Easter Food Blessing
The most popular Polish Easter tradition:
Holy Saturday Easter food blessing
By Robert Strybel, Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer
The opłatek-sharing ritual of Christmas Eve and the Holy Saturday food-blessing custom are Poland’s and Polonia’s two best-known holiday traditions. Both are practiced by some 95 percent of all families in Poland and a great many across Polish America. Over the generations they have grown into national heritage symbols.
In the Poland of yesteryear, priests would perform the blessing in the homes of leading parishioners where a special święconka table was set up. Peasant women would gather with their baskets outside where the priest would sprinkle them with holy water on the way out. In villages without their own church a priest would be driven in to perform the blessing beneath a wayside cross.
Nowadays, Easter baskets are usually taken to church for the blessing, but the actual scenario may vary. Long tables may be set up inside or outside of churches (depending on the weather), and priests come out every so often to perform the ritual. In some churches the baskets are brought up to the communion rail or placed in the aisle next to the pews or kept in the pews, but its cloth covering is always removed.
When preparing the basket, it is first lined with a linen or lace napkin whose ends should extend beyond the basket’s rim, so the Easter food can be covered to and from church. The napkin symbolizes the shroud in which Jesus’ body was wrapped. Into the napkin-lined basket are placed:
Eggs, colored or plain (jaja, pisanki): Plain or colored hard-cooked eggs of one type or another are an absolute “must”. The egg symbolizes new life, and the way a chick pecks its way out of the shell is a metaphor for Christ emerging form His tomb to bring us the promise of eternal life.
Bread (chleb): This is “our daily bread”, “the staff of life” and “the bread of life’, a metaphor for the redemptive grace Christ has upon mankind. Small round loaves of bread, whose tops are marked with a cross, are specially baked to fit Easter baskets.
Meat & sausage (mięso, wędliny): A piece of kiełbasa, a slice of ham or roast meat are usually included. All meats are symbolic of the Paschal lamb or Christ resurrected, His victory over death and His promise of eternal life.
Horseradish (chrzan): Both plain, grated, prepared horseradish as well the well-known beet-horseradish condiment ćwikła symbolize one of the bitter herbs of the Passover which foretold the suffering of Christ on the Cross. It is also symbolic of life in which one must accept the bitter with the sweet.
Vinegar (ocet): A small cruet of symbolizes the sour wine (our English word “vinegar” comes from the French “vin aigre” = sour wine) which Jesus was given on a sponge to drink while hanging on the cross.
Salt (sól): Salt in a salt-cellar, salt-shaker or a small paper cone containing a symbolic portion (1 t or so) retards spoilage, improves the taste of food and symbolizes that which preserves us from corruption and adds zest to daily life. Some also include pepper whose preservative and flavor-enhancing role in food preparation is similar to that of salt.
Pepper (pieprz): Pepper in a pepper pot, pepper-shaker or a small paper cone containing a symbolic portion (1 t or so) is another seasoning that adds zest and preserves food. Like horseradish, it was one of the bitter herbs of the Passover.
Easter cakes (babka, mazurek, placek, sękacz, kołacz, chałka, sernik): Babka (a whole small babka or just a slice) together with servings of other traditional Easter cakes are among the typical contents of the traditional Polish Easter basket. Following the 40-day period of Lenten self-denial and mortification, cakes and confections symbolizing the sweetness of eternal life can now be freely enjoyed in celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.
Wine and other spirits (wino i inne trunki): Some but not all Poles include a small decanter or cruet of wine or other spirits in their Easter basket. Its moderate use was sanctioned by Jesus at the Wedding Feast at Cana, and wine was raised to the altar at the Last Supper where Christ originated the Eucharistic sacrifice of the mass.
Easter Lamb (baranek wielkanocny): Although this is the prime Easter symbol, it is added to the basket last so it can guard over the remaining ingredients and be clearly visible during the blessing. The lamb is usually made of butter or sugar (rock candy), but can also be of dough, wood, plaster, fleece or even plastic. It wields a banner of Resurrection emblazoned with a gold cross. The Baranek Wielkanocny symbolizes the sacrificial Paschal lamb, in other words Jesus himself, whose banner proclaims the victory of life over death.
box twigs (bukszpan): Boxwood, an evergreen shrub with tiny green leaves, is used to decorate Easter baskets. Cranberry leaves are used for the same purpose. Some add a few pussywillow twigs. The main thing is to add a bit of decorative plant-life.
In parishes with a sizable PolAm representation, there will always be those who would love to relive the Holy Saturday food-blessing custom of their childhood and share it with their children and grandchildren. There are PolAm parishes that have drifted away from it over the years and multi-ethnic ones where it has never been practiced.
In some places, this warm, homey, people-friendly custom has also caught on among parishioners of various ethnic ancestry who have married into PolAm families or have otherwise been exposed to it. The food-blessing tradition has general appeal and literally sells itself!
If you know a number of like-minded fellow-parishioners, the matter can be taken up with the parish council or pastor. The response may include “It isn’t practiced”, “We don’t do that anymore” or “There’s no interest in it.” But some priest may say he’d be happy to oblige but doesn’t know the appropriate prayers. At that point you can can provide him with the following:
Modlitwa na błogosławienie pokarmów
Panie Jezu Chryste, prosimy Cię, daj nam z wiarą przeżywać Twoją obecność między nami podczas świątecznego posiłku, abyśmy mogli się radować z udziału w Twoim życiu i zmartwychwstaniu.
Chlebie żywy, który zstąpiłeś z nieba i w Komunii świętej dajesz życie światu, pobłogosław ten chleb i wszelkie świąteczne pieczywo na pamiątkę chleba, którym nakarmiłeś lud słuchający Ciebie wytrwale na pustkowiu, i który po swym zmartwychwstaniu przygotowałeś nad jeziorem dla swoich uczniów.
Baranku Boży, który zwyciężyłeś zło i obmyłeś świat z grzechów, pobłogosław to mięso, wędliny i wszelkie pokarmy, które spożywać będziemy na pamiątkę Baranka paschalnego i świątecznych potraw, które Ty spożyłeś z Apostołami na Ostatniej Wieczerzy. Pobłogosław także naszą sól, aby chroniła nas od zepsucia.
Chryste, życie i zmartwychwstanie nasze, pobłogosław te jajka, znak nowego życia, abyśmy dzieląc się nimi w gronie najbliższych mogli się także dzielić wzajemnie radością tego, że jesteś z nami. Daj nam wszystkim dojść do wiecznej uczty Twojej, tam, gdzie Ty żyjesz i królujesz na wieki wieków. Amen.
If a priest says he doesn’t speak or read Polish, you can supply the following English-language translation:
Holy Saturday food-blessing prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to let us in faith experience your presence amongst us during the festive repast on the day of Your victory, so that we might rejoice at taking part in Your life and resurrection.
Living Bread, who came down from heaven and in Holy Communion gives life to the world, bless this bread and all holiday baked goods in memory of the bread with which You fed the people devoutly listening to You in the desert and in memory of the holiday dishes You consumed with the Apostles during the Last Supper.
Lamb of God, who has conquered evil and cleansed the world of sin, bless these meats, sausages and other food of which we shall partake in memory of the Paschal Lamb. Bless also this salt that it may preserve us from corruption.
Lord Jesus Christ, our life and Resurrection, bless these eggs, the sign of new life, so that when we share them with our loved ones, we might also mutually share the joy that You too are in our midst. May we all attain Your eternal feast there, where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
The priest now sprinkles the food with holy water, while the faithful make the Sign of the Cross as their baskets get blessed.