Tuesday, March 22, 2016

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) writes his mother, Abigail, in 1811 of Easter traditions in Russia & Greece


1818 John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart

From John Quincy Adams to Abigail Smith Adams, 24 April 1811

St: Petersburg 12/24 April 1811.

The Russian People pass their lives in a continual and alternate succession of feasting and fasting. Every individual whether of high or low degree celebrates two days in every year; one for his birth and the other for his baptism, which is called his name day, and is kept on the day marked in the Calendar, as devoted to the Saint of the same name; for it is a religious principle that every body must be named after some Saint, and a rule of the Greek Church never to give more than one Christian name to the same person—

The days of public solemnity are all of a religious character, and all annually return—The ecclesiastical year commences at Christmas, which is celebrated the 25th: of December—From this day the people are allowed to eat flesh untill eight weeks before Easter; that is for a time of varying duration, Easter being in the Greek as well as in the Latin Church a moveable feast—It is the Sunday following the full moon which happens on or next after the twenty-first day of March—

Christmas day and two or three after it are Holidays during which the People amuse themselves with various sports, and drive in procession sleighs, round a Corner of the Winter Palace in this City—For a week before Christmas there is a market of frozen meat brought from distant parts of the Empire, and from which the lower classes of People in St: Petersburg stock themselves with their whole Winter’s provision of fresh meat—The bullocks, sheep and Swine are all brought in sledges and without being cut up into quarters—Most of the Marketmen think it a good piece of wit, or at least an expedient to attract notice to set them upon their legs, and it is a curious show for a stranger to walk through a succession of fleeced and embowelled flocks and herds, and droves, amounting to many thousands.

The Russian Calendars all inform the people how long they may eat meat—Thus in the almanacs of the present year it is announced that meat may be eaten 6 weeks and one day—That is from and including Christmas day to the 5th: of February—Then began what they call the Butter-week; that is a sort of ambiguous week, half fast and half feast, during which they must renounce flesh, but may eat fish, and butter, (from which it has its name) and when the Christmas sports, the races and Ice hills upon the river, and the processions of sleighs before the Imperial Palace are resumed with double ardour—The Butter-week is extended to the Sunday which succeeds it, and from that day follow seven weeks of rigorous lent, called by the Greek Church the great lent, during which according to the severity of the Church rules they should eat absolutely nothing but bread and salt.—

Something of this rigour is however abated in practice in the interval between the first and last day of these seven weeks, and among the highest class of the nobility there are persons not extremely scrupulous about observing the fast at-all.—This laxity however affects their reputation in the popular opinion, and there are few even of the highest ranks, but choose to be thought regular in their practice—

The Imperial family are punctilious in setting the example—During the last year’s lent the Empress-Mother, and her unmarried daughter the Grand-Duchess Ann, paid a visit to the Grand-Duchess Catherine, a Sister of the Emperor’s, who is married to a Prince of Oldenburg, and usually resides at Twer, a City between this place and Moscow—On their way they pass’d through the City of Novogorod the antient metropolis of Russia—They were received and entertained by the magistrates of that place, in the most distinguished manner. That is to say, the magistrates met them at the gates of the City, accompanied them to Church where they attended the divine service, and afterwards presented them—bread and salt.—All which was publicly announced in the official Court Gazette—

During the whole seven weeks of Lent, all the Theatres are closed—The only species of public amusements, that are allowed, are Concerts and Oratorio’s—No entertainments are given, and the families which profess to be scrupulous in their duties neither pay nor receive visits—

There are religious solemnities three or four times a week throughout Lent, and in the last or Passion-week every day—On the Thursday of Passion-week, the Metropolitan of St: Petersburg the highest ecclesiastical parsonage of the Empire washes the feet of twelve poor persons, in commemoration of the same act, performed by our Saviour to his Apostles the day before his crucifixion.—

The next day, that is on Good-Friday, there are in the Churches religious ceremonies specially allusive to the crucifixion, and a regular funeral procession to a place within each church where a scenical representation of the holy sepulchre is exhibited, and remains, lighted with lamps untill Easter day—

I saw this scene on the last Good-Friday, at the Roman Catholic Church in this City—It was in a chapel adjoining the great altar. In the middle of the Chapel was a transparent tomb within which was the image of a corpse, large as a man’s body. In the background was a view of Calvary with three Crucifixes standing and at a distance the temple of Jerusalem—At the foot of the tomb were the figures of two women, the Virgin Mary in the attitude of fainting, and Mary Magdalen: at the head were the images of two Angels, one of them bearing a canvass unrolled with the head of John the Baptist painted on it and in front of each end of the tomb, at a small distance from the figure of a soldier in the antient Roman armour to represent the guard mentioned in the gospels.—

