Ukrainian Easter bread, paska – its secrets

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The star of Ukrainian Easter – paska

Once a year, for Easter, Ukrainians bake delicious, sweet festive bread that is rich in butter and eggs. This is paska (sing.; pasky, plural). You immediately recognise pasky by their tall and cylindrical shape with a rounded top. Also, there are symbolic dough ornaments or a white glaze on their peaks. Indeed, this Easter bread smells simply divine, and no wonder, the range of spices and flavourings used in paska dough include ginger, saffron, vanilla, citron, and rum.

In Ukraine the timing of Easter, the Christian holiday, more or less coincides with the pre-Christian Velykden (‘Great Day’). Velykden is an ancient festival of spring that marks the vernal equinox. For this reason, the celebration of Easter incorporates many ancient rituals, including Ukrainian Easter eggs (krashanky, pysanky and driapanky) and, of course, paska.

Several paskas, Ukrainian Easter bread, with symbolic dough ornaments and white glaze.
Several pasky, featuring both glaze and dough ornaments

Pre-Christian origin of paska, now Easter bread

Paska’s pre-Christian origin is evident in a variety of interesting beliefs, rituals, and even superstitions connected with the bread. A Ukrainian ethnographer, Stepan Kylymnyk, in his book Calendar Year in Ukrainian Folklore (vol. 2, 1959), described an old custom of baking three pasky. The three pasky’s purposes were:

  • Yellow Paska was for the sun and sky. They believed that the sun would give health and long life to their family members;
  • White Paska – for the deceased or the wind, as a bargain with them not to bring misfortune and death; and
  • Black Paska – for the living people or the land.

Symbolism of paska ornaments

Modern pasky often have a white (sugar and egg) glaze with coloured wheat grains or poppy seeds sprinkled on top as decoration. However, the old custom is to create dough ornaments for the paska. This custom is still popular in some Ukrainian regions and diasporas.

The symbolism of these ornaments belongs to spring themes. These are awakening of nature, resurrection, and rebirth. Birds, especially larks, as heralds of spring, take a much-deserved place on pasky.

Other pasky ornaments are not as obvious. For example, geometric figures, such as the cross and tryhver (also ‘trynih’, ‘tryrih’), an ancient three-armed symbol. The significance of the cross in Christianity is obvious. However, in pre-Christian times, when people based their beliefs on nature and its phenomena, the cross was no less important. It symbolised four cardinal directions or four seasons. The tryhver symbol has three rays originating from one dot and curled in the same direction. There are different opinions on what it symbolises: the Sun; human life; three rays meaning heaven, earth, and air; or alternatively, air, fire, and water.

Infographic with six images showing how to decorate paska, Ukrainian Easter bread with dought-ornaments
Decorating paska with dought-ornaments: ear of wheat (symbol of rich harvest), leaf (symbol of spring, rebirth of nature), and cross (or ‘chotyrynih’; has a multitude of meanings, e.g. as cross can be a Christian symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ)

Paska traditions

Other old Ukrainian traditions connected to baking paska include:

  • Cooks added blessed willow twigs to the logs to burn before placing pasky in the oven.
  • While the dough for the paska was rising there was supposed to be absolutely calm in the house.
  • Some, after placing the paska to bake, rushed outside to plant cabbage seeds, hoping that the cabbages would grow as big as the paska.
  • It was forbidden to eat paska before it was blessed at the Easter Service on Sunday. Not even cooks would dare to taste the paska while making it.
  • An associated, rather gloomy, belief was that if the dough fails to rise or paska collapses or breaks when removed from the oven, it meant that someone from the household would die during the year.

The blessed paska had many functions. First and foremost, people started their Easter breakfast with it, thus putting an end to a long 40-days Great Lent. Also, they used paska in some spell-working. For example, usually, a master of the house used paska to ensure his domestic animals were healthy. He gave a piece of paska to his dog; or touched the cattle with it, saying: “Let nothing bad touch you, like nothing bad touches this blessed paska.” Incidentally, A Collection of Ukrainian Spells from our Ukrainian Scholar Library mentions three spells, where they use paska.

Ukrainian Easter bread popularity

There are countless recipes for pasky. The 19th century Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopaedic Dictionary mentions that there were up to 40 recipes of pasky (vol.2, book 4, 1891). Cookbook author Klynovetska presents 16 recipes, one of which is a rye paska, which is unusual, as it is commonly believed that pasky are to be baked only from the best wheat flour.

In some Ukrainian communities, such as those in Canada, Ukrainians who preserve their old traditions bake two types of Easter breads: paska and babka. Paska refers to a short round-shaped bread, decorated on top with dough ornaments, while ‘babka’ is a delicate raised yeast bread that has a tall and cylindrical shape with a rounded top and white glaze icing.

Aside from being an age-old Ukrainian tradition, the paska is an attractive and moreish addition to any Easter table. Children love its colourful fairytale look and enjoy the rich, buttery taste.

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Check out our other articles about Paska and Ukrainian easter dishes and traditions 🙂