Polish Easter Traditions From Babka to Polish Easter Eggs (Pisanki)
Pisanki: Polish Easter Eggs—A Polish Tradition
Family Polish Easter Traditions
Like so many holiday traditions, a family's Easter traditions are usually a mixture of old customs and new ideas. The Easter season is not only a Christian holiday but has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon celebration of the rebirth of the Earth and the return of spring. It is believed that "Easter" is actually a version of the name Eostre, the goddess of Spring. Many of the current Easter traditions, like sharing Easter eggs and even the Easter bunny, go back to ancient pagan symbols of fertility and renewal but have evolved to have different meanings in different cultures.
In my family, we blended American customs with Polish tradition from my mother's side of the family and Russian traditions from my father's side of the family. Easter became a mixture of the Easter bunny, traditional Polish foods, and a few Russian customs.
Hot-cross Buns on Fat Tuesday Start the Season
Hot-cross buns are a sweet yeast bread with raisins or candied fruit in them. The buns are topped with a glaze icing in the form of a cross. It is the custom in Eastern Europe and the UK to eat hot-cross buns on Good Friday, but the Easter season in my family began on Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent. On Fat Tuesday, called Paczki Day by Poles, it is traditional to eat paczki, a fried sweet cake similar to a jelly doughnut. For some reason, my mother always served hot-cross buns on Fat Tuesday—possibly because they were available in our community while paczki was not. My mother often gave up sweets for Lent, and sometimes these sweet cakes were the last cake we were likely to see before Easter.
Spring Cleaning Before Easter
Easter means spring cleaning, and, in fact, spring cleaning is an old American tradition as well as a tradition in many other cultures. My mother was a firm believer in a thorough spring cleaning, and it had to be done before Easter. About a week before Easter, we started the process. Windows were washed, curtains were taken down, washed and rehung, rugs cleaned, light fixtures taken down and washed, floors waxed, furniture polished, the oven and refrigerator cleaned... the list went on as each corner and crevice of the house received our relentless attention. By the time Easter Sunday rolled around, every room of the house sparkled.
As a young housewife, while I was still a stay-at-home mom, I followed this tradition, and by Easter Saturday the house smelled of lemon polish, babka baking and of the hyacinths and bouquets of daffodils on the table. Those smells still remind me of Easter and of the real beginning of spring.
Collection of Pisanki, Polish Easter Eggs
Easter Eggs: Pisanki
Polish Easter eggs, called pisanki, are decorated with intricate designs using a wax resist before they are dyed with several coats of different colored dyes. The technique for making pisanki is quite tedious and involved, producing beautifully detailed designs. Sometimes these traditional designs are painted onto wooden eggs. Either the real eggs or the painted wooden eggs are popular gifts to give to friends and relatives at Easter. The traditional pisanki were works of art. The eggs were not hard cooked because if left raw they would eventually dry out and keep for years. Our custom of having colored eggs has been passed down from pagan fertility traditions, and eggs still symbolize spring, renewal, fertility, and eternity.
Coloring Easter Eggs
Although no one in my family decorated eggs with the old Polish techniques, coloring Easter eggs with traditional egg dye was always a big project. We hard cooked several dozen eggs and covered the kitchen table with newspapers before setting out the cups for the colors. We used to like to write our names or "Happy Easter" in clear wax crayon so that the writing would show up white when the egg was colored. Afterward, we could stick on the transfer designs that came in the egg dye package. Usually, we finished coloring the cooked eggs and just couldn't stop, so ended up coloring all the raw eggs in the house, too. This got us into trouble more than once when one of our parents took a colored egg out of the refrigerator thinking it was hard boiled.
In our house, Easter eggs were usually colored on Good Friday, and we never worried about the eggs going bad. Actually, in many countries, it is believed that Easter eggs will not go bad. They were displayed in a bowl or basket until Easter Sunday when we were allowed to eat them.
The colored eggs were an important part of our Easter traditions. They showed up in our Easter baskets and were a centerpiece on our breakfast and dinner table. At dinner, my father often played an egg cracking game, a Greek Orthodox custom, with other members of the family. Each person cracked the pointy end of their egg against the other. It was supposed to be good luck to have the egg that remained undamaged.
Traditional Sharing of an Egg at Easter
Another custom in our family was to peel an egg at the beginning of our Easter meal and cut it into as many pieces as there were people at the table. It seemed very important that we all shared a piece of the same egg, so sometimes the pieces were very small! The plate of cut up egg was then passed around the table for each person to take a piece and wish others at the table good luck and good health.
