In many Eastern European countries, it is a tradition to have a basket of food blessed on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday.
In Poland, blessing of the baskets is known as święcenie pokarmow wiełkanocnych, a practice dating to the 15th century or earlier, and one which is still maintained by most families in Poland on Holy Saturday, as is the sharing of oplatki on Christmas Eve, two customs also observed by many Polish-Americans.
The food items in the święconka (shvyehn-SOHN-kah), or Easter basket (the term also refers to the Easter Sunday breakfast at which the święcone or blessed food is eaten), have special significance. The basket is lined with an embroidered cloth or traditional folk fabric. The filled basket is covered with a white linen cloth (some have a colorful crocheted edging or embroidered design), representing the shroud of Christ. The basket is decorated with sprigs of boxwood (bukszpan) or Polish "palms" made from dried flowers and colorful paper.
A typical basket would include symbolic foods like these.
Bacon - Boczek / Słonina (BOH-chek / swoh-NEE-nah) -- Symbol of the abundance of God's mercy.
Bread - Chleb (hlehb) -- The staff of life given by God.
Easter Bread - Babka (BAHB-kah) -- A round loaf of rich, eggy, yeast dough with raisins reminiscent of the risen Lord.
Butter - Masło (MAHS-woh) -- Dairy products are included to celebrate the end of Lent and the richness of our salvation. Butter is often shaped into a lamb (symbolic of the Paschal Lamb) and known as a baranek. (When the baranek is made of sugar, it is known as baranek cukrowy wielkanocny). Sometimes the baranek is made of dough, wood or even plastic.
Candle - Świeca (SHVIEH-tsa) -- The candle symbolizes Jesus, the Light of the World, and can be lit during the blessing by the priest.
Cheese - Ser (SEHRR) -- Cheese is a symbol to remind Christians of moderation.
Colored Eggs - Pisanki (pee-SAHN-kee) -- Both colored and uncolored hard-cooked eggs indicate hope, new life and Christ rising from his tomb.
Ham - Szynka (SHIN-kah) -- Meats are symbolic of great joy and abundance in celebration of Christ's Resurrection.
Sausage - Kiełbasa (kyehw-BAH-sah) -- The sausage links are symbolic of the chains of death that were broken when Jesus rose from the dead as well as of God's generosity.
Horseradish - Chrzan (HZAHN) -- This is a reminder of the bitterness and harshness of the Passion of Jesus and the vinegar it is mixed with symbolizes the sour wine given to Jesus on the cross.
Salt - Sól (SOO) -- Salt symbolizes is represented to add zest to life and preserve us from corruption.
Sweets - Słodycze (swoh-DIH-cheh) Sweets suggest the promise of eternal life or good things to come.
Source: The Polish Falcons of America contributed to this list of symbolic foods.
In rural Poland, the size and contents of a woman's basket (some used wooden bowls and even dresser drawers) was a matter of pride and standing in the community. In America, it was less about oneupmanship and more a matter of practicality.
Since it was imperative that every member of the family have a bite of all the blessed foods after Mass on Easter Sunday, my mother made sure to include just enough for a taste of the Easter dinner foods, plus some daily staples. That meant not only the little bird's nest cake made with leftover batter from the lamb cake, but hard-cooked eggs studded with cloves, representing the nails of the cross, kiełbasa, ham, salt and pepper, ćwikła or chrzan, a butter lamb, or butter stuffed into a shot glass studded with a clove, and a small, round bakery rye bread topped with a paper decal in the shape of a purple cross. Sometimes greens, vegetables and fruit would be included.
When my siblings and I were old enough, mom had us take the basket to church to be blessed, with the admonishment that we not touch one morsel of food, because we were fasting. The aromas were overpowering and it took all our willpower not to sample, but we complied.
Instead of feasting on the blessed foods separately on Easter morning as we did, some families use the contents of their święconka basket to make a delicious soup known as white barszcz.
Pictures from a Blessing of the Baskets taken in 2009..