Eastern European Easter traditions combine ancient pagan beliefs and rituals with Christian worship and practices. As far as holiday traditions of Eastern Europe go, they are some of the most beautiful.
If you’re interested in learning more about the cultures of Eastern Europe, the Easter holiday is a great place to start. While each country has its own way of celebrating Easter, general categories can describe the most important aspects of this springtime holiday.
Let’s dive in to Eastern European Easter traditions.
Names for Easter in Eastern Europe
The countries of Eastern Europe all have their own name for Easter. Some of these names are derived from the word “great” to indicate that Easter is a “great” (as in big, important) day or night. Other names for easter derive from the Greek word for Passover. Still others, such as Vaskrs, relate to Resurrection.
- Easter in Lithuania—Velykos
- Easter in Latvia—Lieldienas
- Easter in Ukraine—Velykdenʹ
- Easter in Estonia—Lihavõtted
- Easter in Belarus—Vialikdzień
- Easter in Poland—święta Wielkanocne
- Easter in Romania—Paști
- Easter in Hungary—Húsvéti
- Easter in Slovenia—Velika noč
- Easter in Slovakia—Veľká noc
- Easter in Russia—Paskha
- Easter in Croatia—Uskrs
- Easter in Serbia—Vaskrs
- Easter in Bosnia and Herzegovina–
- Easter in North Macedonia—Veligden
- Easter in Montenegro—Vaskrs
- Easter in Bulgaria—Velikden
Easter eggs are an age-old form of folk art and were once used to ward off evil, help secure the harvest, or win the heart of another. The peoples of Eastern Europe have been decorating them since pagan times, and throughout history, regions and countries have developed their own styles and techniques.
Eastern European Easter eggs are imbued with symbolism: the colors, patterns, and images all have meaning. Furthermore, they reflect local cultural aesthetics. Still today, many of the patterns on Easter eggs reflect pagan symbolism and images related to nature or the Sun.
Perhaps people most often hear about Ukrainian eggs being synonymous with Eastern European Easter eggs. And indeed, Ukrainians take their egg decorating very seriously, with regional differences making up a sophisticated and beautiful Easter egg landscape.
Ways to Decorate Eggs
However, other countries’ eggs are beautiful in their own right, whether dyed simply with onion peels or dyed with many layers using the wax-resist method. Other methods of decorating eggs in Eastern European Easter traditions include:
- Decorating with paper cutouts
- Decorating with yarn
- Decorating with slivers of wood
- Decorating with beads
- Decorating with beeswax
- Drilling holes to make lacework of the eggshell
- Etching with acid
Easter Egg Games
Eastern European Easter traditions include playing games with eggs. One of the most common is when two people face off and crack their eggs together. The player with the uncracked egg is the winner.
Eggs may also be rolled down a slope or incline to see if they crack against another. In yet another game played with colored eggs, players throw coins into a basket of eggs to see whose coin punctures an egg’s shell.
In lieu of palm leaves, people in the northern latitudes of Eastern Europe have long substituted pussy willow branches. Blessed at church or placed in the home, they’re symbolic of springtime and renewal. Many superstitions surround the use of pussy willows for Palm Sunday, including eating one of the catkins to ward off ill health.
In other parts of Eastern Europe, other plants are used for Easter palms. In Slovenia and Croatia, for example, people may use olive branches.
Handmade Easter Palms
Brightly colored handmade Easter palms are also a part of Easter traditions in Eastern Europe, some of the best known coming from Poland and Lithuania. Made from dried grasses and flowers, they are closer to bouquets or wands. Ranging from a few inches to several feet tall, they are used in processions or taken to church to be blessed.
Other countries use handmade palms. For example, in Slovenia, handcrafted Easter palms are made of shaved wood dyed in different colors and woven into wands.
Handmade Easter palms vary in shape and design according to region. People purchase them at Easter markets, at outdoor stalls set up near the Easter holiday, or at Kaziukas Fair in Vilnius, where Easter palms are the unofficial symbol of the event. Here, Easter palms are so numerous, having been made in plentiful supply by craftspeople, that they brighten Old Town Vilnius even if the fair weekend weather is gray.
Whether with handmade Easter palms or pussy willows, tapping or switching others is a ritual dating back to pagan times. This practice is linked with fertility, good fortune, and prosperity.
For example, switching the cows (gently, of course), was meant to help them to faithfully continue to produce milk. “Planting” an Easter palm in a field would ensure a good harvest.
In the West, Easter baskets are often thought of as containing small gifts or candy for children on Easter morning brought by the Easter Bunny.
