The History of Unique Slavic Customs for the Easter Season

by Napa Institute
Published In March 27, 2018

In rising from the dead, Christ conquered sin and gave humanity the hope of eternal life. This conviction is core to Christianity, making the Easter season the supreme liturgical time. It is the culmination of Jesus’ life on earth and an ultimate testament to the truth of His teachings.

George Weigel reflects on the transformative impact of the Resurrection, “Encountering [the disciples’] confusion [in the Gospels], we learn that Christ, raised from the dead, changes everything: time, history, prophecy, hope, the here-and-now, vocational responsibility, and right worship all come into clearer focus through the encounter with the Risen Lord.”

This belief unifies all Christians. Ukrainian Bishop Borys Gudziak shared, “For Christians, especially in the Ukrainian tradition, Easter is, as we sing in the byzantine rite Paschal hymns, the ‘feast of feasts.’ The word for Easter in Ukrainian is Velykden meaning ‘the Great Day.’” Although the Easter spirit unifies Christians around the world, there are cultural differences in the way it is celebrated.

With the Poland pilgrimage​ and Ukraine conference approaching, here are some of the unique faith practices and culinary customs of Christians in Poland and Ukraine.

Willow branches are blessed instead of palms on the final Sunday before Easter. Since palms are not indigenous to Poland or Ukraine, the day is known as Willow Sunday instead of Palm Sunday. Willows are among the first buds to bloom in the springtime, symbolizing new beginnings and love for life since they can grow and thrive in inclement conditions.

After the willows are blessed during the mass celebration, they are passed out to the congregation. People then tap each other with the branches while offering a wish for health and happiness.

According to Bishop Borys Gudziak, a common Ukrainian wish is, “Not I hit you, the willow hits you; in seven days we will have the Great Day!” He also explained that these wishes start the season-long Easter greetings. “Instead of ‘Hello, how are you?’ people greet each other: ‘Christ is risen!’ and reply joyfully ‘Indeed He is risen!’”

Polish Christians bake paczki, donut-like buns to eat before the Lenten fast. Paczki were first made to prevent waste during Lent by using up indulgent ingredients like sugar, butter, fruit, eggs, and lard. They are usually eaten on the last Thursday or Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

The buns are usually deep fried, filled with jelly, fruit, or cream, and coated with icing or powdered sugar. Dating back to the Middle Ages, paczki were originally savory and filled with pork fat. The Polish King August III is credited with the transition to its sweet ingredients.

A long-standing culinary custom in Poland, paczki is now a global treat with countless recipes. There’s even a supposed Polish proverb that states, “If you don’t eat at least one [paczki] on [Willow] Thursday, you will no longer be successful in life.”

Easter eggs are decorated with cultural designs and motifs using melted wax. Called pisanki in Polish and pysanky in Ukrainian, these Easter eggs are unique in their intricacy, symbolism, and decoration technique. There are various egg-decorating methods in both Poland and Ukraine, but this wax-resist dyeing technique is the most popular.

Detailing this time-honored tradition, Bishop Borys Gudziak explained, “These world famous Ukrainian folk masterpieces are prepared with great care in the weeks of Lent. Each region of Ukraine had its own designs. Many of them go back to pre-Christian times but today have a biblical, Christian interpretation.”

Most of the motifs painted on the eggs represent prayer, prosperity, health, love, joy, and beauty through designs including crosses, fish, roses, ladders, triangles, and deer. On Easter morning, Polish and Ukrainian families bless the eggs then crack them to symbolize the the empty tomb after the Resurrection.

Ukrainian Christians make sweet bread called paska, meaning “Passover.” Baked with ingredients including milk, eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, paska is a tall loaf of bread in a cylindrical shape. It often has a rounded top with a braided bread wreath or cross design. Similar to Polish paczki, it is covered with white glaze or other toppings like poppy seeds and colorful grains.

Paska also has a deeper history in ancient Ukranian rituals. Three color variations were made for wellbeing: yellow for the sun and sky to bring health and longevity, white for the dead to avoid death and misfortunes, and black for the living and the land. In pre-Christian times, the cross design was also used to represent the four cardinal directions.

Easter baskets are prepared and blessed on Holy Saturday. Polish and Ukrainian households fill the baskets with Easter breakfast food and are brought to Church for a priest’s blessing.

Bishop Borys Gudziak explains, “People break the fast with a breakfast of these blessed foods: ham, bacon and sausage, butter, cheese, and eggs, usually colored (called krashankas), all flavored with strong doses of horseradish. You can feel the tingle in your nose! At the center of the basket covered by a beautifully embroidered cloth is a special rich Easter bread or paska—tall, usually cylindrical.” These basket contents each have religious significance:

Lamb: Made of butter or cake, the lamb is the centerpiece of the basket to represent God’s good will and the sacrificial Pascal lamb

Bread: Special loaves such as paska are baked and marked with a cross or fish to symbolize Jesus, the Bread of Life

Horseradish: The bitter taste of horseradish imitates the bitter herbs of the Passover meal that hinted at the Passion of Christ

Salt: A staple ingredient, salt stands for prosperity and is a reminder that people are the flavor of the earth

Eggs: In commemoration of the Resurrection, eggs symbolize new life

Ham: This well-known Easter meat represents joy and good fortune

Sausage: An iconic Polish dish, sausage is a symbol of God’s generosity and mercy

Cheese: This dairy product indicates the moderation of the Christian life

Candle: Alongside the food, a candle is included to reflect Christ, the Light of the World

Decorations: Ribbons, greenery, and a linen cloth are draped over the basket

However the Easter season is celebrated, a joyful spirit is always present—no matter what country or culture. And this spirit should continue throughout the entire liturgical year. As St. Pope John Paul II said, “We are not looking for a shallow joy but rather a joy that comes from faith, that grows through unselfish love.”

How will you live it?

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This was so interesting to me. My dad was Ukrainian and my mom was Polish, I was brought up with their traditions, love paczki, have even tried making paskas, have several Easter eggs that my mom’s friend made for me, plus wooden ones which I display with pride.

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