Easter is the most important religious holiday in Poland – it’s steeped in traditions that are hundreds of years old and profoundly symbolic. One of these traditions is the blessing of święcone, the food carried to church in a basket on Easter Saturday.
The importance of Easter is reflected in its Polish name – Wielkanoc – the Great Night. The week proceeding Easter is called Wielki Tydzień – the Great Week, and the Saturday between Good Friday (Wielki Piątek) and Easter is called Wielka Sobota.
Wielka Sobota is the time of anticipation and cleansing, symbolised by fire and water (the ceremony of baptism is part of the church service that evening). If you happen to be in Poland at Easter or among Polish communities around the world, you’ll see people, often children, carrying small, beautifully decorated baskets to church for blessing on Saturday. What is in the baskets, what is its significance and what do these foods symbolise?
Easter ends the Lent – 40 days (Sundays don’t count) of abstinence in preparation for the drama, the sorrow, and ultimately, for the joy of Easter. The food marks the end of fasting and constitutes an integral part of the Easter breakfast.
Chleb bread – the most important and symbolic food for Christians – refers to the miraculous feeding of the five thousand by Jesus and the holy communion (body of Christ).
Sól salt – adds flavour to food, prevents food from going off and has cleansing and healing properties.
Chrzan horseradish – symbol of good health and physical strength; just like salt it adds flavour to food
Kiełbasa / szynka sausage / ham – symbols of abundance and prosperity
Ser cheese – symbol of harmony between humans and the natural world and animals
Jajka eggs – symbol of fertility and renewed life – they symbolise the triumph of life over death – boiled eggs are often beautifully decorated thus turning them from a humble jajko into pisanka (in some parts of Poland also called kraszanka)
Baba wielkanocna Easter cake – the most recent addition to the basket – symbolizes skill and perfection – the sweetness balances the saltiness and sourness.
The element of the Easter basket which turns it into proper święcone is a figure of a baranek lamb. In the Old Testament referred to as a sacrificial animal, it is regarded as a symbol of Christ. When shown with a red flag bearing a cross it symbolises Resurrected Christ.
Finally, the basket is decorated with crisp white linen and green twigs of bukszpan boxwood, the evergreen, symbolising eternal life.
In Poland, the tradition of blessing food for Easter goes back to medieval times, although in the past it was the priest who travelled around to bless the food rather than people taking food to church as we observe today.
The blessed food is shared and eaten during the Easter breakfast and most of it (with exception of the cheese and cake) will find its way onto a bowl of soup called żurek also known as biały barszcz (technically there is a difference between the two in how the essence or stock for the soup is made – żurek uses rye flour, biały barszcz uses wheat flour). Soup with pieces of sausage and eggs for breakfast?! Well, yes. Easter falls between 22nd March and 25th April and in Poland it’s still cold. Especially since the main Easter Mass called Rezurekcje starts before dawn and lasts for a good hour and a half including a procession outdoors.
But before you can tuck in, everyone shares a segment of boiled egg with salt and horseradish as a sign of peace and good wishes for Easter. It’s quite similar to the tradition of sharing a wafer at Christmas.
Research the internet for images of baskets being blessed in church.
Have you ever tried żurek? Although it is strongly associated with Easter, you can eat it all year around and it is often on the menu of restaurants serving traditional Polish dishes. Find some images and recipes – what ingredients do you need to make żurek?
Find out what other traditions are related to Easter in Poland – for example what has pouring buckets of water over people got to do with Easter?