Being Polish-American Catholics, my family has always adhered to Polish holiday traditions. As a child, one of the most loved and awaited traditions for me every year was the blessing of the Easter baskets on Holy Saturday at our home parish, St. Joseph’s in Norwich.
On Holy Saturday morning, my mother, brother, and I would meet my aunt and all my cousins at church with our wicker baskets full of Easter goodies to be blessed by the priest. It was a fun task but sometimes a hurried one. Getting that basket ready on Saturday morning meant the eggs had to be colored and everything else set to go. It also meant, however, that the excitement of Easter Sunday festivities was beginning. For me, it signified that after the solemnity of the Good Friday service, Saturday was not just another day in between while waiting for Easter Sunday. The Holy Saturday food blessing kept the three days of the Holy Tridium connected for me as a child.
Every year, our pastor, the late Fr. Eugene Pilatowski, would look out among all the baskets and before the blessing, give us a brief lesson on the many customary foods and what they symbolized. The eggs are of course an absolute must in the traditional Polish Easter basket. This is where I first learned that Easter eggs were not just pretty and fun to make, but a symbol of new life, and that the chick breaking open its shell to begin life symbolizes Christ breaking open his tomb to emerge and bring us new life.
Other important components to the Polish Easter basket include small rye breads as well as Babka which reminds us of course that Jesus is the “bread of life,” and just as the bread rises, Christ also rises from the dead. Salt represents preservation from corruption and joins bread as a basic sign of hospitality serving to remind us that we “are the salt of the earth.” (Mt 5:13) Horseradish and pepper signify the bitterness of the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. A bottle of vinegar represents the gall Christ was given to drink on the cross. Kielbasa, ham, and pork are traditionally the main course as they symbolize the forbidden foods of the Old Testament that are now acceptable. One especially important component to the basket is a paschal lamb made of butter or cake as a symbol of the compassion of Christ. Rounding off the basket is a bottle of wine, signifying the blood of Christ.
All these foods are customarily eaten first on Easter morning by the millions of faithful Polish people around the world in keeping with a thousand-year-old tradition.
The current pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Norwich, Fr. Robert Washabaugh, has continued the tradition of blessing Easter food. “We held the blessing last Holy Saturday, with lots of physical distancing and precautions, and I'm sure we will be back this year. It is a proud Polish tradition that will last,” he said recently.
As followers of Christ, we must remember that many of our traditions and ceremonies are thousands of years old and it is important to pass these rituals forth to our children. I am forever grateful to my mother for showing my brother and me how to keep these traditions and instilling in me a desire to continue them for my two children. Sometimes it is the happy traditions that we remember from our youth that help us to stay close to our faith and connected to our church. If you have lost some of your holiday traditions, I extend an invitation for you to reclaim them and join the celebration this Easter season.
By Marianne Nicholas