Easter

Ham- and Egg-Filled Easter Baskets Are a Proud Polish Tradition

“People come with their baskets containing eggs, bread, salt, horseradish, ham. Egg is the main component because it’s the symbol of life.”

by Kamila Rymajdo
30 March 2018, 9:00pm

Easter is a big deal for Poles, given the country’s predominantly Roman Catholic population. It’s a holiday filled with rituals, like the water fights of Śmigus-dyngus or Palm Sunday processions. But equally important is the preparation of the święconka. Dating back to the seventh century, it’s the Holy Saturday blessing of a wicker basket lined with decorative linen and filled with foods symbolic of the resurrection of Christ.

“Święconka is a tradition observed in Poland but also countries where Poles have settled. When I was in Germany, in the USA, in Brazil, it was also celebrated in Polish churches there, but it’s not a part of Easter rituals in other Catholic churches,” Father Karol Rogasik of Manchester’s Polish Church of Divine Mercy informs me. “People come with their baskets containing eggs, bread, salt, horseradish, ham. Egg is the main component because it’s the symbol of life.”

While salt represents purification, ham symbolises prosperity and horseradish, on account of its bitterness, the suffering of Christ on the cross.

“We do blessings every half an hour and people have to stand because the pews get full to the brim. For many Poles it’s a very important tradition, perhaps the most important,” Rogasik continues.

“Last year, there were so many people, one woman’s hair set on fire as she was standing so close to one of the candles,” confirms parishioner Karolina Koścień, who runs social enterprise Heart and Parcel. She remembers Easters as a child in Poland: “Me and my parents would spend Friday evening painting the eggs [pisanki]. My mum would boil them with onion skins, which turned them brown and we’d draw on them with crayons or felt tip pens, although traditionally they’re etched or painted. Then on Saturday morning, it was the youngest child’s responsibility to take the święconka to church.”

Święconka, a basket filled with foods to symbolise the resurrection of Christ, popular in Poland during Easter. All photos by the author.

Przemek Marcinkowski, who has lived in the UK for 12 years and now runs Manchester Polish restaurant Platzki with his partner says, “święconka is the biggest excitement for children. It’s got the religious symbolism of course—the lamb represents resurrection for religious people. But for kids, the baskets, the napkins, arranging everything, and painting the eggs is just great fun.”

Much like Koścień and Marcinkowski, for me during my childhood in Poland, the preparation of the święconka was my first introduction to food presentation and a great deal of effort went into trying to be the best in show.

“Every kid would compete to have the best basket, the best things inside,” says Marcinkowski. “Nowadays you can buy everything, but in the past you’d make everything yourself. I remember you’d have a special mould that you’d pour butter in to harden into the shape of a lamb.”

“Everyone else had cute little baskets but my family did everything supersize. When we made soup it was in a massive pan, when we made pierogi we made 500, so we’d have a huge święconka,” Koścień recalls of her childhood experiences. “Everyone in church would loiter around waiting to see who claimed it and I’d be so embarrassed because as a kid, I’d just want to fit in.”

“Everyone else had cute little baskets but my family did everything supersize. When we made soup it was in a massive pan, when we made pierogi we made 500, so we’d have a huge święconka.”

After being blessed, the food is taken home and shared among family before the Easter breakfast on Sunday.

“Sometimes the święconka items would be cold and stale by the time you ate them, but you had to,” remembers Marcinkowski.

Koścień explains: “You exchange good wishes and then have the breakfast. In our family that would be żurek [a traditional Easter soup made from fermented rye] with white sausage, egg, bacon, and potatoes. Then after breakfast, we’d have an egg fight. I don’t know where that tradition came from, but we’d each take an egg and we’d bang them together, if yours got broken, then you got another chance with the other side and then if you lost again you had to eat the egg as your loser’s penance.”

Now usually spending her Easters in Manchester, Koścień says she likes seeing how Poles in Britain have adjusted the święconka ritual to their adopted country.

“I still put in the traditional items, but not as many people have hand-painted eggs,” she explains. “Pretty much everyone here has chocolate ones instead and I’ve seen mustard, ketchup, even wine. I think because here the culture is less restrictive it transpires in how Poles approach the tradition, they take what’s in their cupboard.”

Marcinkowski too swapped out the traditional boxwood for rosemary this year. Father Rogasik says while some items are indeed changed in Britain for ease, he’s yet to see anything really out of the ordinary. “For example,” he says, “I’m still waiting to bless a mango”—which gives me an idea for making my own święconka stand out from the crowd this year.