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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Lenten Traditions in the Eastern Rite

For Eastern Catholics, Lenten and Easter traditions are a fundamental part of family life.

As dawn breaks on Easter, Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Easter morning also brings much activity in the homes of Slavic Eastern rite Catholics.

The children are getting dressed in their new Easter outfits and sneaking glimpses at their Easter baskets filled with candy.

Mothers are occupied by carefully arranging all the specially prepared food in a large Easter basket to take to church.

The older children are helping put an elaborately embroidered linen over the basket. In many families, the linen is an heirloom. A special candle and decorated eggs are also being added to the basket.

The preparation and blessing of these colorful Easter baskets is a centuries-old tradition. Bread, meat and dairy products are the only types of food in the baskets. These are all foods shunned during the nine-week Lenten fast that is observed by Eastern-rite Catholics.

One of the most common foods is pascha. This is a sweet yellow bread. The name originates from pasch, the Greek form of the Hebrew pesakh or passover. On Holy Saturday a special prayer ceremony begins the baking of pascha. Among other things, the sign of the cross is made over the dough. Silence prevails in the house so the dough may rise undisturbed.

Another staple of Slavic Easter baskets is shunka, or ham and kolbassi, a spicy, garlicky pork sausage. These meats symbolize the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament, foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ. Hrudka, a soft bland custard-like cheese and maslo, which is butter, are also included in the basket. These dairy products symbolize the prosperity and peace foretold by the prophets. The basket is complete when a mixture of horseradish (chrin) and grated beets is added. The horseradish is a symbol of the bitterness of Christ’s victory and the beet, the blood that He shed.

The decorated eggs occupy a place of special significance in the basket. They are painted with hot wax in elaborate and intricate designs. In most families they have been passed on from year to year. The eggs with the spectacular designs are usually hollow so they can be better preserved. Every basket also includes plain colored eggs that can be eaten.

The Easter festivities don’t end on Sunday. In Slavic countries, there is a custom known as “Dunking Day.” On Easter Monday, the boys in the town find the prettiest girl and dunk her with water three times, each time saying “Christ is Risen.” This symbolizes the baptism that is possible through Christ’s resurrection. However, lest one think that this custom is discriminatory, on Tuesday, the girls retaliate by dunking boys!

The joyful events celebrating Easter follow a nine-week period of prayer, penance and fasting for Eastern-rite Catholics. The Eastern Church begins Lent four weeks earlier than the Latin rite with a period known as Pre-Lent. Pre-Lent is a period during which people can gradually adapt to the strict Lenten fasting. In the past, the Latin rite also observed this period before Lent. Beginning on Septuagesima Sunday, which was 70 days before Easter, the tone of the liturgy progressed from the joyous celebration of Christmas to the sombre mood of Lent.

The Eastern rite has made Pre-Lent an integral part of its liturgical year. For Byzantine rite Catholics Lenten fasting begins during the third week of Pre-Lent on “Meat-fare” Sunday. On this day they bid farewell to meat until Easter.

The next week dairy products and fish (except shellfish) are deleted from the menu. This is known as “Cheesefare” Sunday.

Depending on where they live, Eastern rite Catholics adapt their Lenten eating habits to their region. For instance, in the Middle East, siamee kibbee which means Lenten ground lamb is a staple. It is made from ground walnuts, wheat and spices and actually looks like ground lamb. Another main dish for Melkite or Maronite Catholics during Lent is homos bi tahini which is mashed chick peas, sesame oil, lemon juice and salt served on Syrian bread.

Many Ruthenian and Ukrainian Catholics eat pirohys during Lent. Pirohys are little squares of flour stuffed with potatoes, onions, prunes or sauerkraut.

In addition to pirohys and Middle Eastern dishes; eggplant, vegetable stews, spinach pies, pasta dishes, stuffed grape leaves and meals made with lentils are all menu mainstays during Lent.

By observing customs that are integral parts of family life, Lent and Easter become not just religious events that happened centuries ago, but opportunities for daily growth in the spiritual life.

Maryann Ondovcsik, the daughter of a Byzantine rite cantor, still associates Easter with baskets of food.

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