On Easter Sunday morning, Ukrainian Orthodox Christians take a basket of their breakfast foods to their church services with them. Because they have traditionally been fasting for the Lenten period, these believers are excited to show their faithfulness and gratitude for the celebration of the Resurrection. They bring their baskets full of food to be blessed by the priest—foods that will be consumed later during their Easter breakfast (“break fast”). The foods that these Ukrainians include in their baskets are:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Meats and sausages
- Cheese and cottage cheese
- Butter and sour cream
- Paska and Babka breads
This is a very special meal for Ukrainians every Easter. Each of these foods has a symbolic meaning.
For Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, the egg symbolizes the tomb from which Christ was risen. Christ was like a live baby chick coming out of an egg when he emerged from the tomb.
Krashanky, which are plain colored hard-boiled eggs, similar to those that many of us associate with Easter, are included in the Easter basket and used to “break the fast” during the first Easter meal. Sometimes family members will share one egg to show family unity and hope for a good year ahead.
Pysanky, decorated with Christian symbols that illustrate hope, emergence of new life, and the Resurrection, are also placed in the Easter basket to be blessed.
Meat products represent animals used in sacrifice in the Old Testament books of the Bible and represent the “Lamb of God,” the Saviour Jesus Christ. There are many references to meats in the Bible, such as the “fattened calf” in the story of the prodigal son. When Ukrainians include ham and other meats from pigs, it symbolizes the freedom from the Old Law which forbid eating certain types of meats. Lamb represents the risen Christ. Sausage represents the broken links of the chains of death.
Dairy: Butter and Cheese
Dairy products are symbolic of the gifts that God has given us.
Horseradish was part of the original Jewish Passover meal. It is symbolic of the harshness and bitterness of the Jewish people’s life in Egypt. For Christians, horseradish represents the bitterness of sin and the suffering that we must endure because of sin. When sweetened with red beets, horseradish reminds Ukrainians of the Passion of Christ.
Salt and bread are common welcome gifts of Ukrainians—both in Ukraine and in North America. For Ukrainians, salt is a symbol of fasting and self-denial and serves as a reminder of Christ’s words for Christians, “You are the salt of the earth.”
Easter Breads: Paska and Babka
Bread are symbolic of Jesus Christ, the “Bread of Life” who Ukrainian Christians believe gave eternal life to the world. Paska is an egg bread that is rich and hearty and holds special meaning for all Ukrainians. It is often decorated with braids and birds. Babka (or Baba) refers to elder women and grandmothers, who are often the matriarchs of the Ukrainian villages. The bread symbolizes fertility of the soil.
Every family would light a candle in their Easter baskets before the blessing service. This symbolizes the light of Christ throughout the world. Usually the candle was placed in the top of a Paska bread, just the way that you put candles in a birthday cake.
The Blessing of the Easter Baskets
Because the Easter service typically starts at sunrise (6 AM), my mother would always have the Easter basket prepared the night before. In Canada, it was still pretty chilly overnight in the springtime, so she would often store the very large basket in the trunk of the car. When we got in the car the next morning to go to the church, the smell of garlic from the kolbasa had permeated the interior of the car!
After the Easter service, the priest would sprinkle the baskets with water, blessing them with the sign of the cross. The entire congregation would sing Easter hymns.
Once the service was completed, families would take their Easter baskets home and enjoy a hearty breakfast, one that satisfies both the spirit and the appetite!