By JUDY A. TOTTS
MEDINA â€” Like children scrubbed and wearing their Sunday best, the baskets line the steps of the altar at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.
Each basket brims with foods reserved for Easter tables: ham or leg of lamb, freshly-baked breads, pastries and cookies. A bottle of table wine peeks out from under the snowy cloth covering the offerings of one basket, a rope of crystal rosary beads gracefully draped over the edge of another.
â€œYou can decorate your baskets with silk flowers, crucifix, ribbons,â€ said Lisa Pettry of Lafayette Township, a 15-year member of St. Francis Xavier. She didnâ€™t grow up with the tradition â€” her sister, who attended another church at the time, introduced her to the food basket blessings years ago â€” but itâ€™s a rock-solid part of her familyâ€™s Holy Week observances now.
She keeps a couple of special baskets for the service, her oldest daughterâ€™s first Easter basket and one her husband gifted her with.
â€œThis is a stark contrast to the Lenten season. We sacrifice to keep the memory of Christâ€™s sacrifice,â€ Pettry said. â€œWe eat more simply during Lent, and you enjoy the goodies so much more.â€
Her husband takes the basket now, while she puts the finishing touches on the foods she will serve on Easter Sunday, including chrusciki, Polish fried pastries in the shape of angel wings, and kolace.
Preparations begin late in Holy Week, and Pettry will fill the basket with strawberries, a few sets of salt-and-pepper shakers, a butter lamb she makes using a cast aluminum butter mold, eggs, Easter bread and chocolate.
Daffodils add a festive touch, and if there are new prayer books or religious articles for the children, Pettry tucks them into the bottom of the basket, too, along with a tablecloth from Poland.
â€œThis (blessing service) is a little treasure,â€ Pettry said. â€œYou enter the church, and thereâ€™s such a heavenly smell â€” the church has been decorated for the Easter Masses, so you can smell the hyacinths and tulips, but when you bring your basket, you smell the sausages and breads that are in the baskets on the steps at the altar. Thereâ€™s a beauty to all that food.â€
â€œYou walk into the church, and it smells phenomenal, all the meats, the cheeses,â€ said Donna Haney, who grew up with the food basket blessing tradition. â€œItâ€™s neat to see all the baskets lined up, all the different nationalities represented.â€
It is a centuries-old tradition stemming from sterner Lenten practices when meats and dairy products were excluded from meals. As the fasting period drew to a close on Holy Saturday, people took food they prepared for Easter to church for a blessing.
Presiding clergy bless and connect each item to the greater gift of Christ and the ancient feast of the Passover meal: lamb, bread, wine and bitter herbs (horseradish).
â€œThe baskets usually have a linen or crocheted cloth on top,â€ said Cathy Schnepper of Medina, a church member for about 17 years, who grew up in the tradition of her Polish grandmother. â€œGrandma crocheted or embroidered a cloth for the top, usually a white cloth. You make your basket as pretty as possible.â€
Haneyâ€™s mother received a cloth from her mother-in-law. â€œOurs is decorated with shamrocks. The Polish or Slovak ones sometimes have embroidered flowers or the words â€˜Christ is risen.â€™ â€
Schnepper said they decorated eggs the Polish way, similar to Ukrainian pysanky, using wax and dyes. Sheâ€™s saved some of the eggs from the past. Although their colors have faded, the memories have not. â€œShe didnâ€™t do the eggs until Holy Saturday. Theyâ€™re symbolic of new life. Everything in the basket is symbolic. I might put in asparagus and parsley; they stand for new growth and remind people they have taken on the newness of Christ.â€
Growing up, the blessing of the baskets was a chance to see her cousins.
â€œIt was the beginning of fun for me, the start of Easter,â€ Schnepper said. â€œWe were finished with the somberness of Lent, it was the end of Holy Week.â€
Even now, she said, it signals the end of all the cooking and baking to prepare for Easter. â€œThe kitchen is messy by the time weâ€™re finished, weâ€™re tired, but now we can celebrate. The church is decorated. Itâ€™s a lighthearted, happier time.â€
Families often incorporate their childrenâ€™s Easter baskets into the mix, like Cynthia and Jerome Kolosky, whose daughters Katherine, Kristine, Karen and Karissa brought their baskets to the altar.
â€œThey had their names written on their eggs in crayon, and each one took candy, a slice of ham, cheese â€” the food theyâ€™ll eat Sunday morning,â€ Cynthia Kolosky said, adding that anything the food was wrapped in also is considered blessed. â€œSo weâ€™ll bury the eggshells and any Saran wrap or paper in the garden.â€
Kolosky said itâ€™s a tradition sheâ€™s sure her family will continue. When their daughter Karen made her appearance on Holy Saturday in 1991, she stayed in the hospital with the baby while Jerome shepherded the children to church with the family basket. Now their oldest daughter, Katherine, takes pride in making sirek, a sweet cheese concoction of curdled milk, eggs and spices. She boils the ingredients and pours them into a cloth bag to drain excess liquid.
Pettry is happy to see more young families every year. â€œMore participate, and thatâ€™s nice to see,â€ she said.
â€œItâ€™s special,â€ Kolosky said. â€œThe families are together, and you all have the same feeling. The work is done, and everyone has helped with the preparation, the ham is just out of the oven, the cheese is ready and youâ€™ve rushed to the church.â€
And then, like the linen and lace cloths draped over the filled baskets, the peace and beauty of the blessings are upon them.
Totts may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-721-4063.