Move over, Easter bunny.
Every family has its own set of Easter traditions. My mom, for instance, always filled my plastic eggs up with pennies, even though the change never amounted to any useful amount of money. In other families, Easter means a special visitor at the dinner table: No, not the Easter bunny, but a stick of butter in the shape of a lamb. It's a tradition found on many tables across the Midwest, and like many customs in the U.S., it originated outside the country.
The Easter butter lamb tradition likely comes from Central and Eastern Europe, and when Catholic immigrants from that area began making their way to America, they brought the tradition with them. Indeed, many families who claim this ancestry still call the butter lamb by its Polish name, baranek wielkanocny. Giving up dairy for Lent was a common practice in Poland, and what better way to use up cream than churning it into butter?
Why is the butter shaped like a lamb in the first place? For those unfamiliar, the lamb is a reference to one of the most well-known lines in the New Testament, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The lamb, in the simplest terms, represents Jesus.
Today, the tradition is most popular in communities where there is a strong Polish population, like Milwaukee and in of parts Michigan, which has the third largest Polish population, after Illinois and New York. Buffalo, in particular, is famous for its butter lambs, where an unlikely icon almost single-handedly introduced the city to the tradition.
In the 1960s, Dorothy Malczewski (nicknamed Ma Malczewski) debuted the Malczewski Butter Lambs company at a local grocery store called the Broadway Market, where the lambs are still sold today.
Malczewski butter lambs come with a signature design: a red flag planted on its back that reads “alleluia” (or Hallelujah) and a red ribbon tied around its neck, that actually symbolizes the blood of Christ. The little lamb might be cute, but that doesn't mean it's not rich in religious symbolism.
Of course, you could always carve your own butter lamb, but if you're busy with other Easter activities, check out one of these butter lamb molds:
Easter lamb mold, $6 on amazon.com
Keller's butter lamb, $4 on wegmans.com
Butter lamb, $8 on buffalofoods.com