Blessed Be the Food
On Holy Saturday many Polish people go to church carrying baskets of food to have it blessed by a priest. They eat this blessed food (known as “święconka” 🔊) the next morning as part of their Easter breakfast. I once made a little poll among the Readers of the Polish version of this blog, asking them what kinds of food they put in their Easter baskets. 100% of those who responded said they filled theirs with meat products, eggs and salt. 75% added bread and other baked goods to it, while 50% included horseradish and garden crest (Poles prefer it to the closely related watercress) as well. 39% of those polled also put butter or chocolate in their baskets, 25% mentioned fruits, and only 13%, water.
What Goes in the Basket?
Alas, the sample size (n=8) didn’t allow me to treat it as representative of the whole of Poland’s population. So rather than conducting statistical research, let’s see what information about the contents of a typical Polish Easter basket we can find in the Internet. At the end of Lent, Polish-language websites (especially those of Catholic parishes, supermarket chains and web portals) fill with tips about what to put in one’s basket. I took a look at a few of them.
What I found most interesting is that all these sources not only advise their readers as to what kinds of food to place in their baskets, but also supply a kind of justification by explaining their symbolism. While various sources may differ in some details, they are overall fairly consistent. So here’s my summary (you will find individual sources in the footnotes).
The foods that are always mentioned first are bread, eggs, salt and smoked meats (ham, sausage, etc.). As for their supposed symbolism, in the case of bread it’s a Eucharistic and, therefore, Christian one: bread as the Body of Christ. Eggs (often brightly dyed or painted) are said to be a symbol of new or reborn life; and even though you may associate them with Christ’s resurrection, the sources avoid using the word “resurrection” itself. Salt is particularly rich in symbolic meanings: hospitality, truth, meaning of life and even immortality. The meats, we shall come back to later.
Further spots are taken by: black pepper (if mentioned, then always in the same breath as salt), lamb, cakes and horseradish. The pepper is supposedly symbolic of “harmony between humans and nature”; cakes (especially babas, or Polish bundt cakes) stand for skill and perfection (which is why they should be always home-made), while horseradish is meant to be a sign of Christ’s victory over suffering. It’s getting more and more creative, I must say. When it comes to the lamb, it’s not really the meat of a young sheep, but a lamb figurine, representing – depending on the source – Christ resurrected, victory of life over death and of good over evil, or meekness and gentleness. The figurine may be fashioned out of butter, sugar, cake, chocolate or plaster (in the latter case, consumption not recommended). According to some sources, you may also add cheese (possibly paskha, a delicious Easter fresh-cheese dessert, although the illustrations feature slices of yellow cheese with holes instead), butter, chocolate (probably in the form of a lamb or a bunny) and water.
What may be surprising, even shocking to some, is that many of these justifications use such verbs as “gives”, “brings”, “protects”, “provides” or “guarantees”. Apparently, the blessed victuals are not only charged with symbolic meanings, but also associated with magical properties. I’ve found most of such superstitious claims on the website of one Roman Catholic parish, but they crop up in other sources too. And so, bread and butter are said to bring good fortune and affluence; eggs provide fertility (a chocolate bunny may have a similar effect); cold meats bestow health and fertility, and affluence! Salt and water cleanse you of your sins, horseradish makes you strong and black pepper promotes healthy growth of your livestock.
The aforementioned parish website is also unusual in that it provides a list of things you should not put in your Easter basket. I’m sure it stems from the personal experience of priests who have seen all manner of things placed in their parishioners’ baskets. The website mentions a few of the most common ones that the priests consider inappropriate: bunny figurines, alcohol, toys and mobile phones.
Another curiosity comes from one of major Polish web portals, where Easter food-blessing tips are illustrated with a diagram of an Easter basket. Any Pole who sees it will probably ask, who puts a lit candle in their basket? It turns out, however, that the picture is a slightly modified version of an illustration which first appeared in a magazine published by the Greek Catholic Union in the United States and pertains to Easter traditions of the Carpathian Ruthenes (an ethnic group, also known as Rusyns, native to the mountainous borderlands between Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary and Romania) rather than the Poles.
