In many Eastern European countries, it is a tradition to have a basket of food blessed on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday. In Poland, for example, the blessing of the baskets is known as święcenie pokarmow wiełkanocnych, a practice dating to the 15th century or earlier, and one which is still maintained by most families in Poland (and to some extent in other countries) on Holy Saturday.
The food items in the Easter basket, as well as at the Easter Sunday breakfast when the blessed food is eaten, have special significance. Each family may have its own traditions, but there are some practices that are universal.
A lot of thought, time, and care are put not only into the foods that will go into the basket but also to how the basket is assembled. The basket is lined with an embroidered cloth or traditional folk fabric. Once the basket is filled, it is covered with a white linen cloth (some have a colorfully crocheted edging or embroidered design) representing the shroud of Christ. The basket can then be decorated with sprigs of boxwood (bukszpan) or Polish "palms " made from dried flowers and colorful paper.
In rural Poland, the size and contents of a woman's basket (some used wooden bowls and even dresser drawers) was a matter of pride and standing in the community.
A typical Eastern European Easter basket would include a variety of symbolic foods, although families can personalize to their liking. There is a special blessing for meat, egg, cake, and bread, so baskets will most likely include these ingredients.
- Bacon (boczek/słonina, BOH-chek/swoh-NEE-nah) is a symbol of the abundance of God's mercy.
- Bread (chleb, hlehb) is usually a braided chałka, representing the staff of life given by God.
- Easter bread (babka, BAHB-kah) is a round cake of rich, eggy yeast dough with raisins that is reminiscent of the risen Lord.
- Butter (masło, MAHS-woh) is one of the dairy products included to celebrate the end of Lent and the richness of our salvation. The butter is often shaped into a lamb, which is symbolic of the Paschal Lamb, and is known as a baranek. Sometimes the baranek is made of dough, wood, or even plastic. It can also be made of sugar, when it is known as baranek cukrowy wielkanocny.
- Candles (swieca, SHVIEH-tsa) symbolize Jesus, the "light of the world," and can be lit when the priest blesses the baskets of food.
- Cheese (ser, SEHRR) is a symbol to remind Christians of moderation.
- Colored eggs (pisanki, pee-SAHN-kee), as well as uncolored hard-cooked eggs, indicate hope, new life, and Christ rising from his tomb.
- Ham (szynka, SHIN-kah), as well as other meats, symbolizes great joy and abundance in celebration of Christ's resurrection.
- Sausage links (kiełbasa, kyehw-BAH-sah) are symbolic of the chains of death that were broken when Jesus rose from the dead, as well as of God's generosity.
- Horseradish (chrzan, HZAHN) is a reminder of the bitterness and harshness of the Passion of Jesus, and the vinegar it is mixed with symbolizes the sour wine given to Jesus on the cross.
- Salt (sól, SOOL) is present to add zest to life and preserve us from corruption.
- Sweets (słodycze, swoh-DIH-cheh) suggest the promise of eternal life or good things to come.
Although every family might have its own traditions when it comes to the Easter baskets, many make sure to include enough food so every family member can have a bite of all the blessed foods after Mass on Easter Sunday. This can be a taste of the Easter dinner foods, plus some daily staples.
The basket may hold a little bird's nest cake made with leftover batter from the lamb cake and hard-cooked eggs studded with cloves representing the nails of the cross, as well as kiełbasa, ham, salt, and pepper. Also common are ćwikła or chrzan, a butter lamb, or butter stuffed into a shot glass studded with a clove, and a small, round bakery rye bread topped with a paper decal in the shape of a purple cross. While in some families, greens, vegetables, and fruit are never included, other families make them a part of the basket.
In many families when the children are old enough, they are given the honor of taking the basket to church to be blessed. There is no risk of the basket being picked over since it is a time of fasting, and the children are sure to be admonished that they do not touch one morsel of food. With the aromas so intoxicating, it takes tremendous willpower not to sample.
Traditions include both feasting on the blessed foods on Easter morning as well as using the contents of the święconka basket to make a delicious soup known as white barszcz.