"Be tall as the willow, healthy as the water, and rich as the earth."
With this expression, it is said that some Ukrainians have been known to tap one another with willow branches on the last Sunday before Easter — Palm Sunday — wishing for each other the energy and new life found in the early blossoming willow tree.
The root of many of today's Ukrainian Christian traditions can be found in ancient pre-Christian times of the culture of early Ukrainians and nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful tradition of the Easter basket.
During ancient times many Ukrainian customs were connected to the calendar, to nature and to the changing of the seasons. With the coming of Christianity in 988 AD, the colourful, pre-Christian rituals blended with and became integrated into Christian celebrations.
A season especially welcomed and long awaited by Ukrainians was the coming of spring. The passing away of the cold, dark days and nights of winter and the re-awakening of nature's plants, rivers, streams and animal life along with the renewed warmth of the sun was a glorious occasion for celebration.
Of many songs, dances, customs and rituals, which were offered up to nature by a strongly agricultural society during this most important season of the year, some were later merged with the Christian celebration of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.
The custom of the preparing and the blessing of the Easter basket with its traditional Easter foods is a blending of ancient ways and as a result is rich with beauty, history and symbolism.
In earlier times, meat and dairy products were excluded from daily meals during Lent, the weeks prior to Easter. As the end of Lent neared, Ukrainians, historically, would take a basket of specially prepared small portions of such foods to be blessed at church Easter morning and then afterwards would return home with their family to joyfully "break the fast."
Each item in the wicker basket, which itself was mainly reserved for the Easter blessing, had symbolic meaning and illustrated the faith of the Ukrainian people.
For some who continue the custom, there are traditionally two types of eggs placed in the Easter basket. The egg is symbolic of hope and of the emergence of new life and of the Resurrection. The krashenky or plain, coloured hard-boiled eggs are traditionally eaten first after the first egg has been broken and shared among the whole family, signifying family unity and hope for a good year to come.
The other type of egg is the well-known pysanky -- beautifully decorated eggs adorned with symbols of nature and Christianity applied with a stylus dipped in hot wax. The carefully and intricately decorated eggs are not eaten but used as gifts. The sharing of pysanky with friends and family was a sign of the good wishes meant for them. Archeologists believe that pysanky were created several thousand years before Christianity.
Bread to Ukrainians is one of the holiest of all the foods. Two common types traditionally found in the Easter basket are paska and babka. Symbolic of Jesus Christ, the "living bread," paska is a large, round loaf made of white flour, usually decorated with a cross at the centre along with other ornamentation such as rosettes or pine cones. Also, at the time of the blessing, a candle was sometimes placed in the centre of the paska representing Christ, "the light of the world." Paska means "Passover," as in Christ's passing over from death to life.
The babka is cylindrical in shape, and is a rich and delicate cake bread. Its name is considered by some to mean "blessed mother" or, in pre-Christian times, "woman." It is also sometimes decorated with a simple cross. Both are meant to remind Ukrainians of the true "living bread" that nourishes the soul.
Various meats in the basket such as ham, roasted lamb and sausage add to the joyfulness of the celebration and a reflection of the advent of Christianity, recall the celebrations in scripture when meat was often used during festive occasions. The lamb is representative of Jesus, the "Lamb of God."
Butter and cheese are the two dairy products traditionally part of the basket. Considered symbolic of goodness and of the special gifts God provides, the butter has sometimes been shaped into a lamb or a small cross.
Horseradish, another common ingredient, recalls the bitter herbs used by the Jewish people at their Passover meal to represent the bitterness of their captivity in Egypt. Sometimes mixed with beets, it reminds Ukrainians of the bitterness of the Passion of Christ overcome in Resurrection.
Salt was traditionally added to the basket and reminds the faithful that as "the salt of the earth" they are to live a Christian life. An embroidered cover was used as a reminder of Christ's shroud and of the baptismal robe.
The willow tree, one of the first trees to blossom during spring time in Ukraine, was considered magical and medicinal in pagan times. In Canada today, while some use palm branches, willow branches are blessed and used by Ukrainians to mark the celebration of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday before Easter, known as Palm Sunday.
The blessing of the basket, rich in tradition, history and in meaning, is done on Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday.
Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.