Is there a more trustworthy source than random tips from the Internet, though? I’m not sure how many churchgoers really listen to what the priest says during the ceremony of blessing their foods, but the blessing formulas he recites specify the food products that are actually being blessed. And explains why these and not others to boot! Bread and other baked goods are the first to be sprinkled with holy water.
|O Living Bread, who descended from heaven and give life to the world, bless this bread and all festive baked goods in memory of the bread with which You fed the people who were steadfastly listening to You in the desert and which You took in Your holy and venerable hands to transfigure it into Your Body.|
|— Obrzędy błogosławieństw dostosowane do zwyczajów diecezji polskich, vol. 2, Katowice: Księgarnia św. Jacka, 2010, p. 256, own translation|
So far, everything checks out: bread, that is, the Body of Christ. Smoked meats come next.
|O Lamb of God, who have conquered evil and cleansed the world of sin, bless this meat, sausages and all fare which we shall consume in memory of the Paschal Lamb and the holiday foods of which You partook with Your Apostles at the Last Supper.|
|— Ibid., own translation|
Nothing about meat products magically bringing good health, fertility and affluence to those who partake of it. Only Christian symbolism related to Christ as the Lamb of God. Note that the Lamb of God is represented here not by lamb figurines made of sugar or butter, but simply by meat, even if it’s pork rather than lamb.
Eggs are third to go.
|O Christ, our life and resurrection, bless these eggs, a sign of new life, so that, when we share them amidst our families, friends and guests, we could also mutually share the joy that You are with us. May we all attain Your eternal feast in Your Father’s house where You live and reign for ever and ever.|
|— Ibid., own translation|
So eggs are a sign of new life, but it’s clearly linked to Christ’s resurrection this time around.
And that’s it: only three formulas. But then, why do folks put salt, pepper, horseradish, sugar and so on into their baskets, if these foodstuffs are never going to be blessed anyway? Perhaps they are included in the “and all fare” from the second blessing formula, but if so, then technically you could fill your basket with any food you want. And yet, someone or something makes people pick only a few very specific kinds of comestibles. So who or what is it? If it’s not the blessing formulas, then maybe we should look into a source even more authoritative: the Holy Scripture.
“And He Took It and Ate”
The author of the Gospel of Luke took great pains to underscore that, after his resurrection, Jesus was again a man of flesh and blood, with all natural physiological needs. Having had no bite for three days, he must have been really hungry. Luke, therefore, mentions two meals Jesus had during the first day after rising from his grave. First, he met two of his disciples on their way to Emaus. They didn’t recognize him, but were kind enough to invite him for supper.
|And it came to pass as he sat at the table with them, he took bread and blessed it and broke and gave to them.|
|— Luke, chapter 24, verse 30; in: Jubilee Bible 2000, Bible Gateway|
We don’t know whether anything other than bread was served.
Later that evening, Jesus paid an unexpected visit to his other disciples back in Jerusalem. He asked them two questions: first, why they looked as if they’d seen a ghost (well, duh). And just after that, the other question:
|“Have ye here any food?” So they gave him a piece of a broiled fish and of a honeycomb. And he took it and ate before them.|
|— Luke, chapter 24, verses 41–43; in: Jubilee Bible 2000, Bible Gateway|
The honeycomb is omitted in some Bible translations. It all depends on which ancient Greek manuscript the given translation was based on. It’s hard to tell whether some scribe added that honeycomb out of his own initiative or removed it from an earlier version. In any case, there are at best only three foods we know Jesus ate that Sunday: bread, broiled fish and honey straight from the comb.
That’s quite meagre, but we can infer from the Gospels that Jesus had been on a rather unsophisticated diet his entire life. He mostly hung around simple fishermen on the Lake of Galilee after all and ate what they ate: bread and fish (mostly tilapia, probably), washed down with water or – on special occasions – with wine. Occasionally he would indulge in some simple sweets, like honey or fresh figs pilfered straight from a tree. You might think it’s these few foods, sanctified by being part of Jesus’s limited menu, which should take centre stage in the Easter basket. Yet none of them, save the bread, have found their way into the traditional set of Easter fare. Looks like nobody wanted to have broiled fish for the holidays after weeks of having to live on fish instead of meat throughout Lent.
A Night Different from All Other Nights
If what Jesus ate after his alleged resurrection has had no influence on the contents of Easter baskets, then maybe let us look at what he ate just before his death. In other words, what did Jesus and his disciples have for the Last Supper? The Gospels only mention bread and wine, but perhaps there were other foods on the Last Supper table, which the evangelists didn’t deem important enough to note?
What was Jesus doing in Jerusalem in the first place, though? In the times when the Jerusalem Temple still stood (it was demolished in 70 CE), Jews were obligated to make a pilgrimage there at least once a year, for one of three holidays: Passover (Pesah), the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) or the Feast of Booths (Sukkot). As a pious Jew, Jesus never failed to fulfil this obligation, even though he knew he wasn’t as safe in Jerusalem as he was in his native Galilee. Eventually, during one of these pilgrimages, he ended up being charged with blasphemy, sentenced to death and executed by crucifixion; it all happened on the first day of Passover.
