Slovenian Easter food and traditions

Every country has their own Easter food and traditions, so here are ours from Slovenia and some Easter history.

Even though my family and I are not religious, we still like to celebrate any holidays associated with good food, and Easter and Christmas definitely qualify. Ever since I was a child Easter has been a time of home-cooked traditional food and family gatherings, with lots of chocolate eggs and treats from the Easter bunny. The golden Lindt chocolate bunny with its little bell has also become quite the Easter staple for us in the recent years – a couple of them even managed to find their way into my home this year, despite the whole coronavirus crisis and I’m pretty glad for that. 🙂

Lindt chocolate bunny

Today I want to share our awesome Slovenian Easter food with you, but first let’s delve a bit into the history and origin of the holiday.

The history of Easter

Easter is probably the most important Christian holiday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after he was crucified by the Romans. Today it is set at the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the spring equinox (21st of March) for western Christians and about 2 weeks later for Orthodox Christians, who follow the Julian calendar and call it Pascha. However, like most of the world’s important holidays, Easter’s origins are also rather complex.

The Christian celebration of Easter obviously started in the first century A.D., when the Christians started it as a way to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is one of the key points of Christian faith. Since they could not decidedly fix the dates of the actual crucifixion and resurrection, the celebration of the resurrection, i.e. Easter was always held on a Sunday, the first day of the week. The exact date of the yearly Easter was a hot topic until the first Council of Nicaea in 325, when it was decided that Easter would be a movable holiday celebrated as it is today, but the rift between the Western and Eastern Christian Easter (or Pascha) was not settled until the 8th century.

However, the Christian holiday of resurrection which became Easter is not as straightforward as that at its core. Humans have always been highly attuned to the changing of the season and spring is one of our favourites for a reason: it signifies the renewal of the land and brings about hope and a new natural cycle, which used to be much more significant when people still lived closely with nature, and they certainly did in the early Christian times. The arrival of spring and the spring equinox have been widely celebrated across cultures and history is full of myths and stories of rebirth, one of the oldest being the Descent of Inanna. Inanna was a Sumerian goddess who followed her lover into the underworld after his death and took all life and fertility with her. They were both resurrected by Enki the water god after life on Earth withered and died and were granted six months to live again. After those 6 months were up, Inanna again followed her lover into the underworld and Enki was forced to rescue them again, restarting the cycle of life and death – spring and winter.

Since Sumerians are considered the first human civilization (4000 – 2000 B. C.), it is no wonder that versions of this story persisted in religions around the world until today. Motives from the oldest myths and stories are rooted deep in our folklore and were passed on through generations, surviving the rise and falls of empires and religions and popping up whenever an appropriate holiday was starting to take root. The Christian story of the resurrection of Christ and the hope it brings was therefore likely embellished up to a degree and structured according to the ancient resurrection and rebirth pattern to make it more relatable, which also explains why Easter has always held more significance than Christmas, the birth of Jesus. The Easter holiday itself also likely took on some of its traditions and symbolism from all the pre-existing spring celebrations and fertility rites, particularly as Christianity spread across the lands. The missionaries tasked with spreading the faith tried to bring the Christian traditions and beliefs closer to the locals by blending them with the existing local traditions and holidays, which in turn influenced the practice of Christian celebrations among the people right back. Therefore many of today’s Easter traditions and symbols can be traced back to pagan traditions, as well as to the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Easter is celebrated pretty much at the same time as Passover (Pesach), the Jewish holiday of rebirth, commemorating the liberation of Israelites from Egypt. Both holidays have a strong emphasis on rebirth and share common symbols, particularly when it comes to food. The Jews eat lamb to celebrate Passover and Jesus was often metaphorically known as the lamb of god for his sacrifice, which is why lamb is a commonly eaten Easter food, particularly in Orthodox Christian countries which celebrate Pascha (the Greek word for Easter). However, Orthodox Christians are quite definite about not celebrating their Pascha at the same time as Passover, which was also a major cause of the rift between the Eastern and Western Christians about when Easter should be celebrated. Today ham has successfully replaced lamb in most Western countries as the symbolic representation of the body of Christ for Easter, but the similarity of eating strong herbs and plants like horseradish remains. During Passover horseradish is eaten to symbolise the suffering of the Israelites as slaves and vegetables are dipped in salted water to symbolise tears, while horseradish symbolises the nails used to crucify Jesus when eaten during Easter. Both Eastern and Western Christians also eat eggs for Easter, traditionally dyed red, which symbolise the blood of Christ.

Here’s the Easter food trifecta: eggs, horseradish and ham.

