The Blessing of the Easter Baskets

Baskets

Some 300 people crowded into St. Florian Catholic Church in Hamtramck, Michigan—along with thousands of people in other Polish churches around the world participating in the ritual blessing of Easter baskets. Święconka (Polish pronunciation sounds something like “Shfentsonka”) can be loosely translated as “the day of the blessing of the Easter baskets.” This beloved Polish tradition is observed in the afternoon of Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday (the day Jesus Christ died on the cross) and Easter Sunday (the day of his resurrection). However, many Easter and Święconka practices originated in pagan celebrations of spring and rebirth in nature and were incorporated into Catholic rituals during the Christianization of Poland, which began nearly a thousand years after Christ.

By the 1920s, the population of Hamtramck was nearly 100% Polish, mostly immigrants working in the auto plants and other Detroit factories. Traditions like Święconka, Smigus Dyngus, and Tłusty Wtorek (Fat Tuesday, also known as Pączki Day) have continued to this day with an uptick with each wave of Polish immigration. Although the city is no longer predominantly Polish, almost every person at St. Florian for Święconka appeared to be Polish or first or second generation Polish American, and all of them brought their children. The short service that accompanied the blessing of the baskets was bilingual, with Father Miroslaw Frankowski joking that those who didn’t speak Polish should view his talk as an opportunity to learn a little.

I observed that a lot of the parishioners holding delicate little baskets covered with linen doilies were big strapping Polish men, many with their children carrying littler and even more delicate baskets containing chocolate bunnies and jelly beans. While his wife and his mother were home cooking and baking, my neighbor Janusz brought his little boy, who was deeply concerned when he realized that the doily had blown off his basket somewhere between home and church. His father assured him that they would find it as they walked back home (and they did).

Although I was raised by my Polish grandmother, Babcia never took me to church for Święconka. I realize now that it was probably because we lived on a farm miles away from the church. My Uncle Hank would take us to church for the Good Friday rituals and for the Easter Sunday celebration of Mass, but he really could not abandon the cows and fields for three days in a row. I do not remember my grandmother ever speaking about Święconka, although she did talk about Smigus Dyngus, the spring courting ritual that occurs in Poland on the day after Easter. She used to laugh about the boys chasing the girls and dumping water on them while switching their legs with pussy willow branches. When I lived in Poland in 2000 I witnessed Dyngus Day first hand, with girls and boys all over town chasing one another gleefully with squirt guns and willows.

Święconka at St. Florian began with parishioners placing their baskets on the church floor near the pews along the center aisle. No two baskets looked exactly alike, each one containing small portions of food to be shared on Easter morning. The foods in the baskets all have a symbolic meaning: eggs representing new life and rebirth, bread for the body of Christ, a butter lamb representing Christ as the sacrificial lamb of God, salt for purification, horseradish symbolizing the bitter sacrifice of Christ, and ham or kielbasa representing abundance. These were the food in all the baskets, all covered with a linen cloth or doily–except mine, that is. Mine was the totally inappropriate Easter basket full of inedibles and wrapped in plastic.

As the priest sailed down the aisle sprinkling the baskets with holy water, we all made the sign of the cross and the priest wished us “Wesołego Alleluja,” Happy Easter! I discretely snatched my basket with its now blessed plastic wrapping and headed home. The parents of the one-year-old I had it made up for at the Polish Art Center need only know that their child’s basket was blessed along with all the others.
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