This and similar exhibitions in all the Greek Churches are preparatory to the solemnities of Easter which celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and which are the most remarkable of all—

They begin precisely at Midnight by a religious ceremony which lasts between three and four hours—The signal for their Commencement in all the Churches of this City, is a Cannon fired from the fortress.—

I attended this year the celebration at the chapel in the Imperial Palace, where the foreign Ministers are not on this occasion invited, but where they are admitted and have a good stand secured to them as Spectators, if any of them chuse to be present—

I say a good stand, because it is one of the peculiarities of the Greek Church, that all their religious acts are performed standing—The only exceptions are occasional kneeling, and prostrations; but no person is ever allowed to sit—there is neither chair nor bench, nor seat of any kind in the Church. Between eleven and twelve at Night of Saturday, the day preceding Easter, I went to the Palace in full dress as to Court, and just before the Ceremony began was introduced into the Chapel, and placed at a station the most advantageous for witnessing all that was to take place.—

Precisely at Midnight the Cannon sounded from the fortress, and the Emperor entered the Chapel. He was accompanied by his Mother, and followed by two of his brothers, one Sister, and all his Court.—He took his stand within the Chancel on the right hand; and his Mother stood at his left—The princes and princess stood without the Chancel surrounded by the crowd of Ministers, Generals and Courtiers which filled the Chapel—

Eight or ten officiating Priests stood in a line before the Sanctuary, the doors of which on this occasion alone are open—and a Quire of Male singers was stationed behind a railing on either side of them—The singers are partly men grown and partly children; but the Greek Church allows no instrumental music, and no female voices.—

Some of the attendants in waiting, presented immediately to the Emperor and Empress Mother, and then to every other person in the chapel a small lighted wax taper, which every person took and held in hand during a part of the Ceremony—

Then the Quire of Singers commenced chanting a hymn, and marched out in procession, followed by the Priests, and the Emperor and Imperial family, walking two by two, and every one with the lighted taper in the hand—

They went out of the Chapel, and performed three times the round of three or four halls adjoining the Chapel, into which they then returned in the same order & resumed their respective Stations—

At the ordinary Churches this procession marches out into the Church-yard, or Street, and thrice round the building itself. It was followed at the Chapel by what I believe was a Mass; for my total ignorance of the language in which the solemnities are performed prevents me from understanding any thing that is said or sung—

At the close of it however, seven of the Priests ranged themselves in a line, each of them having a holy relic in his hand—The Emperor went up and kiss’d the relics and afterwards embraced the Priests themselves—The Empress mother and the other members of the Imperial family followed in succession and went through the same process, excepting that the Priests instead of being embraced by the Ladies, kiss’d their hands.—This however is a recent innovation, as the antient rule was that the women as well as the men should always on this occasion salute one another with a holy kiss.—

And the ceremony being considered as emblematical of the primitive equality of all Christian believers, and of the purity of Christian innocence, I find many persons here and of various ranks in Society who are by no means edified at the substitution of hand-kissing, for the good old smack upon the cheek and lips, which they boast of as having always been given at Easter, by the Empress Elizabeth, with indiscriminating favour, alike to men and women. The kissing is not confined to the Priest-hood—

Every individual in the chapel (not including strangers) was understood to have the privilege of going up and embracing the Emperor, and so many of them exercised it, that for a full hour he was employed in bestowing this mark of kindness upon everyone who chose to approach him—At the same time in every part of the chapel each individual was exchanging embraces with all the others around him, and in the course of the hour, I was witness to a multitude of kisses which it seemed to me would have satiated the greediness of Joannes Secundus—

After this operation was over a new religious ceremony began, the most remarkable part of which was the reading of the four gospels—There are four of the Priests, standing at desks, each one with his face towards one of the Cardinal points, who read in alternate succession, and by three verses at a time, a chapter from each of the four gospels, beginning with the first Chapter of St John—

This is meant to commemorate, and mark the fulfillment of the Saviour’s injunction to his disciples to preach the gospel to all the Nations of the Earth—It concluded by the Principal Priest’s taking the Communion; but without administering it to any other person. We came home between three and four in the Morning.—

This was the mere introduction to the Easter Holidays—I shall give you an account of them in another letter—The time draws near when I hope to have opportunities of writing to you directly—The lock of ice upon the Neva river was last-night broken open.—We are all Well.

From John Quincy Adams to Abigail Smith Adams, 
St: Petersburg 2. May 1811.