The origin of the name Easter is debatable as well: it can be often found attributed to the aforementioned Inanna, the Sumerian goddess better known as Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian goddess or war, sex and love, or to Eostre, a somewhat obscure local Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. The idea of Eostre lending her name to Easter comes from an 8th century British monk, but she’s a rather unknown deity, unless you connect her to the Germanic goddess Ostara, a goddess of light, renewal and dawn associated with the spring equinox, which is also supposed to be the German name for Eostre. Both Eostre and Ostara are closely associated with spring and rebirth and their symbols are supposed to be rabbits and eggs, which are incidentally a huge part of Easter, while the egg is a known symbol of life in early Christian lore. Ostara has been hijacked by the Wiccans and neo-pagans for their spring festivals, but unfortunately there is very little historical evidence related to Ostara and even less about Eostre, and there is also a third theory.

Since the early Christians were rather single-mindedly against pagan beliefs and polytheism, the name Easter likely comes from Easter week being called in albis in Latin (the plural of alba = dawn), which became eostarum in old German. Now, as Ostara was nonetheless a goddess of dawn and both her name and eostarum share the same root, it can be argued that the name Easter comes from her, but etymologically speaking it makes sense that the early Christians wouldn’t have named one of their most important holidays after a pagan goddess, but rather after an existing Latin symbolic word. Interestingly enough, in Slovenia we call Easter Velika noč, which simply translates into “the big night”. As far as I know it never had any other distinct names and it is the same in many other countries souther from us, while the French, which are certainly not Orthodox Christians by majority, just call it Pâques, from Pascha.

So what then are the “true” origins of Easter and its traditions? To me it appears to be an interesting blend of the Jewish Passover and inherited pre-Christian celebrations of spring and the natural cycle, held together by the younger main motive of Christ’s death and resurrection. Although many people like to use the murky origins of Easter and its symbols to discredit Christianity by pointing out the pagan elements and many Christians dislike certain parts of Easter for being too pagan, I say live and let live. All traditions evolve over time and I believe you can’t pick and choose threads from a common knot just to suit your agenda, because at the end of the day it is the spirit of the holiday that should matter to those who believe, while the rest of us get to enjoy the food and family time.

Also, the Easter bunny didn’t come around until the 1700s in the U.S., when he likely arrived with the German immigrants. The arrival of rabbits in spring was seen as the start of new birth, because rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, and that is also why they were associated with the goddess Ostara in the first place (remember, she comes from Germanic lore). Today the Easter bunny is a huge figure in the chocolate industry and chocolate eggs and egg hunts are one of the best parts of Easter for many, because why have a regular chocolate bar, when it can be egg shaped, right? 🙂

So now that we’ve finished with the history lesson and are already talking about chocolate, let’s move on to the food! P.S.: If you would like to read even more about the origin of Easter, here and here are two decent articles.

Slovenian Easter food

Actually, before the food, I’d like to mention one more peculiar Easter thing from Slovenia: butarice. A butarica is a festive bundle like you can see on the first photo below, which is traditionally made from colourful wood shavings and plants. The tradition of making them dates back to the pagan times when they were made with olive branches, but today they’re associated with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. They’ve evolved to have distinct forms in different regions of Slovenia and we buy the proper handmade ones every year. This year my boyfriend and I made our own out of paper due to the Covid-19 lockdown and although they weren’t the real thing, I’d say they turned out pretty good. The things next to them are supposed to be origami rabbits, and we also made some other simple Easter decorations because we had too much time.

Now, on to the food, for real! A typical Slovenian Easter meal will always involve cooked ham, bread (or possibly ham baked in bread like ours), painted Easter eggs we call pirhi, horseradish and potica, a sweet filled nut roll for dessert. It’s often accompanied by red wine, spring onions and fresh radishes, as well as some pickled things, but this really differs between households. We usually have this as an Easter Sunday breakfast, as the Christians take the food to the church on Saturday to get it blessed, although some people also do Easter Monday breakfasts.

The horseradish

We have different ways of preparing our horseradish: some people eat it grated as it is, while others mix it with other things to make it less sharp. There’s apple horseradish made with peeled, grated apples with a bit of salt, sugar, oil and vinegar; cream radish made with whipped cream, salt and a bit of lemon juice; and egg radish made with chopped hard-boiled eggs, salt, a bit of water and vinegar. Quite often we make all 4 kinds, because they’re great toppings for the ham, but my favourite is the cream horseradish and you can see it in the bottom right corner on the photo below. This year I also made fermented horseradish mustard with turmeric and it turned out awesome, if a bit sharp (the yellow thing in a little jar).

