Blessing of the Easter food baskets on Holy Saturday or Easter morning is a tradition among Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Central and Eastern Europeans, including Czechs, Croatians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Poles (who call it swiecenie pokarmow wielkanocnych), Russians, Rusyns, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Ukrainians. As to what goes into a food basket depends on the region one is from, the family's preferences, and financial means.
Instead of ham, for example, some Croatians and Slovenes place lamb in their baskets, and western Slovaks include a veal loaf, known as sekana sekanice polnina. In wine-making regions like Hungary and Croatia, bottles of superior vintage go into the basket, and yet others add green spring vegetables to theirs.
Years ago in rural villages, it was a mark of one's wealth if an overflowing basket (sometimes even a dresser drawer containing whole hams and slabs of bacon) of Easter delectables was presented to be blessed. Over-the-top displays are less common these days—more often you'll see just a sample of symbolic foods lining the basket. Since Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians fast during Lent, not one morsel of this blessed food is eaten until after Mass on Easter Sunday when it becomes the traditional Easter breakfast.
Common Basket Items
While tastes vary by region and family, the basket usually contains certain items: butter, bread, pysanky (decorated) eggs, sausage, ham and/or lamb, smoked meats, cheese, salt, and cake. A candle is placed in the basket so it can be lit during the blessing, and some families tie a bow or ribbon around the basket handle. Everything is covered with a richly embroidered cloth that rests atop the food.
None of this food is touched until after church services on Easter Sunday, and when it is time—as custom dictates—each member of the household must sample everything in the basket to prevent misfortune.
Although there are differences in the basket items, many Slovak, Ukrainian, and Russian recipes are cross-cultural since Slovak, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Rusyn, and Russian cuisine has been influenced by neighboring Hungary, Poland, Austria, and the Czech Republic.
Butter is symbolic of the goodness of Christ that we should emulate toward others. It can be shaped into a fancy lamb mold or simply packed into a glass container with cloves arranged into a cross on the top.
The name paska came from the Jewish Passover feast known as pesach, and from the Greek version of the word—pascha. Paska also is the word for a round loaf of sweetened yeast bread or cake studded with orange and lemon peel and raisins. It is a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.
Paska bread usually features a dough braid around the perimeter, and a dough cross or other religious symbols on top. Sometimes a hole is left in the middle for a candle to be lighted at church during the blessing. In Slovak, paska also is referred to as kolac, and kulich is another word for the bread used in Russia.
Horseradish, especially mixed with grated beets, is symbolic of Christ's passion and the blood he shed. The horseradish can be placed in a decorative bowl for inclusion in the basket. The word for horseradish in Slovak is chren, in Russian it is khren, and the Ukrainian word is khrin.
Hard-Cooked Eggs and Pysanky
These hard-cooked eggs, dyed red in the Orthodox Christian faith, and decorated elegantly using the wax-resist method, are symbols of Easter, life, and prosperity, and Christ's Resurrection from the tomb. The Slovak word is kraslica, while the Russians and Ukrainians refer to the dyed eggs as pysanky.
Sausage, either fresh or smoked, is symbolic of God's favor and generosity. It is always present in the basket. Klobása is the Slovak word, while the word for sausage in Russian is kolbasa; kovbasa is the Ukrainian way to say sausage.
Ham or Lamb
Ham is symbolic of great joy and abundance. Some households prefer veal or lamb, which reminds Christians that the risen Christ is the Lamb of God. The Slovak words for ham and lamb are klobása and jahňacie; in Russian, they are vetchina and baranina, and the Ukrainians say shynka and baranyna.
Bacon, with its great fattiness, is a symbol of the overabundance of God's mercy and generosity. The Slovak call bacon slanina, while the word is bekon in both Russian and Ukrainian.
Salt, a necessary element in physical life, is symbolic of prosperity and justice and is included in the basket to remind us that people are the flavor of the earth.
Cheese is symbolic of the moderation Christians should have at all times. Usually, fresh dry curd or farmer's cheese (not aged) is placed in the basket, but another type of cheese, such as hrudka (also known as hrutka, sirok, and cirecz) might be included.
A candle, which will be lighted in a church at the blessing of the baskets, represents Christ as the Light of the World.
Easter Basket Cover
Although traditions vary from family to family about what goes into the basket that is to be blessed on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday, what seems to remain constant is the colorful ribbons and greenery, pussy willows, or dried flowers attached to the basket as signs of joy and new life in the season of spring and in celebration of the Resurrection.
The other must is the richly embroidered cover, symbolizing Christ's burial shroud, that goes over the basket. It's usually made of linen or other fine cloth and is embroidered with religious symbols related to the Resurrection and the celebration of Easter. These basket covers are passed down from generation to generation. A Ukrainian paska cover is similar to a rushnyk or embroidered towel except it has Easter symbols on it.