When I was a child, growing up in a secular home in Toronto, Ontario, I loved my Easter basket. It held that plastic fake grass in the pastel colours, and while my parents never indulged in the “Easter egg hunt” that’s such a solid tradition in the rest of the country, the basket always contained chocolate and candy eggs, and usually a chocolate rabbit, as well. (Although I remember one stellar Easter when I got a plastic chicken that, when you pushed her tail down, actually laid chocolate eggs. It was heaven to a budding chocoholic!)
It wasn’t until I encountered the Orthodox Church that I discovered that candies, chocolate and bunnies are all well and good, but when you want a proper, no holds barred Pascha basket, go visit the Orthodox. My very first Pascha was before we converted, and after the beauty and spiritual impact of the Paschal liturgy, I thought I’d burned out all my wow. I was awed out.
Then we walked into the dining hall and saw table after table laden with baskets—and what baskets! My childhood baskets, barely big enough to hold three thumb-nail sized eggs and pastel coloured plastic grass would have crept away in shame. These baskets were big enough to hold the baby Moses in the Nile, along with three of his brothers. Never mind cheesy plastic grass. These beauties were decorated with embroidered cloths, ribbons and brightly burning candles. And food? Oh, my goodness! Sausages, eggs, butter, cheese, bread, wine, grapes, chicken, ham, more cheese, more bread, horseradish, garlic—an entire pantry’s worth of food in every one!
How could that be, I wondered? Why, from such different backgrounds: Slavic, Greek, Arabic, North American, French, German, even Chinese, would the foods be so similar when the areas they come from are so widespread? Most people think it’s a Slavic custom and has just kind of spread around over the centuries, and the foods all have a meaning and a symbolism, so it stands to reason that they’d be the same. But I still wondered, if that’s the case, then how come even the West has a tradition of the Easter basket? Sure, they don’t have the things in ours that we have, but they still have them.
It turns out that the idea of bringing food to church to be blessed and consumed with the faithful is a lot older than Slavic Orthodoxy. We read about the agape feasts in the New Testament, and communities all contributed to the communal meal. On high holy days, like Pascha, it wasn’t unusual for the food to be blessed. We still have that custom on Transfiguration when grapes and fruit are blessed. In Greece, the tradition got lost for about 400 years when the Turks invaded. In the West, the tradition changed after the Schism, when, as happens in cultures that are changing, some of the pagan springtime customs, like bunnies, crept into the non-liturgical traditions of the Christians there. And in Britain, the whole basket tradition was suppressed after the overthrow of the British monarchy, when the celebration of holy days was banned. North America suffered the same fate, although the Germans, who’d never really lost the tradition, revived it, although in an attenuated form. The Protestants didn’t have the fasting traditions we hold, and the Catholics’ fasting rules are very different from the Orthodox, so the baskets didn’t contain the variety of food and became filled with chocolate and candy.
At my first Pascha, not being Orthodox, I didn’t quite understand all the fuss over food. Then we converted and I experienced a full, meat-barren, cheese-bare Orthodox Lent. By the time Pascha came around, cheese never tasted so good, and I understood the fuss over the baskets!
But still I wondered, why are all the items, given the variety of peoples that belong to the Orthodox Church, so similar? Partly it’s the way we spread our traditions. We pass them along by teaching them to our children as well as those who are new to Orthodoxy, whether it’s from Greek to Slav, or Slav back to Greek, or Arabic to French or Russian to North American. It’s also because every item in the basket is a symbol that teaches or reminds us about God and our faith. The meaning depends partly on where you live and where your ancestors came from. This doesn’t mean that some are wrong and some are right. It’s just that everybody sees part of the truth, but not everybody sees the same part.
Whatever else they might include, everybody has bread. Some of the loaves are round, to symbolize the Lord Jesus, who is the bread of life. Some are braided, to represent the Trinity, but all the loaves are sweet, to remind us how sweet life is with God. All are leavened because the Passover has been sacrificed for us. The Jews ate unleavened bread, but we can eat leaven. (For those who have a problem with wheat or gluten, check below for a gluten-free Pascha bread recipe.)
There’s a special cheese in the basket too, not just special cheeses you might not eat every day, but ones that are made only for Pascha. Some are shaped like tall, top flattened pyramids and others are round. But they’re always there in every basket, a bit bland to remind us of the moderation we should have in all things. The sweetness of the cheese and the bread also signifies the spiritual wealth of God’s kingdom and God’s goodness, which we’re supposed to demonstrate to all men by the way we live our lives. The butter, some in the shape of a lamb, to represent the Lamb of God, some made to look like a cross reminds us that our joy now didn’t come without a price.
Sausages and bacon and other meats remind us of several things: the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament, which foreshadowed the sacrifice of the Lord. They also remind us of the fatted calf that was prepared for the Prodigal Son on this special day when we, who are also prodigals, are welcomed back into our Father’s house, not as servants but as His beloved and cherished children. Ham (and bacon) reminds us that in Christ, we are freed from the old laws (since the Jews couldn’t eat pork), and all food is now permissible for us, and so is symbolic of our complete and total redemption.
