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Every year during the first week of the Great Fast, we set up a little card table in the family room with some chairs, and set out the a dozen raw white eggs, a few chunks of beeswax, a few candles and matches. We put a little woven pot-holder at each place to make a soft spot upon which to set our eggs as my children and I decorate them for Pascha, according to our Slavic tradition of Pysanki. Whenever we can spare a few moments during the day, we can sit and draw the next layer of our design onto the eggs and place them lovingly and carefully into the next darkest jar of dye, eagerly awaiting our finished product. We have quite a collection and often wonder how many generations before us have done exactly the same thing at this time of year.

Archeologists have discovered ceramic pysanky eggs in Ukraine which have been dated as far back as 1300 years before the time of Christ. Six thousand years ago, the Trypilljan culture flourished in Ukraine. It existed 3000 years before the Patriarch Abraham and long before Greek mythology and the Bronze Age. They were a pagan, matriarchal society that worshipped "mother earth". In both design and color, Trypilljan symbolism echoed the people's close attachment to the soil and other elements of nature. Ukrainian symbolic art is based, in large measure, on these early symbols, the most notable of which is the Ukrainian meander or unending line, which denotes the cyclical nature of life. Other examples include such motifs as the circle, cross, stars, dots, wheat, fir tree, horse, stag, horns and bear's paws.

With the acceptance of Christianity in Ukraine in the year 988 A.D. pysanky eggs became a part of the Christian tradition of Easter and now took on the meaning of the rebirth of man and the resurrection of God. The egg symbol was likened to the tomb from which Christ arose. It is difficult to determine where the pagan beliefs and customs of pysanky end and where the Christian symbolism begins, but it appears that a blending of both has occurred.

Photo credit: Lillian Baron; ByziKids Magazine Great Fast Edition

The tradition of decorating eggs, especially at Easter or in spring, was widespread through Europe. Nowhere, however, did the decoration of eggs become so vital a part of a society’s culture as it did in Ukraine. The people in Ukraine came to see the egg, now referred to as pysanky, as a part of daily life and were believed to be powerful talismans against evil.

The practice of giving pysanky became part of the Ukrainian tradition and also served as a means of preserving and continuing the art of pysanky itself. For centuries the designs and symbols used on pysanky were handed down from mother to daughter. There were special symbols by which to denote which family, or in which village the egg was crafted. The cultural heritage of the Slavic people was entrusted this way.

When Easter drew near, women would set to work creating just the right pysanka for each loved one. Pysanky used to be made at night by women only when the rest of the household was asleep. Before a woman could begin a pysanky she needed to be in the right spiritual frame of mind. The day prior to her beginning her pysanky she would spend a day “without sin”, avoid speaking ill of anyone, would exercise patience in dealing with others, and she would tenderly care for her family. No one was allowed to observe her creating her pysanky since the sole purpose of pysanky art was to ward off evil. She would speak certain prayers to ensure that this pysanka would bring prosperity, protection or other goodwill to the recipient. In this way, the egg became an object which exemplified the prayerful love of the artist for the one who would receive her gift.

Pysanky eggs are

decorated with a method similar to batik, where one writes with wax over those portions of the design which are to remain the color underneath the wax. The egg is then dipped into the lightest dye, written upon again, dipped, and the process continues until the desired design is completed. The wax is heated and transferred to the egg using a kistka, which is a tool having a small metal funnel attached to the end of a stick.

Pysanky Legends

One of the most popular, and oldest, pysanky legends tells of a young woman who was on her way home from the market in town. She had with her a jug of fresh water for her journey and a basket of eggs. On her way she met a stranger sitting on a rock. Thinking he must be a tired traveler, she offered him a drink of her water. When he handed the water back to her, she was surprised to see that he had wounds on his hands. The stranger said nothing, but got up and went in the opposite direction of the young woman. When she arrived home, she uncovered her basket and discovered her eggs had been turned into beautiful pysanky.  The stranger, of course, had been Jesus Christ, and that was the first Easter morning.

Another story is of a poor man who was on his way to the market in town with a basket of eggs. Just outside of town, he came upon a crowd of people who were mocking and jeering a man who was carrying two wooden beams. The poor man put his basket down and ran to help the man to carry the heavy wooden load. After helping, the poor man returned to his basket of eggs by the road. Then he discovered that all of the eggs had become beautifully decorated in stunning designs and lovely colors. The poor man was Simon of Cyrene, and the man carrying the wooden beams was, of course, Jesus Christ.

A different pysanky story tied to Holy Week tells that after Jesus was arrested, His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, prepared a basket of eggs to present to Pilate. She hoped to present them and ask for mercy for her Son’s life. As she prepared the eggs, her tears fell on them, forming designs of many colors.  When Mary went before Pilate, she fell to the floor in grief and the eggs rolled out of the basket and across the floor. The eggs continued to roll until they were found by people all around the world. 

Perhaps one of the most repeated pysanky stories tells of the journey of Mary Magdalene and her companions on the morning after the Sabbath. The women were on their way to Christ’s tomb to anoint His body with sweet spices. They had taken along a basket of hard boiled eggs to eat after their work was completed. But when they got to the tomb, the stone was moved aside. They set down their basket and spices and went inside, only to find the tomb was empty. When they joyfully left the burial place, having discovered that Christ had risen, they found that the eggs in their basket had been changed into many bright and beautiful colors.

