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.
Decorating the Basket
A lot of thought, time, and care are put not only into the foods that will go into the basket but also 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.
Filling the Basket
A typical Eastern European Easter basket would include any of these symbolic foods.
- Bacon—boczek/słonina (BOH-chek/swoh-NEE-nah). A symbol of the abundance of God's mercy.
- Bread—chleb (hlehb). Usually a braided chałka, representing the staff of life given by God.
- Easter bread—babka (BAHB-kah). A round cake of rich, eggy, yeast dough with raisins reminiscent of the risen Lord.
- Butter—masło (MAHS-woh). Dairy products are included to celebrate the end of Lent and the richness of our salvation. Butter is often shaped into a lamb (symbolic of the Paschal Lamb) and known as a baranek. (When the baranek is made of sugar, it is known as baranek cukrowy wielkanocny.) Sometimes the baranek is made of dough, wood, or even plastic.
- Candle—swieca (SHVIEH-tsa). The candle symbolizes Jesus, the "light of the world," and can be lit when the priest blesses the baskets of food.
- Cheese—ser (SEHRR). Cheese is a symbol to remind Christians of moderation.
- Colored eggs—pisanki (pee-SAHN-kee). Both colored and uncolored hard-cooked eggs indicate hope, new life, and Christ rising from his tomb.
- Ham—szynka (SHIN-kah). Meats are symbolic of great joy and abundance in celebration of Christ's resurrection.
- Sausage—kiełbasa (kyehw-BAH-sah). The sausage links 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). This 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). Salt is present to add zest to life and preserve us from corruption.
- Sweets—słodycze (swoh-DIH-cheh). Sweets suggest the promise of eternal life or good things to come.
Source: The Polish Falcons of America contributed to this list of symbolic foods.
Family Easter Basket Tradition
Although every family might have its own traditions when it comes to the Easter baskets, several believe it is imperative that every member of the family have a bite of all the blessed foods after Mass on Easter Sunday. Many mothers make sure to include just enough for a taste of the Easter dinner foods, plus some daily staples.
This means including not only a little bird's nest cake made with leftover batter from the lamb cake, but also hard-cooked eggs studded with cloves representing the nails of the cross, kiełbasa, ham, salt, and pepper. Also, 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. In some families, greens, vegetables, and fruit are never included, but other families make them a part of the basket.
Waiting Until Easter Sunday
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. The aromas are so intoxicating, it takes tremendous willpower not to sample.
Traditions include both feasting on the blessed foods separately on Easter morning as well as using the contents of the święconka basket to make a delicious soup known as white barszcz.