If someone’s basket doesn’t have horseradish, it will have garlic, because our roots are in the ancient Jewish faith and the bitter herbs were, and are, part of the Jewish Passover meal. They remind us of Passover and years spent wandering in the desert. Christ is our Passover and the herbs bring to our minds the suffering that Jesus endured. Salt is to remind us of our role here in the world—to be the salt to give flavor to life, and to bring to mind how, as salt preserves food, so does Jesus preserve our lives.
The eggs are all colours, but red certainly is the most popular. And there are always some psyanky eggs, many so beautiful it seems a shame to crack them open and eat them. But however they’re decorated, they all represent the Resurrection and the tomb. Christ emerged from the cave just as a chick emerges after breaking its shell.
Why is red so popular? There are a number of stories. One is that the Theotokos took some eggs to either Pilate himself, in an effort to obtain her son’s freedom, or to Jesus’s guards to beg for his life, and her tears turned them red. Another story says that Mary Magdalene went to the Roman emperor after telling the apostles of Jesus’s resurrection, and by some miracle managed to get an audience with him. He listened to her and then told her that he wouldn’t believe it unless the eggs next to him turned red, which they immediately did.
Then there’s the game people play with the eggs. The idea is to be the last one with an uncracked egg at the end. You square up, grab your egg and whack ‘em together until one of the eggs cracks. Some people swear by using the pointy end; some people are certain that the round end is the stronger. A few try using the sides of the egg. There are discussions about how to hold the egg, what force to use, but everybody agrees that the person who ends up with the last whole egg at the end of the night is in for a really lucky year.
And it’s not just adults who can have Pascha baskets. A lot of people make one up for their kids, or include things in the family basket that the kids haven’t been able to eat over Lent, things like hot dogs or, yes, candy and chocolate, but some include plastic eggs with non-food treats in them, such as coupons for art lessons or other activities. Some people include books for their kids.
I’ve never regretted becoming Orthodox, and each year brings a deeper and richer appreciation for my adopted heritage and faith. The Pascha baskets show me every year just how rich and deep and wonderful God’s love and mercy are for every one of us.
Many thanks to Charli Riggle and her website Catherine’s Pascha (http://www.catherinespascha.com/) for the information and discussion on the history of the baskets. (By the way, her book, Catherine’s Pascha, is a great book for a child’s Pascha basket.)
GLUTEN-FREE PASCHA BREAD RECIPIE
Marie Porter, an excellent cook (and cosplay costumer) came up with this recipe and has graciously given permission for it to be reproduced here. You can find her article here: http://www.celebrationgeneration.com/blog/2012/04/05/gluten-free-paska-citrussy-ukrainian-easter-bread/
1/4cup warm water
1 tsp sugar
2.5 tsp active dry yeast (1 packet)
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, beaten
Juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange
Zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup scalded milk, cooled
3 cups gluten free all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill.)
2 cups white rice flour
1 cup potato starch
1 egg yolk
2 tsp water
Stir sugar into warm water. Sprinkle yeast on top of sugar water, gently incorporate. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes, until bubbly.
In a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and continue to cream until well incorporated and fluffy once more.
Add juices, zest, and salt to the mixture, and mix until combined. Add scalded milk, continue to mix until well incorporated and smooth. Add 2 cups of gluten-free, all-purpose flour. Combine well. Add yeast mixture, and mix until well incorporated.
If you have a dough hook attachment for your mixer, affix it now.
Slowly add remaining flours and starch until a good, coherent bread dough comes together. It should be sticky to the touch. Put dough into a lightly greased bowl or pot, cover top with plastic wrap, and allow to rise in a warm area until doubled in size, for about 1 1/2-2 hours.
Now here’s the fun part. Reserve about 1/3 of the dough for decorations, and divide remaining dough out among the pans you’ll be using (grease them first!). For reference, we used an 8-inch round Pyrex pot, and an 8-inch square cake pan to bake one batch of this. Mine turned out fairly thin. Next time I’ll probably use the whole amount in a 9-inch round pan.
For the main body of your bread, you’ll want the dough to fill at least 1/2 of each baking pan. They’ll rise a bit more, but not like crazy. Cover pans loosely and reserve 1/3 dough loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise another 1 hour.
Once your rise time is up, use the reserved dough to make designs on the top of each loaf. Braids, twists, curls, crosses and rosettes are popular/traditional, but have fun with it. (Google can be a great source of design inspiration.) Toothpicks can be used to help secure designs in place until after baking. Cover loosely with plastic, allow to rise one last time for 30 minutes.
While your dough is rising, whisk together the remaining egg yolks and water to create an egg wash. This glaze will give your finished Paska a shiny, dark brown finish. Beautiful!
Preheat oven to 350°F. Once final rise is finished, brush entire top of each loaf with egg wash. Bake loaves for 10 minutes. Without opening the oven door, lower the heat to 325°F and continue to bake for another 20-35 minutes, depending on how thick your bread is. (Mine took 25 minutes.)
Cool Paska for 10-15 minutes (if you can handle the wait), then gently remove from pans and transfer to a wire rack or wooden cutting board to continue cooling. Cut into one of your warm loaves, and slather with butter. Like many GF breads, this is best served warm… but that’s true with the full gluten version as well.
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