happening in their souls: anger and irritation, like the ‘biting’, dirty snow, should go away under the rays of the warm spring sun of the coming Resurrection of Christ.”
Therefore, Lent in the Pospelov family is bright and joyful, without any strain or drama. It is a joyous movement towards the Risen Christ.
“Maybe before my children were born things were slightly different, but that’s why it was ‘before’—everything should gradually change. Children teach us the joy to which we are all called again. It is a good experience for adults to fast with children,” Masha says. “When I hear from others, ‘Earlier, before my kids were born, I had fasted properly! But now the kids hinder me’, I see something very wrong in the word ‘hinder’. Children don’t interfere—they open a new aspect of fasting.”
Lent is about creativity
Several years ago, Masha made a Lenten expectation calendar for her children in the form of a tree—another vivid image of Lent as “spring”. A tree with seven branches should be cut out of thick cardboard to keep track of the weeks of Lent, and a child glues a “leaf” to it every day. If the child was in church and received Communion, a “flower” is added. By Pascha, the tree will have turned green and bloomed.
Another tradition that has taken root in Masha’s family is the Greek Kyra Sarakosti, “Lady Lent”, “Mrs. Lent”, whose name literally means “Lady of the Forty Days” in Greek. This is a doll with seven legs representing the seven weeks of Lent. Once a week has passed, one of Kyra’s legs is cut off. When there are no legs left, Pascha comes.
“For a child, the expectation calendar’s format is very important in terms of anticipation of any important event, especially Pascha. Everyone knows how children are able to pester adults with questions like, ‘When? Well, when?!’ And here you always have something before your eyes that you can show them and say: ‘When Kyra Sarakosti loses her last leg, or when all the branches on the tree have green leaves.’ And they understand that if there are many legs left, Pascha is a long way ahead. This is real help for me. Kids look and answer the question themselves without bothering their mom.”
“Lady Lent, the Greek Kyra Sarakosti, is made by some from salt dough, and her legs are gnawed off one by one. They can be made of paper and just torn off. In our family Kyra is a long-liver, and her legs are on strings so that next year she can come to us again on all her seven feet. The kids are very fond of untying Kyra’s leg after the Sunday Liturgy—this is a clear sign that Pascha is getting closer. They even have fights, vying with each other to remove her legs,” laughs Masha. “And I also know that many draw a ladder of seven steps on their windows. Every week, a little figure climbs this ladder to the next step, which symbolizes a person walking the Lenten path. This is also a very beautiful symbol and a reference to the Ladder of John Climacus: Every week we must overcome our imperfections and become a little better.”
Lent is about cookies
In Masha’s family, baking is a living tradition. During Lent, baking becomes special, timed to coincide with important dates of the season. For children, this is both an attachment to the Church calendar and joyful consolation. They bake “larks” together for the feast of Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, “crosses” for Sunday of the Cross, and “ladders” on Sunday of St. John of the Ladder. And here it is important to see whether this or that tradition will be liked or not.
“Some say it’s not good to eat cookies in the shape of crosses. Everyone decides for himself. We bake as per Ivan Shmelev’s childhood memories in The Year of the Lord, always placing a candied fruit on top of the cross made with dough, right in the center of it. But the Cypriot tradition of making ‘Lazarakia’ breads on St. Lazarus Saturday in the shape of shrouded figures symbolizing St. Lazarus the Four Days Dead did not take root in our family. Once we baked them and realized that we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat them. Therefore, it seems there should not be strict rules as to which food to serve for a particular occasion. We try, then see and keep what resonates with us without replacing the essence with tradition, but supplementing it in such a tangible way.”
Lent is about preparing for Pascha
Masha tries to ensure that the major and most festive table of the year is always decorated in a special way. The kids are very fond of the Paschal tree. To make it they find sprigs of trimmed trees outside, put them in the water a week or a week and a half before Pascha, and by the feast, green leaves appear on them. Masha’s family decorates the tree with what they make with their own hands over Lent.
“We always do handicrafts during Lent,” Masha says. “If we listen to the Passion Gospels at home, we try to do it with concentration while doing something else. For example, while I paint cookies the children carve eggs for the Paschal tree. They are kept busy, while taking a mental note of the information. Last year we made a wreath out of empty egg cartons. The boxes were cut and painted, flowers were made and glued to cardboard. The result was a beautiful eco-friendly (‘zero-waste’) Paschal wreath.”
—How do you make a beautiful Paschal ‘hill’?
—Oats for sprouting can be planted in cheesecloth or directly into potting soil. To make them look fresh on the Paschal table, and not withered, it is better to plant them a week before the festivity. On a sunny window-sill, with regular watering, they sprout very quickly and by Pascha form ears ten centimeters tall. You can plant grass seeds in egg shells or a ‘hill’ of potting soil. This is a real table decoration, and, again, it is a symbol of spring and victory, when green grass (a new life) suddenly sprouts from an outwardly lifeless, unsightly ‘hill’, reminiscent of a grave.”
Lent is about gifts to God
I wondered how Masha’s family spends the Lenten period and whether her kids have to abstain, say, from some kinds of food.