I’ve already written about how Passover combines an ancient pastoral festival of lambing ewes and a an ancient agricultural festival of new barley. I’ve also written about how this combination was later associated with the Biblical story of of the Jews’ supposed escape from slavery in Egypt. But I haven’t yet written about how Jews celebrate the eve of the first day of this seven or eight-day long holiday. On that night, “different from all other nights”, Jews gather at a ceremonial supper called seder. It features seven traditional foods, each charged with some symbolic meaning, of course.
Matzah, or unleavened bread, is eaten in memory of the Jews escaping Egypt in haste and thus having no time to wait for the dough rise. Zeroa, or a lamb shank, commemorates the lambs whose blood the Jews used to smear on their doorposts as an identification marker just before the escape, as well as those later sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple; nowadays, it’s usually substituted for with a chicken wing. Beitzah, or a chicken egg that is hard-boiled and then additionally roasted, is another memento of temple offerings. Two kinds of bitter herbs – maror and hazeret – symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Ashkenazi Jews (those from northern Europe) typically use romaine lettuce for hazeret and horseradish (often dyed red with beetroot juice in the style of Polish beet-and-horseradish relish) for maror – even though horseradish is neither bitter nor a herb. Haroset is a sweet paste of apples, walnuts and honey, meant to stand for masonry mortar to remember that Jewish slaves in Egypt were mostly used for construction work. Finally, the seventh food is karpas, or some green vegetable (e.g., parsley leaves) which is dipped in salted water, a symbol of the tears shed by the Jews in slavery. All of this is paired with wine.
It wasn’t before the Middle Ages until this set of seder foods was fully formed, but Passover supper must have consisted of more than just bread and wine already in Jesus’s time. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter what Jesus really ate for his last meal before death; what matters is what Jews usually had for the seder around the time when the Christian custom of blessing food for Easter was being born and that was in the early Middle Ages. Christian priests at the time had a tendency to reuse Old Testament rituals in their liturgy. And if you take a close look, you can spot some parallels between the contents of the seder table and those of the Easter basket.
While the seder table has the unleavened matzah, the Easter basket contains sourdough bread and yeast-raised babas. The lamb shank is replaced with a chicken wing for Passover and with ham or pork sausage for Easter. And a lamb figurine lest anyone forget it’s all about the Lamb of God, not a Pig of God. Rather than a roasted egg, the Easter basket has dyed or painted eggs. Bitter herbs have their place in the basket too, in the form of horseradish and black pepper. A bed of garden cress, on which the lamb figurine usually stands, can be seen as equivalent to karpas, the green vegetable, while sugar or even chocolate may be taken as corresponding to the sweet haroset. Salted water gets reconstructed as salt and water. And what about wine? Catholic priests have called dibs on that, reserving wine for use in the Eucharist, but never allowing their parishioners to bring any kind of alcohol for blessing.
“Filled with Heavenly Fattiness”
But wait: how come this typically Polish custom of blessing food for Easter was born before Poland even adopted Christianity? Well, as with many “typically Polish” traditions, it didn’t originate in Poland as much as it survived in Poland while it was forgotten pretty much elsewhere. In the past, the blessing of food was a thing throughout Christian Europe. It started in the 8th century, quite logically, with the blessing of a roasted lamb. In the 10th century people started to bless other holiday foods as well: ham, cheese, bread, butter, milk and honey. As time passed, the range of blessed foodstuffs expanded: eggs were added in the 11th century; in the 13th, it was fish; in the 16th, salt, horseradish, herbs, oil, poultry, wine and beer; and in the 18th century, fruits.
The blessing ceremony provided a perfect opportunity to show off the abundance of one’s larder. No wonder it’s got so popular in Poland, where the saying “pawn all, but give a ball” applied to everyone, from the richest magnates to landless peasants. Back then the food wasn’t tucked away under a doily at the bottom of a basket, but spread out on tables for all to see. As late as the 19th century, priests were expected to travel door to door and to bless in each house everything its inhabitants were going to have for Easter breakfast.
