We pulled the wicker basket out of the car, and I admired the white cloth that covered its contents. In the center was an embroidered gold cross and chalice, hand-stitched by a family member two generations ago. The thin fabric had survived despite the passage of time, clean and fresh looking. Perhaps that was because it was used only once a year: the Saturday before Easter, to cover the basket full of Easter food carried to an altar in the middle of a field in rural Slovenia for an Easter blessing from the local Catholic priest.
My cousin took the basket in her hands as she and I walked along a path of grass worn down by those who had walked before us. In front of the wooden altar, friends and neighbors were leaving their own baskets, some covered with similar cloths, others with a ring of dandelions strung together around the straw rims.
Somehow, as I was being distracted by the line of baskets in front of me, the priest appeared behind the altar, and began reciting prayers. The open-air wood chapel that covered him and the altar was simple and white, only as large as an oversized backyard shed, but with a higher ceiling and a steeple that seemed to stretch into the clouds.
The Slovenian words swirled all around me, archaic and formal, nearly incomprehensible to me if I tried to listen to each word, discerning its meaning, as the crowd responded and recited the prayers. I, however, knew everything that was being said, as I followed the familiar pattern of Catholic prayers, alternating between listening to the Slovenian and trying to commit the words to memory, and softly whispering the English versions that I knew by heart.
As the priest got ready to bless the food in the baskets that lined the floor in front of the altar and the grass in front of the chapel, an altar boy in plain clothing brought forward a bowl of holy water. The priest reached for a small branch, dipped the pine needles in to the bowl, and with the flick of his wrist, branch in hand, the holy water landed on the baskets a few feet in front of him. He said the closing words to the prayer, and the villagers who had gathered to participate in this old Roman ritual.
Though I have heard that in the U.S., blessing Easter food does often occur, it does not seem nearly as prevalent as in Slovenia. Indeed, if it does occur in the U.S., it is mostly in Slavic parishes.
Inside the baskets, were traditional Slovenian Easter foods: ham, colored eggs, horseradish, bread, and potica, a bread-like pastry, which features a swirl of crushed walnuts in the middle of the loaf. Also in my family’s basket was a regional Easter favorite: zelodec, which is a loaf made of bread, eggs, and small pieces of ham, baked together.
As we carried the basket back to the car for the short ride back to my relatives’ house, I reflected on the beautiful setting: the grassy fields, dandelions in bloom; the view of hills and snow-capped mountains in the distance; and the blue, nearly cloudless sky.
They might not have the Easter Bunny and its associated American traditions, and while I missed that—and my family most of all—on the holiday, I was glad for one year to participate in an age-old tradition that is still very much alive in Slavic countries today.
Published in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers today.