Homemade Babka is an Easter Tradition
Baking for Easter began the day before when we would all help with making the traditional Babka and chrusciki(bow knot cookies). The smell of baking bread made the whole house smell delectable, but we were not allowed to cut the bread until Easter morning. Babka is a slightly sweet yeast bread with raisins and sometimes candied citron in it. The top is glazed with a thin icing that is flavored with lemon juice and hardens as it dries. We usually decorate the top with a few candied cherries stuck into the icing. It was always served with sweet unsalted butter in our house, and I follow the tradition. Of all the foods that we eat during the Easter holiday, Babka is the one that means the most and the one I miss the most if we don't have it. The recipe I use is not the traditional Polish version, but one called Russian Easter Bread which has more raisins, glaceed fruit, and more eggs than the Polish babka.
A Polish Tradition—Blessing the Food at Easter
In Poland, it is traditional for each family to place the food they will eat on Easter into a basket and take it to church on Easter Saturday so that a priest could bless the food. Although we didn't follow this practice, my mother would tell us about the tradition each year. I believe that it was a girlhood experience that she missed. I'm sure that she was very pleased in her later years when her church began blessing the food on Easter Saturday.
The Easter Parade
Although the religious aspect of the holiday was not forgotten, we kids were much more excited by the other family traditions of Easter. We were ALWAYS outfitted with new clothes from head to toe on Easter. Getting a new Easter bonnet was the most fun, though the outfit usually included new dress, shoes and a new spring coat, too. We were not allowed to wear any of our new spring clothes until Easter Sunday, which made the day even more special.
My family was Catholic, and it was the custom for the women to always wear hats to church. Easter was the time to bring out the best hats decorated with flowers, ribbons or netting. My very favorite hat ever was a cylinder covered with small pink silk flowers that I wore with a navy blue suit. I did feel sorry for my brother who was usually stuck wearing a boring dark suit and white shirt.
I used to love to sing, "In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you'll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade."
One of my favorite Easter memories was walking on the boardwalk in Asbury Park near my uncle's house on Easter afternoon. The Easter Parade on the Asbury Park boardwalk in the 1950s brought out many families sporting their Easter finery and women in their beautiful hats. There we would look for the best outfits and the prettiest and most elaborate Easter hats. It was a fun part of the day's tradition to stroll on the boardwalk on a sunny, warm Easter Sunday.
Bing Crosby Sings "In Your Easter Bonnet"
Easter Baskets—An Overdose of Chocolate and Sweets
When I was a child, Easter Baskets didn't usually contain toys or the vast variety of candy that some do today, but we did have a few things we could count on. Our Easter baskets always contained lots of jelly beans, malted milk balls, chocolate and creme eggs and one big solid chocolate bunny. There were also a few hard boiled colored eggs and, often, a sugar egg with a scene inside. Of course, peeps were stuck into the cellophane grass, too. Sometimes there was a little fuzzy chick or some other token Easter toy. As if this sugar overload weren't enough, we then always saw relatives from both sides of the family.
My aunt or grandmother on my father's side of the family always gave my brother and me each a large coconut cream egg. They probably weighed about a pound each and were covered with chocolate and pretty sugar icing decorations. Sometimes we each received more than one as some other relatives liked to give these to us also. My aunts and uncle on my mother's side of the family could be counted on to give us either our second Easter basket or a huge solid chocolate Easter bunny.
In those days, no one seemed to even consider that 4 or 5 pounds of sugar and chocolate weren't good for us—the more, the better! We started eating chocolate when we woke up on Easter morning and usually had enough to last us about two weeks of pretty constant snacking. To this day, it doesn't feel like Easter if I don't have some chocolate with my Easter breakfast!
Easter food at our house seldom varied. Breakfast consisted of eggs, kielbasa, babka with butter, grapefruit or oranges. With Easter baskets close at hand, we also had jelly beans and chocolate before and after breakfast.
Easter dinner always included baked ham, kielbasa, sauerkraut or coleslaw, pickled beets, hard-cooked eggs (sometimes make into deviled eggs), babka, potato salad or oven baked potatoes. Sometimes corn pudding and scalloped potatoes were part of the meal, too. For dessert, there was usually a decorated layer cake and chrusciki or other cookies. In my own home, I usually leave off the sauerkraut and have coleslaw instead. We always have a baked corn pudding and potato salad and a strawberry gelatin salad. I plan the meal so that there will be plenty of leftover salads to have later with cold ham or kielbasa and some good deli or homemade rye bread.
Generations Carry on Easter Traditions
While the older generation of my family considered the Easter season to be a very holy time of the year, the memories and traditions I have shared are mostly secular. As with any holiday traditions, when certain foods are eaten or customs repeated year after year, they become a special part of the season that we enjoy passing on to our own children and grandchildren. As we grow older, our lives change, and some of these traditions are forgotten, but a few favorites become part of our family heritage and have the power to bring back pleasant memories of childhood, family and good times together.
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