The religious ceremony of which in my last Letter I gave you an account, began at Midnight and terminated between three and four in the morning.—

It was accompanied by a Salute of 21. Guns fired from the Fortress, two or three times, at particular stages of the performance—This was conformable to the customary practice; which always ushers in Easter day at St: Petersburg with an expence of gunpowder and a volume of Sound, equal to that which in the good Town of Boston, introduces our Independence-Day—

This is only one of many particulars in which there are characteristic resemblances in the celebration of the two days—Thus, for example, they are both days of military Parade—At ten in the morning the Emperor reviewed all the troops then in this Metropolis, amounting to more than thirty thousand Men—Our military exhibitions are not so numerous, nor so splendid; but of these thirty thousand heroes, how many may never stand again to be reviewed on Easter-day!

In front of the Imperial Winter-Palace is a large and Magnificent Square, connected by a public walk in front of the Admiralty, with another square equally spacious and magnificent; In the centre of which is the marble Church of St: Isaac; with the incomparable equestrian Statue of Peter the Great before it, and further on in the same line a Bridge of Boats crossing the Neva, and the commencement of the Granit-sided Quay, which is one of the wonders of the reign of Catherine.—

A minute and sufficiently correct description of all these objects is contained in Porter’s sketches, which in one of your letters to me, you mention having read.—It is on these two Squares that the troops are drawn up, when reviewed by the Emperor, which he usually does every Sunday morning; but with peculiar solemnity on Easter-day—

But besides the splendor of appearance derived from this Parade, the Square of St: Isaac on these occasions is the scene of all the popular amusements which enliven the festivities of the Season—A number of slight buildings are erected on one side of the Square, in which from Easter-day untill and including the ensuing Sunday, continual exhibitions during the day-time are presented of Rope-dancers, Chinese-Shadows, puppet-shows, mechanical and optical representations, strange animals, and the like delights of the Populace, to the successive Crowds of People, who can afford a few copeeks for admission to each of these places of entertainment—

And to some of these temporary theatres, there are adjoined, an external stage or Balcony, upon which Punch and his wife, Jack-Pudding and Merry-Andrew occasionally sally from within, to allure by their antic tricks and the delicious sample of their Sports, the wavering Prudence of the simple youths, whose parsimony struggles with their love of pleasure, and whose Copeeks still linger in their pockets.—On each side of the Church are raised a number of Swings and Whirligigs, filled by a succession of men, women and children who keep them in perpetual motion,—The Swings consist of a suspended plank upon which three or four persons sit side by side, while upon each end of them stands a man or woman, who by the alternate pressure of their own weight keep the vibration constant from side to side, untill weariness puts an end to their sport.—

The Whirligigs are cross bars something like the wings of a wind-mill, with a large chair, or bucket suspended at the ends of each bar; in each of which two or three persons are seated, and which are swung round perpendicularly by machinery.—

Twenty or thirty of these two sorts of machines are ranged along close to one another, and intermixed together, which from Noon to Sun-set of every day, are incessantly whirling and balancing, all together, and as one set of the occupiers tires, instantly filled with another—Beyond them, on the side of the Equestrian Statue, are two sliding hills, another of the amusements peculiar to this Country.—

At the amusements of the Butter-week, which are in February, they are erected on the river, and are called ice-hills—an accurate description, is given of them in Porter’s 15th: letter, and they have indeed so often been described that I shall spare you the repetition of the same thing here—At Easter–time the Ice upon the river is usually so much weakened, and the weather in the day time so warm, that the real Ice–Hills can no longer be enjoyed—But so fascinating is this pastime to the common People here, that they substitute these artificial Imitations of the Ice-hills in their stead—

The Construction of the Stages is the same—But the inclined planes down which they slide, and the flat between the Stages at their feet, are laid with Planks, and the sledges upon which the Sliders go down are upon little wheels or rollers, confined on each side by a small channel in which they must run.—Of these Sports, only the lowest classes of the People partake; but every afternoon during the week, the People of better condition, that is every body who owns or can hire a Carriage, ride in procession round the two Squares for two or three hours, beholding all these amusements of the nobility, and at the same time exhibiting themselves, and their Carriages, and Liveries and Horses, in Spectacle to one Another—

The Imperial family occasionally appear two or three times every year in these processions, and the Emperor himself sometimes attends them on horseback.

