Growing up in a Polish household around Eastertime was never dull — or free from highly-caloric food for that matter. When my Polish family and I lived in Chicago back in the 1970s, my mother went to great lengths to create the most bountiful Easter basket — ever. This woman was diligent. And we were Polish. Blessings from priests — and appearances apparently — meant everything. We had to load that basket up, and load up good.
Filling the basket with just eggs would have been, well, a sin.
You see, our precious colored eggs had to share valuable (basket) real estate with butter molds shaped like lambs, jars of horseradish, loaves of rye bread, a large can of ham, and sticks of Polish sausage. At least a half-dozen sticks, in fact. Oh … now that I think of it, maybe more. Good Lord — it was as if the family were be taken back to Siberia and would go without food for another 18 months (… an odyssey of my family’s which I had overheard during holiday meals but whose dramatic aftermath I had remained clueless about until I was haunted by it as an adult.) Our Easter basket must have weighed 15 or 20 pounds. I couldn’t carry it. I was a child and I hadn’t consumed enough fatty proteins that the sausages provided. This was the way things were. If you were Polish, you had to have a big ol’ Easter basket — and a big ol’ waistline by the time you hit puberty.
So, on Holy Saturdays, into the church or cathedral my brother, my parents and I went. There, along with hundreds of other Catholic folk from our neighborhood — most of them Polish — we approached the altar in manageable groups, set our baskets on the floor and kneeled down at a railing around the altar’s perimeter. A priest and two altar boys walked passed all the baskets and the priest would gently swing a golden thurible filled with frankincense. Ah … how heavenly that fragrance was — sort of like cosmic cigarette smoke. (Although I don’t think God inhaled. He was already high.)
Years later, when we moved to Elmhurst, a western suburb of Chicago, we continued the tradition of bringing the Easter baskets to church on Holy Saturdays. My brother dropped out of the picture, opting to, well, spend less time doing such “childish” things. And, depending how much my parents fought during the week, it was a toss up as to whether we would head for another thurible event as a troika or a duo. I must have been 10 or 11 years old at this point. And I was hooked. I wanted that blessing. I wanted that durable thurible hovering over our packed basket.
One year, it was just my father and me on a Holy Saturday at St. Charles Borromeo Church in nearby Bensenville. I went the catechism at our new church and the other kids and I always made fun of Father Grasso — God rest his soul — because whenever he handed out communion wafers during mass, he lisped. His “body of Christ” always came out “body of Chrisssssssss-ta!” Well, I’m certain laughing after a priest shoves a Communion wafer into your mouth never goes over good with God, but … whatever.
Father Grasso presided over the blessings of Easter baskets that year. My father and I knelt by the railing and the proceedings began. Father Grasso swung that tribunal like a pro. He lisped his “Chrissssssss-ta’s!” I tried not to giggle.
But right there, within that group of 20 or so parishioners, things took a dark turn.
Just like that, my amusement over my priest’s lisp turned to horror … because the fragrance of frankincense was immediately overpowered by … POLISH SAUSAGE!
Our Polish sausage!
I turned beet red. Maybe much more red than the red of the horseradish or the red of the beets or the weird kind of Polish red that was the half-dozen sticks of Polish sausage in our big, fat Polish Easter basket.
I was mortified. I began to perspire.
How had I not noticed the stench of Polish sausage in the churches on Holy Saturdays before we moved to the suburbs? And then it hit me — we were surrounded by Polish people in Chicago. Everybody had placed Polish sausage in their Easter baskets. The odor must have already in the air — and I guess we were all used mixing deli meats with Communion wafers and red wine.
But not this time. My father and I were the only Poles in the church and now we just made St. Chuck smell like a damn Polish deli. I wanted to crawl under the altar and hide.
We left the church without being burned at the stake. Although that would have made a good Polish barbecue for the sausage.
As these memories surfaced this week, I thought deeply about my family, the passing of time and all of the twists of fate in between. I recently moved to Palm Springs after 22 months of being nomadic and questioning the idea of home and place. I’m still absorbing what my nearly two-year trek has taught me about “home,” however as I spend this holiday away from my lovely — and very loud — Polish family, I thought I would do a little investigating.
In Polish culture, the blessing of the Easter baskets is called Święconka. The tradition dates back to Poland’s early history and the basket is lined with white linen or lace napkins. As for the contents, I learned something new about their significance.
Bread is the symbolic of Jesus.
The lamb butter represents Christ.
Salt represents purification.
Horseradish has a fascinating symbolism: the bitter sacrifice of Christ
The ham — and perhaps all that Polish sausage — is symbolic of great joy and abundance.
And the eggs? They symbolize life and Christ’s resurrection. Or in Father Grasso speak: Chrisssssss-ta’s resurrection.