Easter – A Time of Feasting, Resurrection, and Ritual for Ukrainians

Pagan traditions to celebrate the return of spring and the abolition of another winter may have faded into the pages of Christianity, but Ukrainians, whether recognizing the rites of spring or the resurrection of Christ, ancient customs survive on a shoestring in rural Ukraine, particularly in the country’s western region.

Baking the honored Easter bread, the paska, central to both feast and worship, is considered one of the most important tasks of the year. Ritual preparation of the dough, and approach to its baking are equally important. Dough was once kneaded in a trough and placed on a pillow to rise so the bread would be light and airy. The top of the paska may be covered with symbolic signs such as a cross, solar signs, rosettes, leaves, pine cones, and sometimes birds and bees. Most of these decorations are remnants of ancient pagan religion tied to the cult of the sun and bread.

The baker’s demeanor during the bread’s preparation had to pure and his or her clothes clean; no one was allowed to talk too loudly, swear, or make noise in the house.

A willow twig blessed on Palm Sunday (recognized as Willow Sunday in Ukraine) is placed on the firewood before being lit. A wooden shovel, used especially for taking the bread out of the oven, may also be used to make the sign of the cross over the stove, doors, and windows. In some regions of Ukraine the man of the house still stands guard at his front door to ward off evil spirits while the paska bakes.

A lightly browned loaf is a good sign for the coming year, bringing luck and prosperity to a household. Brought to churches as an offering, the paska is placed in a basket, covered with a hand stitched embroidered cloth, and carried to the Resurrection Mass for the priest’s blessing. Other foods such as cheese, butter, salt, horse radish, eggs, pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs), ham, and sausages, are also brought to church for the blessing.

Immediately after the ceremony the family hurries home to share the anointed paska and give thanks for their own blessings. An Easter egg or psanky is placed in a basin of water so family members may cleanse their faces. As children wash, the mother asks for blessings so they will be healthy and strong. Girls washing their faces hope for beauty and may say, “I wish I were as beautiful as this Easter egg.”

At the table, the father removes the shells from another Easter egg and cuts the egg into tiny pieces for everyone at the table. All family members gather in front of icons to pray. Once prayer is complete, the family gathers at the table, and the paska is broken and shared. Crumbs from the bread are saved and given to the family’s chickens so they may lay many eggs. Tiny pieces of the bread are planted in the vegetable garden or the wheat fields in the hope that the ground will be fruitful.

Many of these Easter traditions have faded with the passage of time in contemporary Ukraine, but people traveling into the rural areas of the country at Easter may still find opportunities to give thanks for tiny blessings.