Today is our first Easter without John’s grandmother, Mary Kelemen. She was an amazing lady, and though she slowed down in the last few of her 93+ years, to the end, Easter was the holiday we continued to celebrate at her home, with formal dinner, fixings, and eveything that entailed. She was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, and their Easter is often on a different day than most Christians celebrate it. This year, for instance, today is regular Easter, while the Russian church does not celebrate Easter until next Sunday, April 8. The latest I recall celebrating Easter with Mary was May 5.
A couple years ago, I was let in on the family secret: the recipe for hrudka, a traditional Slovak dish made and served specifically for the Easter meal. It’s a sweet egg cheese – and I never liked it. Let it be stated that I may be the fussiest eater on the planet, something I never realized until I married into John’s family. “You don’t like that, either?” they’d exclaim through the years, as I just shook my head apologetically.
Side note: the Kelemens refer to this hrudka dish as (phonetic pronunciation) yay-ech-nick, yet I cannot find that word on the web anywhere – perhaps because I have no idea how to spell it. Yet site after site after site uses these exact words to describe its name: “It goes by various names, including hrudka, cirak, sirok, sirecz, and on and on.”
Each component of Mary’s Easter meal had a meaning behind it, coming out of the Czech tradition:
Paska: a special Easter sweet bread, rich in eggs and butter. This is symbolic of the risen Christ, known to many Christians as “the Bread of Life.”
Baked ham: symbolic of the great joy and abundance of the Easter season.
Kielbasa (pronounced kil-bah-see in the Kelemen house, for some unknown reason): a spicy, garlicky, smoked pork sausage that originated in Poland and the Ukraine. It symbolizes God’s favor and generosity.
Red beet horseradish: symbolic of the Passion of Christ, yet typically sweetened with a little sugar since, after all, Christ did rise again.
Salt: used for flavor and to serve as a reminder to Christians of their duty to others.
Butter, molded into the shape of a lamb (ours always had cloves for the eyes): symbolic of the goodness of Christ which Christians should exhibit toward all other living creatures.
Yay-ech-nick: egg-based cheese made into a “ball” and cut into slices. It’s supposed to be served with bitter herbs that indicate the moderation with which Christians should approach all things, but we never had the herbs, so that point was a bit lost on us, perhaps.
Hard-boiled eggs: Mary had the coolest shrink-wraps for her eggs with amazing Russian patterns on them. She would tell us stories about her mom and her aunts painting the same designs by hand on actual eggshells. The eggs symbolize the rebirth of Christ.
Potato salad: not a Czech tradition, but a family one, as John’s stepmom, Gayle, makes the most amazing potato salad you’ve ever tasted.
My family did not have quite as many Easter traditions, at least as they relate to the meal. Every year, we did attend all three days of the Triduum services, the days, beginning with Holy Thursday, leading up to Easter Sunday.
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. In the Catholic tradition, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet before the start of that meal is reenacted during Holy Thursday Mass. Twelve parishoners are selected to be seated at the front of the church as the priests literally bathe their feet. Our family had that honor on two occasions during my growing up years.
Good Friday is the day that commemorates Christ’s death on the cross – the holiest times being noon to 3 p.m., recognizing the time he is supposed to have actually spent on the cross before dying. Good Friday is the only day of the year when no Mass is said anywhere in the world – in honor of Christ being gone for those three days. Most churches have a Stations of the Cross ceremony during the afternoon, where the entire Passion of Christ is reenacted through a prayerful walk around the church, stopping at statues or paintings that depict various events throughout that time of Christ’s life.
Though Easter is supposed to be the Big Day, Holy Saturday is really the Catholic church’s Super Bowl: it is the day all the new people who have been studying and preparing to become Catholic for the last six months to a year are baptized and receive communion for the first time. In college, I sponsored a gal to convert to Catholicism. Mary also sponsored a woman who converted to the Russian church, so we had that in common.
You get a sense of how deep the theological indoctrination runs – and not necessarily in a bad way – in that I have not attended these services for more than a dozen years, yet I can still describe them with great detail.
My family’s Easter Sunday traditions were milder: an egg hunt in our backyard, followed by a midday meal featuring a ham. This continued even into our adulthood, as my mom really loved the searching and finding game. Who knew what happened to the Easter baskets after the hunt was over, so each year, I would head to the thrift store to get new ones for all of us. Mom’s was, without a doubt, the blingiest basket I could find.
I’m not sure I ever heard the Stanfields’ Easter traditions described. If I did, it’s the one detail I failed to commit to memory. I imagine it involves Mass on Sunday morning and a large family meal. I do know that my kiddo has taken after me in the sweet tooth department, so he probably loves the candy and jelly beans.
Speaking of Easter candy… my sister Corina also had a sweet tooth, and a few years ago, she sent her daughter, Samantha, to the store a day or two after Easter to grab a couple bags of discounted Easter candy. She gave Samantha a twenty, expecting her to return with about $15 in change. Things did not go well when Sam came back with a giant bag laden with every candy imaginable and no change. “They were all on sale and I couldn’t decide, so I got one of each,” was her explanation.
Everything being different this year, John, his stepmom, and I have decided to take ourselves out for Easter brunch. If you ever decide to try this, I recommend making your reservation before 9 p.m. on Good Friday, as most people do. Your choices will be (understandably) limited if you wait. It will be quiet, but nice. I’m sure we’ll express gratitude for the abundance with which we’ve been blessed – but we’ll also acknowledge all the people recently gone from our table.
Wishing you Easter blessings and a beautiful spring!
Laura Orsini is an author who works with other authors to help them make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.