Saturday, April 03, 2010

All About Pascha Baskets


A couple of people have asked me some questions about traditional Russian Pascha baskets.
Here at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Fr. James will pass out red hard-boiled eggs at the end of the Paschal Divine Liturgy, which are then taken home and eaten. The traditional egg game is played with great gusto at the agape meal - last year, Pat Popiela vanquished all comers with her egg! I have an egg with your name on it, Pat!
We customarily share the contents of our baskets with each other. It is great fun to sample the different breads, meats (especially the sausage) and cheese:
How to Put Together a Traditional Pascha (Easter) Basket
Following the Resurrection Matins and Liturgy, it is traditional among Slavic peoples to have their "Pascha baskets" blessed. The gathered faithful place their baskets in a designated place in the church or parish hall and place lighted candles in the baskets. After the crowd has quieted down, the priest will begin the opening chant: "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The congregations replies with "Amen!" and the foods are blessed, in three different groups, with three different blessings. The bread products are blessed first, then the dairy products, and finally, the meat products.
There are traditional foods among every Slavic group: Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Ruthenian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovakian, Croatian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, etc. Following is a list of foods commonly included in the basket. It is not necessary to include every item, nor are Pascha baskets restricted to the items listed below. The general rule is to place in the basket foods which will be eaten during the Paschal dinner and from which one has abstained during the recent Great Lent and Holy Week.
BREAD (Kulich/Pascha): A sweet bread is always included in the basket, leavened with yeast. This is a symbol of the New Covenant; the Jews made unleaved bread, and we, the Children of the New Covenant, make leavened bread. Pascha and Kulich normally refer to the same thing, a sweet yeast bread rich in eggs, butter and fruit. In the Russian tradition, it is baked as a tall, cylindrical loaf, with white frosting and decorated with “XBâ€� on the top. The abbreviation XB is in Cyrillic writing and does NOT equal "ex bee" but "cha veh," the initials for "Christos Voskrese!" - "Christ is Risen!"). This bread is symbolic of Christ Himself, He Who is our Bread of life. In other Slavic Orthodox traditions, the bread is called Pascha and baked as a round loaf with a golden crust decorated with some symbol indicative of Christ, such as a braided cross, a lamb or something similar. Sometimes a cross of dough is placed on top, and the entire loaf rimmed with a braided plait of dough giving it a crowned effect.
However, there are ethnic groups where Pascha and Kulich do not signify bread, and are quite different foods. In fact, among those groups, the Pascha becomes the bread and the Kulich becomes what will appear below as Sirets or Hrutka. The Greek version of this bread is called Tsoureki and is braided with three strands with red hard boiled eggs. The three stranded braid is a display of the Holy Trinity
CHEESE (Sirets): There are different types of cheese which are traditional, depending on the ethnic group. Sirnaya Paska is a sweet cream cheese which is formed in a carved, pyramid-shaped mold, making a spectacular appearance when unmolded on Pascha night. This cheese is eaten alone, with fruit, or is spread on slices of the traditional Kulich. Hrutka is an egg custard-type cheese shaped into a ball which has a rather bland but sweet taste, and is intended to indicate the moderation that Christians should have in all things. Also, cream cheese is sometimes placed in a small dish and decorated with initials or patterns by placing peppercorns or cloves in appropriate patterns.
MEAT: Meat is included in remembrance of the sacrifice of the Old Testament Passover, which has been replaced by Christ, the New Passover and Lamb of God. Ham (Shoon'-ka) is the flesh meat popular among Slavs as the main dish for several reasons: a) the richness of its meat is symbolic of the great joy and abundance of Easter and b) of the richness of the joy in Christ we ought to have, and c) our freedom from the Old Law, now that all things have been made clean in Christ (as indicated to the apostle Saint Peter in the dream on the rooftop at Joppa [Acts 10:9-16]). Being freed from the Old Law and from the curse of death, which is the wage of sin, all things are now permissible to eat - and ham, the most forbidden of all the "unclean" foods is now symbolic of our total redemption. Many of the faithful will include meats like roasted veal, roast beef, and other foods prepared well ahead of time - foods which can be enjoyed without a lot of last-minute preparation. Those who have been preparing all week are already exhausted, but, being filled with joy at Our Lord's Resurrection from the dead, are looking forward to sitting down to a celebratory feast. Other ethnic groups, such as Greeks and Arabs, may traditionally bring some lamb in their basket.
BUTTER (Mas'-lo): The butter is usually shaped into a figure of a lamb or of a three-barred cross and decorated in much the same fashion as the sirets (cheese) above. Butter is to remind us of the goodness of Christ that we are to demonstrate to all men by our lives in Him.
SAUSAGE (Kohl-ba'-ssi): A spicy, garlicky sausage of pork, veal, beef and other products. This is indicative of God's favor and generosity to us sinners.
BACON (Sla-ni'-na): A piece of uncooked bacon cured with spices. This symbolizes of the lavishness and overabundance of God's mercy toward sinners.
SALT (Sol): A condiment necessary for flavor reminding Christians of our duties toward others to "flavor" the world. This is a reminder to us that we are the salt of the earth.
EGGS: Red eggs are commonly placed in the baskets. Red eggs are likened to the tomb from which Christ arose. This is because of the miracle of new life which comes from the egg, just as Christ miraculously came forth from the tomb. Pysanky (Py-san'-ky): These are highly decorated eggs with symbols and markings made with colored dyes and beeswax. Covered with extremely complicated and intricate designs, some of these eggs take a full week to complete. The word "pysanky" derives from the verb "pysat'," meaning "to write." A pysanka, then, is an egg which has been written (drawn) upon. Eggs represent the new life and Resurrection. There are some fascinating pious legends concerning the origin of these pysanky. Pysanky are not for eating -- they are kept for years simply for their beauty. They are also a very popular Paschal gift.
BITTER HERB: The bitter herb, often horseradish (Hrin) or garlic, serves as a reminder of the first Passover (horseradish is eaten as a traditional part of the Jewish Passover meal) and of the bitter sufferings which Christ endured for our sake. Sometimes the herb is colored red with beets, symbolizing the Blood of Christ spilled for us during His Passion, which is still in the minds of the faithful, but which is now sweeted with some sugar because of the Resurrection.
WINE: In some places, it is also customary to include a bottle of wine or Vodka. Poorer areas of Eastern Europe tended to ignore this element of the basket (e.g. Southern Poland, Northern Czechoslovakia, Northeastern Hungary), but American descendants are beginning to include them once again.
All the food articles are placed in a wicker basket, and a ribbon or bow is tied to the handle. A linen cover, normally quite intricately embroidered with various Resurrection themes and symbols of Christ, or simply an intricate multicolored border and the words "CHRISTOS VOSKRESE" or "CHRIST IS RISEN," is placed over the food when it is brought to the church. At the time of the basket blessing, the decorative cover is removed and a lit candle is placed in the loaf of bread.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the info! As a recent Orthodox convert (formerly protestant) I'm always a little surprised by the inclusion of vodka in the Pascha basket.

Lawrence said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I was able to attend a Pascha service with an Orthodox friend this year. Changing my life... Christos Anesti!

Anonymous said...

As a child my father and mother went to the Russian Orthodox church with us to have our baskets blessed, he was very strict on the fast before and what we ate and I have carried on the meal with a few changes, I am no longer Orthodox but try to follow the Holidays. What a wonderful tradition. I never learned the language and he passed away when I was 17 but I will always treasure all the good things I learned.