One of the most cherished Polish Easter traditions is the blessing of a basket of specially prepared foods on Holy Saturday that is called swięconka. It comes from the word świcić -to bless. The basket is filled with bread, sausage, eggs, butter, salt and horseradish as well as numerous other food dictated by family traditions such as a yeast baba or placek, a bottle of wine, honey, or chocolates. Tradition dictates that nestled among all the goodies should be the figure of a lamb.
From the dawn of time, it was the gentle lamb that was very often sacrificed to propitiate the gods. According to the Gospels, St John directly calls Christ the Lamb of God (Jn 1,29-36) when He offered his life, died on the cross and rose again on Easter Sunday. In Polish, this symbolic lamb it is called the baranek wielkanocny, the Easter lamb. In Latin it is Agnus Dei, i.e., the Lamb of God, and from the Latin it is often called agnusiek in the Polish language. As the symbol for Christ, the lamb is considered the most important content in the basket.
From archival writings, it is known that the Easter Lamb appeared on the tables of the rich and famous of Poland beginning at least in the 16th century. Mikołaj Pszonki, advisor to Jan Tarnowski, Polish nobleman and statesman of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, wrote a letter to his wife describing the Easter morning meal, the swięconka, that he attended at the home of Mikołaj Chroberski, councilman of Krakow in the 16th century. He wrote:
“In the middle of the room was a round table made of oak, so large it could easily sit one hundred people. The tablecloth was huge, sewn in the shape of the cross. On six silver platters of wonderful workmanship was smoked pork…the sausages were at least 88 inches long and of a strange color like that of crocuses and decorated along the edges with blessed eggs and pisanki(colored eggs) decorated in various colors but mostly red…In the middle of the table there was a strangely beautiful lamb made of butter, the size of a real lamb. But I would have been glad to take his eyes in exchange for everything on the table; they were two diamonds, like hazelnuts (surrounded by) a black frame made from rings buried in the butter only enough to heighten the eyes. On the lamb, the butter wool was unrecognizable from real wool, made by Miss Agnieska and her family…..”
Besides being made of butter, it is known that aristocrats also decorated their tables with figurines of lambs made of porcelain, silver, gold and precious stones.
According to Polish ethnographers, the Easter or Paschal lamb, as it is often called, began appearing in baskets to be blessed in Poland around the 17th century. How to account for including a butter lamb along with the other foods in the basket to be blessed? It has to understood that customs change over the centuries. Originally, the custom of blessing food on Easter Saturday took place in the form of all food, including the figure of a lamb, being placed on the table of the home and the bishop or priest came to the home and blessed the food. This can often be seen in old illustrations and photos.
This going from home to home was very time consuming for the clergy and they eventually decreed that everyone wanting their food blessed had to meet at a central place such as the manor house or that of mayor of the village- someone who could accommodate more people. How to transport what was once laid out on the table over to the someone’s home in the community? In the usual way goods were transported in those days…in baskets! And, after being blessed in the basket, transported back home and placed on the table.
When placed in the Easter basket or on the Easter table, the lamb can be one that is in the position of standing or lying down. Most importantly, it has a red flag on which a cross is visible or the words Alleluja, a symbol of the Risen Christ triumphant over death. Historically it is made of butter perhaps because in the old days it was readily available plus the people had abstained from butter and all fats during the long period of Lent. The Paschal Lamb made of sugar made an appearance in baskets when sugar became less expensive and more readily available to the common man. Besides butter and sugar, the Easter lamb was also made from dough baked in special molds in the shape of a lamb. The lamb was also made from marzipan (almond paste), chocolate and even wax. Regardless of the substance it was made of, the Paschal Lamb continues to be an integral part of the contents of the foodstuffs blessed in the basket and then placed a Polish Easter table.
Wesołego Alleluja! Blessed Easter!
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.