|In our times, even those of little piety attach great weight to this ritual; everybody demands that the priest visit them personally and consider it an affront to have to bring the gifts of God to their neighbour’s place. This is the case among peasants, not to mention the nobility. […] The fussiness is even greater in towns. […] Each of four indigent hirelings living together in a tight room expects her own store of food, spread on a broken stool, a cracked barrel or a crooked chest in a corner, to be blessed separately and would she ever agree to bring it into someone else’s house?|
|— Maciej Smoleński: Cztery kościoły w ziemi dobrzyńskiej, Lwów: self-published, 1869, p. 58, own translation|
In Western Europe, the tradition slowly died out due to the Reformation. Protestants criticized the Catholics for treating the food blessing as equally or even more important than the sacraments. The Church had to remind people that the consumption of blessed food is not a substitute for receiving holy communion during Eastertide. Protestant Reformation was doing quite well in 16th-century Poland too until the Catholic Church stroke back with its Counter-Reformation in the 17th. Polish Renaissance-era Lutheran moralist Mikołaj Rej wrote sarcastically of Catholic food blessing:
|On Holy Saturday, it is crucial to bless fire and water, sprinkle one’s cattle with it and enchant all corners of one’s house. He who doesn’t eat blessed food on Easter, is not even a good Christian. […] O omnipotent Lord, is this the kind of observance you require from you poor creations? Oh, how you have always severely punished such fabulists!|
|— Mikołaj Rej: Kazania Mikołaja Reja, ed. Teodor Haase, Cieszyn: C.K. Nadworna Księgarnia Karola Prochaski, 1883, p. 334, own translation|
Let’s return to blessing formulas. We know already that three formulas are used in Poland today, but there used to be way more. There were seven in the 1960s; altogether, over 50 different benedictions, each for a different kind of food, were said over the years. Salt was being blessed as a symbol of wisdom and immortality; horseradish, a symbol of penitence; milk and honey, of the promised land; oil, as protection against disease and sin; and fruits, as a reminder of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But most importantly, the blessing of all this food and drink was believed to protect those who consumed it after a long period of fasting from possible ill effects of sudden overindulgence. Here’s one old Polish blessing formula in which God is requested to let people eat fatty meat without gaining weight. Which is also what I wish for you this coming Easter.
|O Lord, bless this shank You have created as we call upon Your holy name, so that it is unto mankind for health and salvation, and grant that we who partake of it do not disregard Your commandments while being fattened, glutted or thickened, but that, filled with heavenly fattiness, we remain ever obedient to Your word. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.|
|— Quoted in: Marian Pisarzak: Błogosławieństwo pokarmów i napojów wielkanocnych w Polsce, Warszawa: Akademia Teologii Katolickiej, 1979, p. 218–219, own translation|
- Martenka: Tradycyjny koszyk wielkanocny, in: Tipy, Interia, 2010
- Katarzyna Rybicka: Co włożyć do koszyczka wielkanocnego? Symbolika święcenia pokarmów, in: Garneczki.pl Blog, Poznań: Garneczki.pl, 4 April 2017
- Ewa Stopka: Z cyklu: Wielkanocne tradycje: Wielka Sobota:-) co powinno znaleźć się w koszyczku wielkanocnym?, in: Rozeta by Ewa Stopka, WordPress, 3 April 2015
- Justyna Toros: Koszyczek wielkanocny: Co włożyć do koszyczka wielkanocnego?, in: Dziennik Zachodni, Sosnowiec: Polska Press, 11 April 2017
- To trzeba poświęcić w Wielką Sobotę, in: Parafia p.w. Św. Jadwigi Królowej w Złocieńcu
- Tradycyjny wielkanocny koszyczek, in: Tu Gazetka, Warszawa: Arbiter Media, 2018
- M. Pisarzak (2003), p. 96
- M. Pisarzak (1976), p. 230
- In Polish: zastaw się, a postaw się. I found the brilliant English rendering of this proverb in Carolyn French and Nina Karsov’s translation of the novel Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz.
- M. Pisarzak (2003), p. 100–101
- M. Pisarzak (1976), p. 215–217, 224–225
- Pesach 5782, in: Polin, Warszawa: Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich Polin, 2022
- Marian Pisarzak
- Zwyczaj „święconego” w Kościele zachodnim, in: Collectanea Theologica, 43/4, Warszawa: Uniwersytet Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego, 1973, p. 157–161
- Błogosławienie pokarmów wielkanocnych w Kościele zachodnim do wydania Rytuału Rzymskiego w 1614 roku, in: M. Rechowicz, W. Schenk: Studia z dziejów liturgii w Polsce, vol. 2, Lublin: Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski, 1976, p. 167–240
- Obrzędowość wiosenna w dawnych wiekach w związku z recepcją „święconego” w Polsce, in: Lud, 62, 1978, p. 53–74
- Błogosławieństwo pokarmów i napojów wielkanocnych w Polsce, Warszawa: Akademia Teologii Katolickiej, 1979, p. 218–219
- Błogosławieństwo pokarmów i napojów wielkanocnych, in: Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny, 46(2):93, Kraków: Polskie Towarzystwo Teologiczne, czerwiec 2003, p. 93–103
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