Pretty much all agrarian societies have some version of a “First Fruits” celebration, where the products of the first harvest are presented as a religious offering. The Western Christian Church has long since abandon this practice, but the Eastern Orthodox sects have kept the tradition alive with the August 19th celebration of the Great Feast for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, also known as Apple Day in Honor of the Savior (Yablochniy Spas). It is one of three Russian Orthodox holidays celebrated in August, and in my opinion the one with the best food options.
By the time Christianity arrived in Russia, near the end of the 10th Century, there was already a highly detailed calendar of holy days and celebrations set by the Greeks. In the Mediterranean climate, where Christianity has it’s origins, the harvest blessing date was settled on August 19th to coincide with the celebration of the Transfiguration, most likely because that holiday came closest to the harvest time for the two major local crops, grapes and wheat. The Russian climate didn’t support a late August harvest of these crops, so the blessing was broadened to include local fruit, which for Russians is apples in August.
Margaret McKibbon, President of American Friends of Russian Folklore generously shared a great deal of background on this holiday with me, it’s origins and most wonderfully a personal anecdote of a modern celebration:
“I was at a church in Belarus last summer  for Yablochniy Spas… The church was in good repair, with lots of people of all ages attending. Every family brought a basket lined with a colorful woven or embroidered towel and filled with apples and other fruit, usually what was growing in their own gardens at home. The baskets were tucked out of the way until the end of the liturgy, when the parishioners drew back to leave a central aisle clear with baskets on the floor lining it on both sides. The priest then advanced down the aisle, repeating a blessing as he flicked blessed water with a whisk over the baskets and the people. After a closing prayer everybody picked up their baskets and headed for home, the old ladies serenely pedaling their bicycles down the road.
At home, our hostess carefully divided up the blessed fruit into portions for her friends and relatives who had not been at the service. Much of the rest of the day was spent in paying visits and distributing the blessed fruit, which was always received with reverence and gratitude.”
The Eastern Orthodox First Fruits tradition is more of a church blessing of the harvest, which is then shared with the community, rather than a tithe or sacrifice as the offering is in many other religions. This idea of sharing of the bounty makes for a great reason to gather your friends and family to celebrate the last, long days of summer. It is considered bad luck in Russia to eat apples before the Spas so this would be the first taste of apples for the year… so feel free to go apple crazy!