In Eastern Europe, the celebration of Easter is the first big holiday of spring and for some countries, it is one of the most important holidays. Each country celebrates this holiday with unique traditions, customs, and foods.
Many of the Eastern European countries observe lent, where for 40 days before Easter people deny themselves different types of foods, often including meat, dairy products, and eggs. On Easter Sunday these foods can once again be eaten, making the Easter feast something to be celebrated and enjoyed with family.
In Ukraine Easter is called Velykden "the Great Day" and is the most important religious holiday of the year. Preparations for this holiday begin weeks in advance. The women of the family prepare a basket of foods. This basket typically includes Paska (Easter Cake), Pysanky (decorated eggs), meat products, dairy products, and can also include vegetables and candy. The basket is decorated and taken to the church to be blessed. This basket of goodies is then placed on the Easter table for everyone to enjoy. On this day people greet each other by saying "Khrystos Voskres! Voistynu Voskrese!" (Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!)
Painting eggs is a very prominent practice/tradition in Ukraine. The Pysanka is something Ukraine is famous for worldwide. (See our blog post on Pysanka.) At Easter, you will find parks decorated with these painted eggs and even see them hanging from trees.
Some common foods served during Easter are stuffed cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffed dumplings, cold salads, jellied pigs feet, boiled eggs, paska (Easter cake), poppyseed roll and, much more!
In Poland, similar to Ukraine, preparations for the Easter meal begin days in advance. A basket of foods is also taken to the church to be blessed. Here the Easter meal is a celebration of foods that were not eaten during the lent period.
Common foods served at Easter in Polish homes include baked ham, potato salad, and cabbage dishes. One of the most important items made for this meal is the lamb cake, a pound cake made in the shape of a lamb decorated with frosting.
In Latvia, before Christianity, this holiday was observed as a celebration of the victory of light over darkness.
Egg painting is a more modern addition to this holiday, with the decorating techniques varying from family to family. Since then many traditions and superstitions have developed around the egg. For instance, when you peel the shell off the egg, the way it comes off is thought to predict if you will have a bountiful harvest, and the number of eggs given to a suitor would let him know if the girl was interested or not. If she gave him 5 eggs her answer was "yes". There is also a superstition that eggs painted by wizards were something to be feared.
Latvians also have a lot of traditions surrounding swings. Swings are built just for this holiday and then burnt within a week after so that witches can't swing on them.
Foods served during Easter are often round in shape symbolizing the sun and only colored eggs are allowed at the meal. Like Ukraine, Latvians also have egg wars, where you knock the ends of your eggs together and the one who has the unbroken egg is the winner and can expect a long life as his prize.
In Estonia Easter is observed as a day of rest. Colored eggs are given as gifts and similar to Latvia they also have a swing as part of their Easter Tradition.
A big meal is part of Estonia's Easter celebration as well as egg-related activities like painting eggs, egg hunts, and other games involving eggs including the egg knocking game.
Common foods for this holiday are veal, pork, fish, and a spread made by combining eggs and butter. The most common food on the Easter table is a dessert called Pasha, it is made with fresh cheese curd flavored with citrus, dried fruit, and nuts.
There are many similarities in the way Easter is celebrated in Eastern Europe and some interesting differences. It is easy to see where some of the American traditions come from.