The history of the Easter butter lamb, an enduring Polish tradition in the states

The adorable Easter centerpiece is rich in religious symbolism

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published March 28, 2024 1:43PM (EDT)

Traditional easter butter lamb (Getty Images/PicturePartners)
Traditional easter butter lamb (Getty Images/PicturePartners)

This Sunday marks Easter, the annual holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. To celebrate, folks around the world will partake in a slew of traditions — many of which involve food. There’s eggs, which are commonly served decorated and hard-boiled, or as chocolate. There’s bun and cheese, a descendant of the hot cross bun that’s enjoyed alongside sliced cheese (or “tin cheese”) throughout the Caribbean. There’s East Indian Fugia, a fermented deep fried bread that looks like a balloon. And, there’s the Easter butter lamb, sometimes also called buttered lamb. 

The Easter butter lamb is exactly what its name implies: butter that’s shaped into a lamb either by hand or in a lamb-shaped mold. The tradition is especially common across the Midwest, but its actual origins trace back to Central and Eastern Europe. Amid the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants from Russia, Slovenia and Poland brought butter lambs with them when they came to America. The lamb itself represents Jesus, who is referred to as the Lamb of God in the New Testament: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  

Butter lamb, also known as “Baranek wielkanocny” in Polish, quickly became a newfound custom in local communities where Polish immigrants came in high numbers. “Wherever they settled, Polish immigrants went about building communities that were fiercely committed to the preservation of their national heritage and culture,” per the Library of Congress. Many settled in Milwaukee and in parts of Michigan, which has the third largest Polish population. A majority of immigrants also made their way to Illinois and New York — the top two states with the largest population of Poles.

In the city of Buffalo, the butter lamb is a specialty in Broadway Market, the heart of the old Polish district, thanks to Dorothy Malczewski (nicknamed Ma Malczewski). In 1963, Malczewski opened a poultry stand in the market and began selling butter lambs after she found her father’s butter lamb mold that he had brought to America from Kraków. Malczewski created five different sizes of butter lambs, which ranged from two ounces to two pounds. Her lambs were decorated with a trademark red “alleluia” (or Hallelujah) flag signifying peace on Earth, and a red ribbon tied around its neck that symbolized the Blood of Christ.

Malczewski’s butter lambs were a major success — so much so that she began distributing them to other local stores, and eventually chain supermarkets like Wegmans, Tops and more. Malczewski's Butter Lambs stand has continued to keep the Polish tradition alive for decades, even after Malczewski retired in 2004. Her son ran the business until 2012 when it was sold to the Cichocki Family, owners of Camellia Meats, a Polish fourth generation meat business.

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Centuries later, butter lamb remains an enduring tradition today. The lamb would traditionally be carried in a basket alongside rye bread, ham, colored eggs, kielbasa (any type of meat sausage from Poland), chocolate and other foods eaten during the Easter feast. It’s now typically served as a centerpiece on the Easter table or given as a gift to loved ones.

If you're in the DIY-spirit this Easter, be sure to try your hand at carving, molding and decorating your own butter lamb. As for the proper way to eat the lamb, start at the back end and leave the head for last!

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Broadway Market Easter Easter Butter Lamb Explainer Malczewski's Butter Lambs New York Poland Russia Slovenia