Pascha and the Family Basket
by Fr. Gregory Wigenbach
“Do not turn aside too readily from the ancient traditions you have received from the elders, which they in turn learned at their forefathers’ feet…(for) they may still prove profitable to you and yours in your times of need.” Wisdom of Sirach
If you adopt a new homeland and assimilate its ways and culture into your own, it can certainly be a positive religious and cultural experience. St. Paul’s apostolate among the Greeks, as well as the Byzantine-Greek Christians’ mission among the Slavic people amply illustrates this. An even richer synthesis of cultures can result, helping the Church to witness – that much more effectively – to the Word of God among the native people. However, there is also a “negative assimilation,” which tends to throw aside elements of prime value from the original heritage. Catastrophes in history can do this. The fall of the Byzantine Christian Commonwealth to the conquering Moslem Turks was one such catastrophe whose crippling effects are still with us. Many significant religious traditions were lost or their meanings distorted by “paramythia” [stories or tales].
A very ancient custom which “fell by the wayside” among the Greeks as a result of the 400 years of Turkish rule, was the custom of “blessing the family baskets” of Paschal food at Easter. It is still widespread among the Slavic nations who inherited the Orthodox Christian faith and culture from the Byzantine Greeks. Though during my graduate pastoral internship over a dozen years ago, in northern Greece and in the Peloponnesos region, I did come across the custom in two Greek village communities. I also heard mention of it from a few of my fellow priest-classmates at the University of Thessaloniki.
The custom has its Christian origins from the early Church’s Apostolic and sub-apostolic communities. In those days the faithful, as a matter of course, gathered together as an interdependent “family of families,” sharing all the fruits of their labor as gifts of God to be offered and blessed on the high holydays. The blessing of the grapes and fruits on the Feast of the Transfiguration still survives among some Greek communities.
The early Christians – whatever their ethnic identity – received the tradition from their Jewish spiritual ancestors. Even the ancient name of “Pascha” was translated directly from the Hebrew “Pesach”, meaning “to pass-over”. Hence, the English name among both Jews and Christians of traditional observance is “The Pasch,” or “The Passover”.
According to the ancient tradition the mother and father of the family would carefully set aside the best of certain basic foods and drink, or symbolic portions thereof, during Holy Week. These were foods which the family would deny themselves during the whole of the Great Paschal Fast. In certain communities the local basketmaker would make a large, new basket for each of the parish families, as new an offering as the foods and the “spring cleaning” that took place amidst hymn-singing.
The new basket, finally put together on Holy Saturday morning after the Liturgy of Anticipation [Vesper-Liturgy of St. Basil], normally included the following: (1) The Easter, or Pascha, loaf of bread; (2) A bottle of red wine; (3) Meats and meat products, including lamb, sausages, and ham; (4) dairy products, such as butter, cheese, and eggs; (5) oil and seasonings; and (6) salt, to represent Christians as Christ Himself described them – “the salt that gives the earth its savor.” Depending on the particular region, the eggs would be prepared and dyed “Resurrection red,” and even perhaps marked with a cross, either on Holy Thursday or Holy Saturday morning.
When all was in readiness, while all of the family were gathered in front of the “home altar” and its icons, the mother – her head covered by a seamless or embroidered white, tasseled veil – would reverently place each foodstuff in the basket. Her husband, the father of the household, led all in the chanting of hymns and the Lord’s Prayer. An embroidered, or specially dyed, cloth emblazoned with the Cross of Christ and the symbol “IC XC/NIKA” (Jesus Christ Conquers) was then placed over the whole [basket]. Just before leaving for the Church the oldest child would place a newly-made candle in the basket to be the family’s own Resurrection “lampada” [candle] in readiness for the triumphal “Passing of the Light of Life” at the Midnight Services in the village church.
Arriving at the Church the family took the basket to the foot of the Iconostasis. After the Liturgy and all had received holy Communion, the priest or bishop blessed the many baskets and the communal apportionment of the Easter/[Pascha] eggs. Leaving the Church, the whole of the parish or groups of families would gather to share their Easter [Pascha] eggs, soup, breads and cheese. The remainder of the Paschal basket foodstuffs were eaten by the family, usually together with a whole roasted lamb on Easter Sunday and during the “Bright Week” following.
We can easily see that the blessing of the Paschal/Easter food baskets has a deep liturgical, spiritual and familial meaning. It is indeed a pity that such a profound tradition as this has largely “fallen by the wayside” among many segments of Orthodox Christians. Perhaps the time has come, during this period of time dedicated to the Christian Family, for us to begin reclaiming this and other wonderful traditions that are, after all, our very own!
This article first appeared in The Orthodox Observer, April 8, 1987. At that time Fr. Gregory was the national director of the Greek Archdiocese Department of Church and Family Life.