Tradition of Paska – Ukrainian Easter Bread

Once a year, for Easter, Ukrainians bake delicious, sweet festive breads that are rich in butter and eggs and are called paska (plural: pasky). You immediately recognise a paska because of its tall and cylindrical shape with a rounded top that is usually decorated with dough ornaments or a white glaze. Paska smells simply divine, and no wonder, the range of spices and flavourings used in paska dough may include: ginger, saffron, vanilla, citron and rum.

Paska_01_02In Ukraine the timing of Easter, the religious holiday, more or less coincides with the pre-Christian Velykden (Great Day), an ancient festival of spring celebrated on the occasion of the vernal equinox. That is why the celebration of Easter incorporates many ancient rituals, including Ukrainian Easter eggs (krashanky, pysanky and driapanky) and, of course, paska.

Paska’s pre-Christian origin is evident in a variety of interesting beliefs, rituals and even superstitions connected with the bread. The Ukrainian ethnographer Stepan Kylymnyk, in his book Calendar Year in Ukrainian Folklore (vol.2, 1959), described an old custom of baking three pasky and their purposes: Yellow Paska was baked for the sun and sky, believing that the sun will give health and long life to the family members; White Paska, for the deceased or the wind, bargaining with them not to bring misfortunes and death; and Black Paska, for the living people or the land.

Modern pasky usually have a white glaze made from sugar and egg and are decorated on top with coloured wheat grains or poppy seeds. However, an old custom, which is still practised in some Ukrainian regions and diasporas, is to create dough ornaments for the paska. The symbolism of these ornaments is connected with spring themes: the awakening of nature, resurrection and rebirth. Birds, especially larks, as heralds of spring, took a much-deserved place on pasky.

Other pasky ornaments are not as obvious and include geometric figures, such as the cross and the tryhver, an ancient three-armed symbol. The significance of the cross in Christianity is well-known, but in pre-Christian times, when people’s beliefs were based 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; a human life; three rays meaning heaven, earth and air; or alternatively, air, fire and water.

Paska traditions

Other old Ukrainian traditions connected to baking paska include:

Book cover, “Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes”

Book cover, “Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes”

• Blessed willow twigs were burnt together with the logs before the pasky were placed in the oven.

• While the dough for the paska was rising there was supposed to be absolute 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 the cook herself was allowed a taste while preparing it.

• An associated, rather gloomy, belief was that if the dough fails to rise or collapses or breaks when removed from the oven, it means that someone from the household will die during the year.

• According to custom, no one should eat paska before it is blessed – even the cook herself should not taste it.

Easter Morning Prayer (1891), Mykola Pymonenko. The painting is located in the National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.

Easter Morning Prayer (1891), Mykola Pymonenko. The painting is located in the National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.

The blessed paska had many functions. Not only did people start their Easter breakfast with it, in some regions there is a custom of giving a piece of paska to the household dog or to touch the cattle with it, saying: “Let nothing bad touch you, like nothing bad touches this blessed paska.”

There are countless recipes for pasky. The nineteenth-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 Ukraininan tradition, the paska is an attractive and moreish addition to any Easter table. Children will love its colourful fairytale look and enjoy the rich, buttery taste.

For a free, easy-to-follow recipe click the link. For more ways to make this spectacular looking festive dish read the Easter section in Taste of Ukraine and Traditional Velykden: Ukrainian Easter Recipes, which includes such articles as “Paska – the Specialty Bread for Ukrainian Easter”, “Tips for Making Paska” and “Velykden Koshyk – the Easter Basket”.

For more information about paska / babka / baba see Interesting Facts about Paska.