Our Easter Sunday breakfast this year.
The ham

As I mentioned most people eat cooked ham, but ham baked in bread is another traditional option and that’s what my grandmother always made. The recipe is quite simple really, you make your bread dough, let it rise and then roll it into a flat so you can fully wrap the ham inside it, seal the edges and bake it in the oven as you would a normal bread loaf. You need to pre-cook the ham a bit to make sure it’s not raw, but it does cook the bread as well, so don’t cook it fully. The inside of the bread right next to the ham gets deliciously infused with the ham juices and it’s worth making it for that alone. 🙂

The painted eggs

I’d say the most common and traditional method of dying eggs in Slovenia is dying them with onion peels, which gives them a gorgeous warm orange-brown colour. In my family we’ve always made them with plant patterns, which is quite simple and turns out really beautiful (second photo). All you need is different leaves from plants and some sheer nylon socks/tights. Most Slovenians who do this start collecting onion peels around New Year’s and we save our torn nylon socks over the year, which may make us look a bit crazy, but it results in the prettiest eggs around. 🙂

Obviously you need to wash the nylon socks before you attempt this, but here it goes: you need to wet your chosen leaf a bit so it will stick to the egg (use uncooked eggs), wrap it around the egg and then wrap a part of the sock tightly around the egg without dislodging the leaf. It needs to be really tight so the leaf won’t move and you can usually tell, because the sock goes sheer. Then you secure the sock on the egg with an elastic band or a piece of thread and cut off the excess sock so you can use it for another egg. You can see such an egg in the first photo below and after you’ve done all of them you need to cook them in water with lots of onion peels or wine (or both) and a bit of salt for at least an hour so they’ll be fully coloured. After you take them out the eggs will be hard-boiled and there will be an exact, super-detailed leaf pattern on the shell where the leaf prevented the colour from seeping in. Depending on your leaf, sock and how tight you wrapped it you’ll sometimes get crazy patterns, which is part of the fun.

This egg painting method is super cheap and also goes well with my less waste philosophy (if you want to know how to use up your food scraps besides onion peels I have a post here), but there are of course other methods for painting the eggs, like painting them with regular artificial egg colours and putting little stickers on them etc. My boyfriend’s family makes them with acid for example, which you can see on the last photo. They dye the eggs with egg paints and use hydrochloric acid to draw fancy patterns on them, as the acid dissolves the paint. Slovenia also has some other traditional egg painting techniques, with the most famous of them being pisanice.

The potica

Next up we have potica, the absolutely delicious traditional Slovenian festive pastry, which is the dread of modern women allover Slovenia. You know how every country has that one dish that every woman is supposed to be proficient at? Well, ours is potica and making it happens to be a pain in the ass.

My tarragon potica.

Potica is essentially a rolled pastry filled with nuts or anything else, made of leavened dough with yeast. It’s actually relatively simple to make it, but then there are those pesky details that can make or break your poticas and they’re known to either crack on the outside or come out with holes in the middle if the filling has too much moisture it, so it takes an expert to make a pretty one. The good news is though, that a potica will always taste good, no matter how ugly it looks (I’ve only made 3 so far in my life, but it’s true).

As I said it can be filled with pretty much anything, although the most traditional versions are made with walnuts, poppy seeds and tarragon. The one I made on the photo above is filled with tarragon, rum-soaked raisins, sour cream and skuta, a type of Slovenian curd cheese. It’s also common to use bread crumbs and whipped egg whites in the filling to give it more body (the bread crumbs absorb the excess moisture).

Naturally grandmothers are the absolute pros at potica, which is how I learned to make it, and one of my grandmothers always bakes 4 types of potica for Christmas and Easter for the whole family. You can see them on the photo below, from top left to bottom right: chocolate, walnut, poppy seed and raisin.

My grandmother’s poticas.

Potica can either be baked in straight moulds like mine or in round moulds with a hole in the middle and there’s much controversy over which is the right one. Since potica technically evolved from festive fruit bread, I say making it in a straight mould like my family has always done is not a faux pas, but I’ll admit that the ones in rounds moulds tend to look prettier. You can see some photos here and there’s also a recipe for a classic walnut potica if you want to give it a go at home. This year I was extra fancy and also made a braid-thingy out of the excess potica corners that need to be cut off to seal the loaf.

Some people say that potica symbolises the thorn crown of Jesus when eaten during Easter, but I suppose that’s only true for the round version. You can also check out a video and a frustrated gif I made last year about making potica:

And we’ve made it to the end of Slovenian Easter foods and almost to the end of this blog post. What do you think, do you want to try something at home? Let me know in the comments below and I’d also love to hear about the Easter food and traditions from your country. 🙂 Happy Easter!

As for the very end of this blog post, here’s our Easter Monday lunch, because we got two hams from my boyfriend’s mother, so we got to have two separate Easter meals. This one was a bit less traditional, with cooked ham, buckwheat bread, lots of my quick pickled things and stuffed eggs with sour cream and chives.

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