How Polish Families Celebrate Easter

Easter lamb cake
Michael King, Ithaca, New York / Getty Images

Growing up Polish, Easter was the worst of times, the best of times. We children were expected to fast as strictly as our parents for Lent. That meant no sweets, no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and lots of church services.

The reward for 40 days of "giving things up" was a great feast after mass on Easter Sunday. As you might expect, a feast takes a lot of preparation so, from Holy Thursday on, our house was busy with kiełbasa making, babka or baking, egg dying, and lamb cake making.

The cake was made with pound cake batter in a cast-iron mold, and it was always a worry that the lamb's nose or another part of its anatomy would stick when unmolded. It got a swirly coat of cream cheese frosting, raisin eyes, and nose, a red ribbon around its neck to represent the Pascal Lamb, and was placed on a bed of dyed-green coconut.

A portion of the batter was always saved to make a tiny cake for the święconka basket. The cake was frosted and a small nest of green coconut was made on top and filled with jelly bean "eggs." If there was enough money in the food budget, a toy chick was purchased to place beside the nest. And if the food budget stretched even farther, a butter lamb was bought for Holy Saturday's "blessing of the baskets."

Blessing of the Baskets

In Poland, the size and contents of a woman's basket (some used wooden bowls and even dresser drawers!) was a matter of pride and standing in the community.

In America, it was less about oneupmanship and more a matter of practicality.

Since it was imperative that every member of the family have a bite of all the blessed foods after Mass on Easter Sunday, my mother made sure to include just enough for a taste of the Easter dinner foods, plus some daily staples.

That meant not only the little bird's nest cake, but hard-cooked eggs studded with cloves, representing the nails of the cross, kielbasa, ham, salt and pepper, ćwikła or chrzan, a butter lamb, or butter stuffed into a shot glass studded with a clove, and a small, round bakery bread topped with a purple cross decal. Sometimes greens, vegetables, and fruit would be included, and the basket was covered with a fancy linen napkin or embroidered doily.

When my siblings and I were old enough, mom had us take the basket to church to be blessed, with the admonition that we do not touch one morsel of food, because we were fasting. The commingled aromas of garlic and sugar were intoxicating. It took all our willpower not to sample.

Easter Dinner

After breakfasting on the święconka, it was time to get dinner on the table. That was an elaborate affair of baked ham, boiled kiełbasa, some type of cabbage dish, a green vegetable, potato salad or mashed potatoes with caramelized onion and dill. (Some families use the contents of their święconka basket to make white barszcz for breakfast.) For dessert, it was lamb cake, kołaczki, babka, chrusciki, mazurek and other desserts. An afternoon nap and ham sandwiches on rye bread for supper ended the day.