How Polish Families Celebrate Easter

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

Ask any Pole and they will tell you the Easter season was the worst of times and the best of times for a child who was expected to fast as strictly as adults for Lent. That meant no sweets, no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and lots of church services.

Preparations Begin Early

The reward for 40 days of "giving things up" is a great feast after Mass on Easter Sunday. As you might expect, a feast takes a lot of preparation so, from Holy Thursday on, many households are busy with kiełbasa-making, babka-making, egg-dying, and lamb-cake making.

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

A portion of the batter is usually saved to make a tiny cake for the święconka basket (Easter basket of food blessed on Holy Saturday). The cake top is frosted and a small nest of green coconut is made on top and filled with jelly bean "eggs," tiny toy chicks and other decorations. A butter lamb is usually placed in the basket as well.

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 is less about one-upmanship and more a matter of practicality.

Since it is imperative that every member of the family have a bite of all the blessed foods after Mass on Easter Sunday, the basket should include just enough for a taste of all the Easter dinner foods, plus some daily staples.

This means not only the little bird's nest cake, but hard-cooked eggs studded with cloves, representing the nails of the cross, kiełbasa, 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 are included, and the basket is covered with a fancy linen napkin or embroidered doily.

The baskets, filled to the brim and exuding intoxicating aromas of commingled garlic and sugar, are taken to the parish church where they are blessed by a priest in a short service.

Easter Dinner

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