The blessing of Easter basket foods

By | April 19, 2014

What treats and staples do you put in your family’s Easter basket?

A little straw; a little ribbon.

Most of us probably think of Easter baskets as something brought by a rabbit and stuffed with eggs, chocolate and other candies, that children find around the house on Easter morning.

However, there are Easter baskets that involve the entire family, are full of food — not candy (though there are eggs) — and are often carried on Holy Saturday.

Those with Eastern European backgrounds — Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary, Ukraine, the Balkans and other countries with Slavic tradition — might be familiar with the blessing of Easter foods. Called ?wi?conka in Polish, the food baskets are brought to Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on Holy Saturday, around noon.

The foods in these baskets are rich in Easter symbolism and serve to do more than whet one’s appetite after the long season of Lenten fasting.

Eggs: Of course there are eggs — a traditional symbol of resurrection and new life, which some Eastern Catholic and Orthodox church traditions date back to St. Mary Magdalene. The rest of us are probably familiar with pysanky eggs from the Ukraine. These geometrically decorated eggs in bright colors with folk art images serve to remind those who see them of Easter. A Russian fable is credited with the saying that an Easter egg given to another person in love will never spoil. In Poland, families traditionally gather around the Easter table to share pieces of blessed Easter eggs. Also, prior to the 1960s, eggs were not allowed during Lent, so having them again at Easter was a special joy.

Butter: Another luxury that was forbidden during Lent was butter. The Easter food basket’s butter is often shaped like a lamb — to remind us of the sacrificed Lamb of God. Called maslo in Russian and Ukrainian, the butter may also be decorated with the Easter banner of white with a red cross or with cloves in the shape of a cross.

Bread: Various breads are used to symbolize Christ, “the bread of life.” The breads, varying from regular, fresh-baked loaves to round sweet breads filled with oranges and raisins, fill food baskets. In Slovakian, the breads are called paska or kolac. Braided bread is also seen.

Meat: While ham, which is smoked or salted and keeps well cold, is the most popular meat — as it is for most Easter dinner menus, there are other meats for the Easter food baskets. These include lamb — with its Christ connotations — veal and bacon, the later symbolizing God’s rich mercy. It is also noted that pork — ham or bacon — is forbidden in the Old Testament, so eating it now symbolizes that all things are made new in Christ.

Sausage: While sausage is also a form of meat, it is the links of the sausages that offer the symbolism here. Called kielbasa in Polish, their resemblance to a chain or a rope reminds us that Christ “broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave” as is sung at the Easter Vigil.

Topping off the food basket for Easter are wine (for joy), horseradish (a reminder of the bitter herbs of Passover), salt (a symbol of hospitality in Poland and a reminder that we are “the salt of the earth”) and cheese (usually farmer’s cheese).

There is often also a candle — unlit — in the basket to remind us that Christ is our light.

However, our Easter food basket is not yet complete. Clearly, it must be a very large basket to hold all this food and, thus, the traditional basket often has two handles. It is often a wicker basket and adorned with boxwood — an evergreen bush popular in Eastern Europe — and dried flowers.

Covering the basket is a cloth that is meant to symbolize the burial cloth that wrapped Jesus’ body in the tomb. These cloths are often richly embroidered with symbols of the resurrection and are passed down from one generation to the next.

When Easter food baskets are brought to church — on Holy Saturday around noon — they may be blessed individually or in a group. The baskets are sprinkled with holy water by the priest or deacon and a prayer of blessing is said.

Then, of course, it’s back home to get ready for the big dinner (or brunch) on Easter.

 

Sources: Pope John Paul II Polish Center at Polishcenter.org; slovenia.si; holidays.net; catholicculture.org; institute-christ-king.org; easteuropeanfood.about.com; “In the Home: Blessing of Food at Easter” by Madeline L. Brock.

 

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