Today, most of us think that bringing of Pascha baskets loaded with meat and cheese and other rich foods to church is a Slavic custom. But it wasn’t always so. It was once the universal practice of the Church. In the early days of the Church, on the Great Feasts, families brought baskets of food to church, where the baskets would be blessed and the food shared. We see that custom still on the Feast of Transfiguration, when the baskets of grapes and fruit are blessed.
A tradition lost and then found
The custom of bringing baskets of food to church on Pascha was mostly lost in Greece during the 400 years of Turkish rule, although it persisted in a few villages in northern Greece and in the Peloponnesos region. In England and America, the custom was lost in the 17th century, when the celebration of Easter and other holy days was banned. But, as in Greece, it was not entirely lost. In America, when the holy days were restored, Easter baskets returned, but not as they had been. They came back as small baskets filled with eggs and sweets for children. But the ancient practice lived on in the Slavic countries. Wicker baskets are loaded with rich foods and meats, decorated with bows and flowers, and covered with beautifully embroidered cloths. They’re brought to the church before Nocturnes on Pascha eve, and a candle is tucked into each basket to be lit when the priest blesses the baskets at the end of the services.
The traditional foods for Pascha baskets
What goes in Pascha baskets? That depends. My basket always contains cheese-and-sausage balls. When my children were young, I always included bunny-shaped honey rolls, like the ones Catherine’s mom makes. Sometimes I include single-serve cartons of chocolate milk for the children. But in the Slavic countries, there is a traditional list of foods for the baskets, a list that hasn’t changed much since the days when the baskets were still a universal custom. Some people still include all of these foods in their baskets. Some people don’t. If you want to, here’s the traditional list:
- A rich eggy bread and a sweet cheese spread. The bread is called paska and the cheese is called kulich. Unless you’re Russian, in which case the bread is kulich and the cheese is paska. No, I don’t know why. If you do, please let me know!
- Ham, bacon, and kielbasa. These rich meats remind us of the extravagance of God’s love and our redemption. They’re pork to remind us that, in Christ’s death and resurrection we’re freed from the Old Law and the curse of sin. Some people also include roast beef or other roasted meats in their baskets.
- Butter. It’s often molded in the shape of a lamb or a tri-bar cross, to represent the goodness of God’s gifts to us.
- Eggs, boiled and dyed red or intricately decorated. The eggs symbolize the Resurrection.
- Wine, which God gave us to make our hearts glad.
- Salt, to remind us that we are to be the salt of the earth through our good works in Christ Jesus.
- Horseradish mixed with grated beets and sweetened with sugar. This blood-red mixture symbolizes the bitterness of Christ’s passion, which we do not forget even as we celebrate the Resurrection. But because of the Resurrection, the bitterness of death is now sweetened with the hope of eternal life.
- A candle, which is lit when the priest blesses the baskets.
Pascha baskets for children
Besides filling Pascha baskets for church, many families also fill small Easter baskets with treats for their children. Here are some ideas to make the basket extra special.
- Line the basket with a green scarf instead of plastic Easter grass. Plastic grass is a nuisance. It gets tangled in your vacuum cleaner from Pascha until well after Pentecost. And it’s a real hazard for dogs and cats. A scarf is pretty, safe for pets, and you can use it year after year.
- Start with a book, like Catherine’s Pascha.
- Include a small icon, prayer book, or prayer rope.
- Consider giving an activity. A plastic egg can hold movie tickets, or a coupon announcing a trip to the zoo, an afternoon spent baking cookies, art lessons, or anything else your child would enjoy.
- If your child has dietary restrictions, check out our tips for gluten-free Pascha treats.
Pascha eggs: Learn why we color eggs red at Pascha.
Embroidered Pascha basket covers: Learn a little bit of the history of Pascha basket covers and download a pattern to make your own.
To learn more about the history of Pascha baskets, see “Pascha and the Family Basket,” a 1987 article in The Orthodox Observer written by Father Gregory Wigenbach. At the time the article was written, Father Gregory was the national director of the Greek Archdiocese Department of Church and Family Life.