However, in many Eastern European Easter traditions, the Easter basket is full of religious symbolism. Beautifully made up, decorated with greenery and perhaps an embroidered cloth, the Easter basket is packed full of foods important to the day, each one a symbol of a certain aspect of the time of year.
Some of the items in the Eastern European Easter basket symbolize Christ, such as eggs as a symbol of the Resurrection. Others stand in for prosperity, abundance, purification, or goodwill.
Some common elements of the Eastern European Easter tradition of baskets include:
- Butter, sometimes shaped into a lamb
- Easter cake
The baskets are sometimes taken to church to be blessed. The blessed foods are then eaten as a part of the Easter meal.
In many Easter traditions in Eastern Europe, each day of Holy Week held special significance. Old Eastern European Easter traditions describe what tasks were meant to be accomplished that day or what mystical events could happen on that day.
For example, one day may have been for cleaning the house, another for baking Easter bread, and another for decorating Easter eggs.
Many of the days also had beliefs associated with them. For example, people may have stayed at home on Good Friday to prepare for the big holiday weekend.
The Easter Meal
Food is an essential part of Eastern European Easter traditions. Easter celebrations typically culminate in the Easter meal. Because the Easter meal breaks the Lenten fast, which begins on Ash Wednesday, the focus of the meal is typically a type of meat such as pork or lamb. Each family has its own favorite dishes to accompany the main course, many that include seasonal and local ingredients that are a part of national cuisine.
Desserts are an essential part of the Easter meal. Traditional cakes and desserts, often using family recipes, are prepared in the days ahead and served as a part of the Easter feast.
Bundt cake: Called by different names such as babka or kuglof, the traditional Bundt-style cake served for Easter in Eastern Europe may or may not contain yeast and may be served plain or with icing.
Cheese desserts: Fresh cheese is often incorporated into Easter desserts in Eastern Europe. For example, the molded-cheese dessert called paska, pashka, or paskha sees cheese sweetened with dried fruits and sugar. Cheesecake is another cheese-based dessert served for Easter in Eastern Europe.
(Note that paska is also the name of the tall, cylindrical Easter bread that is sometimes topped with icing.)
Easter markets are a way for visitors to enjoy various aspects of Eastern European Easter traditions, including shopping for Easter eggs, Easter foods, and Easter decorations.
Some Easter markets are accompanied by large decorated egg displays reflecting local egg-decorating norms, scenes of the city, or modern takes on the practice of coloring eggs.
Krakow’s Easter market is one of the best-known and most popular of Eastern Europe’s traditional Easter markets. But Prague, Budapest, and Zagreb, as well as other cities, host Easter markets, too.
Days Off for Easter
Not everyone in Eastern Europe has the same days off for Easter.
Some countries, such as Estonia, start the Easter weekend with Good Friday as a day off from work. Others, such as Poland or Croatia, enjoy the Monday following Easter as a day off. In some cases, neither Good Friday nor Easter Monday are a day off.
It should be noted that countries with a majority of Protestant or Catholic believers follow the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar marks Easter earlier than the Eastern Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar. Therefore, the other Easter holidays, such as Palm Sunday, are also observed in accordance with each particular calendar.
For example, if Orthodox Easter is celebrated a week after the Roman Catholic Easter, Orthodox Palm Sunday will fall on the day that Roman Catholics celebrate Easter Sunday.
Many countries in Eastern Europe have a Christian population that will celebrate one or the other, depending upon what church a person belongs to. Therefore, Eastern European Easter traditions are experienced twice in one country.
Easter Greetings in Eastern Europe
Eastern European Easter traditions include holiday greetings. Here is how you say “Happy Easter!” in the languages of Eastern Europe.
- Lithuania—Linksmų Velykų
- Latvia Priecīgas Lieldienas
- Ukraine—Shchaslyvoho Velykodnya
- Estonia—Häid lihavõtteid
- Belarus—Z vialik dniom
- Poland—Wesołych Świąt Wielkanocnych
- Czechia—Veselé Velikonoce
- Romania—Paste Fericit
- Hungary—Kellemes Húsvéti Ünnepeket
- Slovenia—Vesele velikonočne praznike
- Slovakia—Šťastnú Veľkú noc
- Russia—S Paskhoy (Happy Easter)
- Croatia—Sretan Uskrs
- Serbia—Srećan Uskrs
- North Macedonia—Sreḱen Veligden
- Montenegro—Srecan Uskrs
- Bulgaria—Chestit Velikden
Easter traditions in Eastern Europe are rich, colorful, and varied. You may encounter them if you visit one of these countries over the Easter holidays. You may even want to incorporate some of these traditions or foods into your own springtime celebrations. Either way, you’ll be partaking in customs that people have cherished through generations and continue to practice year after year.