Monday, April 6, 2009

And so it begins

If you will indulge me, I want to share a lovely Easter tradition we inherited from my Godmother's family which they brought with them from the Tyrol (A region of the eastern Alps in western Austria and northern Italy. Inhabited in ancient times by Celtic peoples, the Tyrol constantly passed back and forth, in whole or in part, between Austria and Italy in the 1800s. Its present division dates from the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919. - Farlex.) and I hope you will share yours in the Comments area

Before we were born, my parents began celebrating the blessed Easter brunch with my Godmother's family. This meal includes items that were both traditional to the region and nodded to certain religiously relevant events. The food also bears some resemblance to a Seder. I cannot explain the reason they are so closely related but obviously, the same understandings are woven through many people and cultures.

This is our menu. It varies from family to family like any holiday meal:

Sliced ham
Fresh kielbasa
Pasca bread (with or without raisins)
Poppy bread
Nut bread
Easter eggs
Beet-pickled eggs
Beet-pickled horseradish
Halupka cheese
Scallions and blessed salt
Butter, in the shape of a lamb
Salt and pepper
Easter wine: Manischewitz Kosher

All of these items, in the amounts needed to serve all the guests at the brunch, are placed into a large basket on Holy Saturday and taken to the church to be blessed. We have usually been lucky to find a parish that holds a blessing ceremony around mid-day, with a celebrant who understands the significance of the event for those raised with this tradition (generally, but not limited to the Ukrainian, Polish, Tyrolian, Czech, Slovakian, Northern Italian, Austrian, and in some cases, Greek). In many years, we have not understood a word of the blessing as it has been said in Polish, but it is no less special and moving.

Also included in the basket we take to the church are:
A bit of chocolate, generally eggs.
Decorated, hand painted eggs, in the traditional art of pysanky, like these.

Originally, these beauties were painted with beeswax on read hard boiled eggs. Now, they are often on wooden eggs and reused yearly.

The baskets are covered with hand-embroidered linens made specifically for this tradition and often brought from Europe by preceding generations. These beautiful cloths are used only for this purpose as it is important that their singular use in this world is to encase blessed objects.

Because we are also-ran Anglo's in the blessing tradition, we are still behind in acquiring the pysanky eggs which many people descended in the tradition have handed down for generations. If only the really remarkable ones were easier to find (footnote here: Yes, I realize my Husband just returned from a Mediterranean "cruise" lasting seven months and I never once asked him to get these.). You see, they are precious to every family and the art is largely confined to the original region.

The painted eggs, like all the eggs in the blessed basket, have legends that carried them into churches on Holy Saturday: The painted wooden eggs you will view now were traditionally red to commemorate the blood of Christ being shed to save the world but are now, pleasantly, all manner of artistic exuberance. The hard boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the Passover sacrifice, though I cannot explain how they travelled to the Byzantine rite and then on to Christians, though I could take a conquering guess. The pickled eggs we include probably derived from the same symbolism as the red psyanky eggs: Dyed red they serve to remind of the sacrifice.

Pork, in the form of ham and fresh kielbasa were traditionally forbidden based on the lore until the arrival of Christ and thus used to break the fast in celebration of the resurrection.

The horseradish (also, coincidentally a regular Polish meat condiment), pepper, and salt may have arrived for the same reasons: The bitter herbs, also found at Seder, symbolize the Passover and Exodus.

The bread and wine are just as you might expect: The body of Christ and the blood He shed to save the world. I do not honestly understand how it came to be Manischewitz, or why it must absolutely be Kosher in this Catholic tradition but certainly it is a wonderful reminder of how similar many peoples are even as they maintain the traditions which might seemingly make them different.

For many years, we were the novel basket bearers at the blessings: We always had the biggest baskets because the tradition differs for people from various areas of the original region of this tradition: Many brought only their children's Easter eggs and chocolates at first. Others brought small bits of each part of a brunch similar to ours for the symbolism. As time went by, year after year, another family would ask my Godmother what was in the basket or why it was so big. She would gingerly lift the basket cover and gently point to the foods which she had that morning carefully arranged in the basket, and explain each to the curious.

Many have been grateful for her willingness to discuss her family tradition. Inevitably, her generosity in explaining her basket was met with a sentimental smile. People returned to the sound of their Grandmother's voices or a story their Mother had told them and then they realized our tradition was very much their tradition: Over the years and the miles that brought their family to these shores, perhaps the tradition had been reduced or forgotten, or the ingredients too difficult to find here. But in each successive year, larger baskets have increased in number and now we are among many whose entire breaking of the Easter fast after Mass is blessed the day before.

The breads were once very hard to find and the recipes remain fiercely guarded. My Godmother found a Byzantine church in Danbury, CT which makes thousands of loaves of Easter breads with secret recipes for their church and now, as a fundraiser, make them available to all to purchase if you order a couple of months in advance. We felt lucky to find the Golden Dome bakers ten or so years ago and can only hope they are handing down their recipes to their children so their remarkable talents are not lost.

Here is the church basement where the breads are picked up, the day before, the tables were filled with thousands of loaves of rolled nut, poppy, apricot, raspberry, and prune breads as well as the lofty Pasca's.

These are the Pasca loaves, huge soft yellow-white breads which can also have golden raisins. As you can see, they are not like other Easter breads which are heavily eggy loaves that also include colored Easter eggs braided into the loaf. Not here, no.

Over the next week or two, I will share more of the photos with you as I hope you will with me. But since we have just been over to the Golden Dome ladies for their wonderful breads, I thought mention of the basket contents was as fine a place to begin as any.

Please share your traditions and memories with us below.

1 comment:

LIMOM said...

Many years ago I discovered a gift shop on 9th St between 1st and 2nd in NYC that sells the most spectacular eggs in just the style shown in the post.

That area is still a mecca for businesses that showcase Polish and Hungarian heritage, as well as their neighboring countires. Even Martha Stewart got into act, ordering her fresh ham from a polish butcher shop in the neighborhood kear-rah-wic-ees (I have to spell it phonetically as I would completely butcher it otherwise).

A great field trip for anyone with roots in eastern Europe.

Have a wonderful holiday.