“I have a feeling that many people don’t really understand what fasting is like and they fast ‘because it is necessary.’ But in fact fasting is a technique. When our animal nature becomes ‘thinner’, our spiritual nature becomes ‘thinner’ as well. I remember the time when my husband and I were just dating, and I was a hungry student. First of all, he always took me somewhere for a meal. He said: ‘Eat first, become calmer, and we’ll continue talking,’” laughs Masha. “When you are hungry, all of your darkest sides begin to creep out: irritation, prickliness, and so on. Fasting is a kind of challenge to myself: I can be kind when I have eaten rissoles and drunk milk—then I am fat and happy, as is my soul. As the saying goes, ‘A full stomach is deaf to learning.’ But now if I try not to eat and still be kind, will it work? Only with God and the understanding of the essence of what is happening. Can a child understand such logic or not? Is he ready to test himself, to perform spiritual feats? Few children are ready for this. You need to grow into this.”
Masha is convinced that you need to start with small things and not set yourself or your kids unattainable goals. During the Nativity Fast she always asks the children the question: “What would you like to give God for His birthday?” He needs almost nothing but our kind hearts. Therefore, it would be good to work, but not globally, since it is difficult and unclear what to start with. Exercise yourself in some very simple tasks. Don’t hit your sister when she breaks your Lego. Don’t be rude to your brother when he doesn’t give you your favorite book. Make the bed at least after the second reminder from mom. The same rule goes for Lent.
“One of my kids is very fond of sweets. He is ready to eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Knowing that he is obsessed with sweets, I try to explain to him: ‘You should decide when to have sweets, and not let sweets decide that for you. You must gradually learn to control yourself.’ This can be done with any object of excessive desire. For instance, many give up cartoons for Lent. But it is necessary to observe whether cartoons take possession of your child’s thoughts, and whether or not he can live without them.”
—Should a mom herself decide what limits to set for her children?
—I give my children the freedom to decide on their own. And I encourage any good initiative. If today it hasn’t worked out, this doesn’t mean that the child should give up. In such a situation it would be nice not to shame the child, but to support him and say: ‘Well, yes, it just didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try again tomorrow.’
Lent is about prayer that you understand
—Is it advisable to take your child to the Great Penitential Canon, for example?
“It depends on what kind of child you have. Some children are born very sensitive, but there are also those whom you cannot get through to. Everything is individual. As for the Great Canon, first we read about who St. Andrew of Crete was, then go through the topics arising in his Canon. Superficially enough, but it makes the child understand that this Canon is designed to help a person be attuned to the desired state of mind, a more restrained pace, small but real works of cultivating his soul.
You can also watch online services at home. Of course, this is a “background process,” but it still plunges you into the right atmosphere, and the kids catch some separate words: “Mom, who is Melchizedek?” “Who are Cain and Abel? Mom, tell us this story again.” And making everyone stand in front of the TV to listen to the prayers they are still unable to understand is for me just a profanation.
—What Passion Week services do you attend with your kids?
The services of Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday. The whole family participates and remembers the Last Supper. We listen to the Passion service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels at home because it is a mournful service that requires silence and inner concentration, and kids often distract others. If there is an opportunity to go to church and stand without distracting anyone, or if the service is relayed live outside, that’s great. But going to a packed church in a bedroom district with three kids for a service where people may be weeping is disrespectful to others. You can listen and read attentively at home. I don’t know whether this method is justified, but once I showed the kids fragments from a Protestant film about the agony of Christ on the Cross. Such vivid images are remembered by children more easily and touch their hearts more deeply than the words of service. Children become quieter and more serious—they know that the Lord is dying for them.
We go to the service of the Taking out of the Burial Shroud, usually towards the end, to venerate the Shroud. If we have enough time and energy, we come to the Procession of the Cross for the Burial of the Shroud. Your child will surely remember these vivid images: “I walked with everyone as Christ was being buried, and it was sad that He was dead.”
We always go to the service on Pascha night together. We treat the parishioners to cookies, baked and painted at home. The kids are encouraged by the fact that after the service they will distribute them. After the Liturgy at Sretensky Monastery, all parishioners are treated to cocoa with sandwiches, which is extremely pleasant. Last year, when we couldn’t attend the night service, we were sad. We watched it online and went to make some cocoa ourselves to honor this tradition.
Lent is about warmth
Masha is convinced that God doesn’t have grandchildren. No matter how much we want to “pass on” God to our kids, they still have to meet Christ. And no one knows when this will happen.
—Why do we “immerse” our children in church life, show and tell them about Lent and Pascha, if they themselves must come to God sometime later?
—Because we live this way, and the children were born in a family where the parents have seen God that way. Perhaps the kids will see God differently in the future, or maybe they’ll even say, “We don’t need Him.” But we, their parents, have already seen God in this way, and we know that it is good.
I believe that both our church life and all our traditions are about this “goodness” or even “warmth”. The main thing is for children to remember that it is warm with God. When they grow up, they will definitely remember how good it was for them in childhood. They will associate this time with an atmosphere of warmth, harmony and fullness of life—when God is in the first place, and all else is in its own place.