by Jennifer Brizzi
Don’t look for any jelly beans or Peeps in these baskets. Emblematic of Ukrainian Easter — this year, as per the Orthodox church calendar, on April 15 — are special baskets full of nourishing items that will be blessed by priests and then devoured. Rich in symbolism, joy, and good things to eat after the blessing ceremony is over, these cornucopias of bounty – two kinds of breads, two kinds of eggs, meat and dairy products and even a candle – are being assembled by members of the local Ukrainian community.
The first Ukrainian settlement in this area was founded between 1914 and 1925. These settlements have since developed into a large, active and vibrant community centered around western Ulster County with youth groups, women’s groups, a pagan/pre-Christian group, and Soyuzivka, a 60-year-old Ukrainian cultural center in Kerhonkson, with events from camps to concerts and much more. Two places of worship, a Catholic church and an Orthodox chapel, are part of Easter celebrations for the community.
Ukrainian food has elements of Russian, Polish and Czech cuisines. You’ll see lots of garlic, pork, cabbage, beets, potatoes and fish like carp. So it’s not surprising that an Easter basket full of edible treats will be inviting.
We begin with the bread, which for Ukrainians is the symbol of prosperity, Jesus and new life. Halyna Shepko of Gardiner, who is part of the local Ukrainian community and loves to share the culture, says the bread in the baskets also stands for springtime and the return of the sun.
The Ukrainian Easter basket has two breads in it, one tall and one shorter and round, both fraught with symbolism and meaning. The baking of these two breads is so important that there are traditions of incantations for the baking of them, which vary from region to region in the Ukraine. Bakers try to maintain pure thoughts and bystanders have to stand quietly to keep the loaves from collapsing, keeping guard that no evil would thwart it from being its bready best.
Babka, one of the two Easter basket breads, is an eggy sweet bread a little like Italian panettone. Tall, cylindrical, and often baked in coffee cans, Shepko’s family tops it with a sweet lemony icing and decorates with raisins, sliced almonds and colored sugar sprinkles. Often the design is a simple cross, but some decorate with greenery such as a vine to represent spring.
The other bread inhabitant of the Easter basket is paska, a large round bread decorated with dough designs like rosettes and spirals, Shepko says. Other designs can be a large central cross, suns, leaves, pinecones, garlands, or Easter greetings in Ukrainian or English. On the side are little spring larks made of dough shaped into their bodies and twisted into tiny beaks.
Another kind of paska sometimes in the baskets is made from farmer’s cheese, almost a cheesecake. Shepko calls hers “unbaked cheese paska” and makes it from goat cheese from goats from their Shawungunk Ridge Farm in Gardiner, plus dried fruit, raisins, cherries and lemon rind.
Decorated eggs are a component of the Easter baskets, representing hope, life, rebirth and resurrection. As with the bread, there are two kinds. The first are pysanky, the stunningly gorgeous, intricate Easter eggs made from raw eggs (not hard-boiled), a whole egg symbolizing the universe more than a hollowed out one would, says Shepko. The intricate designs come in a stupendous variety and may be abstract patterns, portray subjects of the natural world like animals and plants or feature pre-Christian or Christian symbols and designs that pay homage to Mother Earth or ward off the evil eye.
Making these eggs is a long, labor-intensive process using a succession of dye baths and a wax stylus. The eggs are beautiful and long lasting, with deep symbolism in every color — red for joy, yellow for fertility, orange for passion, black as remembrance for the dead and green for growing things. The egg inside dries out over time if kept properly, and does not go bad, although some people do hollow them out through pinholes. At the farm Shepko gives workshops in decorating pysanky; this year’s was March 31 but keep an ear out for next year’s event.
More like American Easter eggs are krashanky, dyed hard-boiled edible eggs with somewhat simpler decorations. Part of the Easter tradition is a game where children hit the eggs together to try to crack them. Traditionally in hungrier times whoever’s egg cracked first was the loser, and the winner got to eat the egg inside.
Meat is part of the basket as well, representing sacrifice, generosity, celebration or Jesus, the “lamb of god.” This meat can be ham, lamb or more commonly, kovbasa, a Ukrainian sausage made of pork, beef, garlic and a dash of hot pepper-spiked vodka or whisky. The local Ukrainian community often imports the sausage from manufacturers in New York City.
Also commonly in the basket are butter and cheese. The butter is sometimes formed into the shape of a cross or a lamb, or just decorated with greenery.
Essential is hrin, a relish made of horseradish and beets, representing bitterness. Grating the horseradish makes you cry, “like with onions but worse,” says Shepko. My brother in law Mig, who grows it in his garden, backs this up.
In some baskets you will find salt, pepper, lard or seeds like poppy or confections made from them. Common is a special embroidered cloth that lines the basket and covers the contents, to remind of Christ’s shroud.
After assembling the baskets (kids make their own), everyone travels to church. Lit candles are stuck into the bread, making the bounteous baskets even more festive, and then they are blessed.
Feasts of symbolism
Afterwards the feasting begins, every morsel much appreciated because there has been some sort of fasting beforehand.
Easter dinner commences with an egg being shelled and cut up to pass around and share as a symbol of family unity and good fortune. The feast continues with paska bread sliced and topped with layers of butter, sausage and horseradish. The adults enjoy a touch of vodka spiked with spirals of lemon peel. Each element is rich in familiar tastes and smells that bring Easter happiness to all. “It’s a sensory experience,” says Shepko.
The celebration continues when another feast occurs a week later to honor those who have departed this life. Easter eggshells are saved and set afloat in running water to travel to where those souls reside as an Easter message to them. Shepko’s family and others go to a cemetery in New Jersey where ancestors are buried in order to remember and honor them and remind themselves that death is a part of life. There is another Easter feast at the site and priests bless the graves, although sometimes these days it is, by necessity, done via cell phone, Shepko laughs.
The local Ukrainian community has two churches, the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church at 211 Foordmore Road in Kerhonkson (www.holytrinityny.org) and an Orthodox chapel on Rock Hill Road. At Holy Trinity baskets will be blessed at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 14. On Sunday the 15, Orthodox Easter, a longer blessing ceremony will take place at the chapel. A Ukrainian cultural festival is scheduled for July 13-15 at Soyuzivka (www.soyuzivka.com).
Photo of a Ukrainian Easter basket by Jennifer Brizzi