On Monday, the day after Easter, a levee or Diplomatic Circle is held by the Emperor, at the Winter Palace, where according to the appropriate phrase of Etiquette, he and the Imperial family receive the felicitations of the foreign Ministers.—Felicitations for what? do you ask?—For the Resurrection of Christ: to the celebration of which all these festivities are devoted—

In all the religious ceremonies and in all the traditionary usages of this Week, there is some allusion to that great event.—The kiss promiscuous, so disgusting to Porter, and so delightful to Carr, (for these two British travellers, both rapturous sentimentalists, were very differently affected by a fashion, which custom here soon flatters into indifference as much to those who behold, as to those who practice it)_this kiss which levels all distinctions both of rank and sex, and which the Imperial Consort of Russia must in the rigour of principle bestow upon the meanest moozhik who presents her an egg, is nothing more than a recognition of that universal equality and brotherhood which Jesus came to proclaim to the whole human race; and as to the egg, which puzzles all the travellers so much to account for, what more expressive emblem could have been chosen to express that eternal life, bursting from the shell of mortality, of which the Resurrection of Jesus was the first fruit, and the most precious pledge?—

The custom of giving eggs, is as universal as that of kissing—Servants give them to their masters—Friends interchange them with one another, and it is an act of delicate gallantry from a Gentleman to a Lady—On presenting the egg, the giver pronounces the words “Christos Voskrest”—Christ is risen—to which the receiver answers “Voistinnoi Voskrest”—He is indeed risen; and then the salutation succeeds. The common people who can afford no more, give real, hard boiled hens eggs, with the shells dyed red—But persons in easier circumstances give artificial eggs, of paste-board, wood, glass, marble, porcellain, candied sugar, and in short of almost every material that can be fashioned into the shape—

Boxes of Sugar-plums assume this form in presents for children, much to the entertainment of master Charles; and it can take even the shape of a Lady’s work-bag; not to call it on so serious an occasion a Ridicule—The windows of innumerable shops in the City are decorated with multitudes of these artificial eggs, of various sizes, suspended by silk ribbons of all the gaudy Colours, and of various prices from five Copeeks to a hundred rubles—

They are also hawked about the streets by the Carriers of Ginger Bread, and sugar-candy—In short these objects are so multiplied at these times before the eyes of a Stranger to the Custom, that he would almost be induced to believe that in Russia, breeding eggs, and kissing, was the business of human life.

On Easter-day the seven-weeks Fast is at an end. Many of those whose abstemiousness has been carried to an excess which physical Nature can scarcely support, now plunge into the other excess, of bestial gluttony and drunkenness. The habits of intoxications to which the Russian Populace are addicted, have often been noticed—It is the natural vice of those who have not the means of indulging others.—

But there is a singular character of harmlessness in the ebriety of this People—Among the multitudes whom I daily meet staggering and sprawling about the Streets, I have never witnessed any thing like a fray, and scarcely ever any thing like a brawl—This quietude is partly owing to the submissive Spirit of the Nation, and partly to the rigorous vigilance of the Police—

Every Police officer, of the lowest class has the privilege of using the cudgel over the backs of the populace at discretion; and so faithfully is the privilege exercised, and so numerous are the Police–Officers, that on the slightest symptom of disorder by a moozhik in the Streets, he receives the immediate admonition of a severe bastonade, from some little, spare green-coated Beadle, who seems as if to start out of the ground for that single purpose, administers the discipline without speaking a word, and then vanishes with as little noise as he appeared. The regularity and absolute power of the Police is equally visible in the tranquility with which the crowds of People assembled at the Sports disperse immediately after Sun-set—

In the course of half an hour the sliding-hills are deserted, the Whirligigs and Swings are emptied and unmoveable, the hundreds and even thousands of equipages have retired, the bustle of the throng has given place to silence and Solitude, and the Square just swarming with festive myriads is as quiet and unfrequented as the Streets of an American City On a Sunday.—

The change of its appearance after the close of the Holidays is still more remarkable—In twenty-four hours the Sliding-hills, the whirligigs, the Swings and the Theatres have all disappeared, the Square resumes its customary appearance, and not a trace remains of the motley multitudes which have been eight-days reveling upon it.

Besides the Great Lent, before Easter, there are three other fasting terms in the course of the year—One called the Fast of St: Peter—thirty–one days in May and June—One from the 1st: to the 15th: of August, called the Fast of the Mother of God—and the fourth from the 15th: of November to Christmas day—They are not quite so rigorously kept as the great one, but they are all preceded and followed by one or more days of festivity and intemperance.

Thus much for Russian Holidays and Fasts—If you incline to slumber over this account of them, or any other of my frequent letters, I can only beg you to consider them as apologies for repeating to you as often as possible, that we are well, and ever faithfully your’s.

“From John Quincy Adams to Abigail Smith Adams, 24 April 1811,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-1956 [last update: 2015-03-20]).


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