There is this old legend that underscores the power and influence that Ukrainians believe pysanky have in the world. Far away, it is said, there is a very large and evil monster chained to a cliff. This monster has servants who travel in every country each year taking a count of how many pysanky have been made for Easter. Each year that fewer eggs have been decorated, the monster’s chains are loosened and there is more evil in the world.  If ever there are no pysanky made, the evil one would be released and he would destroy the world. But, in years that many pysanky are made, the monsters chains are held tight. In those years the power of love and the goodness that the pysanky bring is felt throughout all nations, bringing peace and harmony to all.

Making Pysanky!

Step 1. Clean!

Be sure your hands and eggs are clean. Oils from your hands can block the dye from adhering to your egg.

Step 2. Plan your Design

Until you become accustomed to making pysanky, you can draw your design guidelines on your egg in pencil. To keep the lines straight and even, you may use a rubber band as a guide. When the wax is removed later, it will remove these pencil lines with it. If you make a mistake, Do Not Erase! Erasing can scratch the egg shell surface causing uneven dying.

Step 3: Applying the Wax

Heat the funnel of the kistka in the flame of the candle, being careful to keep the tip of the funnel out of the flame so that soot will not build up on it, block the kistka, Place the heated kistka onto the block of beeswax to melt the wax into a little puddle. Scoop molten wax from this puddle into the funnel of the tool.

Step 4: Write on the Egg

Once your tool is full, you may need to reheat it in order for the wax to flow well. Use the tool just as you would a pencil to draw on the surface of the egg everywhere that you would like the egg to remain white. It can be helpful to keep your pinky anchored on the egg surface to steady your hand.

Step 5: Dying the Egg

With a spoon, carefully lower the egg into the lightest color dye that you’ll be using for your design. Do Not Drop the Egg into the Dye! Dropping the egg can cause it to crack. Sometimes these cracks are not visible until the final wax removal stage after hours of work have been put into an egg.

Step 6: Remove the Egg from the First Dye

When your egg reaches the desired depth of color, remove the egg from the dye by lifting it up with the spoon, and then lift the egg up off the spoon with a paper towel. Do not roll the egg off the spoon onto the paper towel, as this pour excess dye left in the bottom of the spoon into your hand as well. Always use a clean paper towel for each egg. The same paper towel can be used for successive dye baths on the same egg... but if you used a paper towel on an egg that is contaminated with colors you have not already used on that egg, you can transfer dye from the towel onto your egg, marring it. Pat the excess dye off the egg.

Step 7: Repeat

Repeat the Waxing and Dying steps for each color of dye in your design. Remember that the areas you are waxing are going to stay the color they are at the time you apply the wax. There is no need to apply wax over the final color of the design.

Step 8: Removing the Wax

The traditional way to remove wax from the eggs is with the heat of a candle flame. Hold the egg close to the candle flame until the wax softens and then wipe the melted wax away with a paper towel or a tissue. Be careful NOT to hold the egg in or directly over the flame! Holding the egg in the flame can transfer soot onto the surface of the egg. This soot will be almost impossible to remove and can ruin a beautiful egg.

Step 9: Finishing Touches

Voila! Your done! Well, at least you can be... you can stop here and have a 100% authentic traditionally dyed egg. Eggs left whole (unblown) will eventually dry out over time. As the egg dries out, it releases gasses slowly through the shell. If the egg is kept in a open area with good circulation, this helps it age safely. If the egg is kept in an enclosed space (or sometimes just out of spite on the part of the egg) the gasses can build up and cause the egg to "pop" cracking it's shell and ruining it. Exploding eggs do not smell good... are not fun to clean up... and can scare the heck out of you at 2 am. How do you avoid them?

After you are finished with the dyeing process and have removed the wax, coat the eggshell with a layer of oil-based polyurethane. It must be oil-based, because a water based polyurethane will run the dyes. The polyurethane will protect the dyed pattern from moisture and help prevent fading in strong light. It is still not advisable to store eggs in direct sunlight to prevent fading. The polyurethane also adds quite a bit of strength to the fragile egg shell. Once the egg is sealed, it can be blown without the egg innards marring the dyed design of the shell. As a final step, to make sure that any remaining egg inside the shell dries out, you may opt to bake the finished egg in a low oven (somewhere around 150-175 degrees) for about an hour.

Foods and spices such as beets, red onion skins, red cabbage, turmeric, and yellow onion skins can all be used to make natural dyes for your white eggs!

Directions: Combine the chopped or shredded ingredients with a cup of boiling water and a Tablespoon of white vinegar in a heatproof cup or bowl. Let stand at least one hour until room temperature; strain through a fine strainer reserving the liquid. Let eggs sit in dye until desired color is obtained. Gently pat dry, do not rub hard; store dyed eggs in the refrigerator. If dyeing eggs overnight, make sure to store the eggs in dye in the refrigerator. NOTE: The more ingredient you use, the darker your dye will be. Sometimes people use bags and bags of onion skins in only a cup or so of water to make their eggs a brilliant red! Try and see!

Tips for Dyeing:

• Make sure your hands are clean and grease-free.

• Wash eggs in vinegar water to remove any dirt or grease on eggshells.

• Once eggs are clean handle as little as possible. Use spoons to insert and remove eggs from dye.

• Gently pat eggs almost dry using paper towels.

• Place on drying rack if available (to make a drying rack place push pins in a sheet of Styrofoam or an egg carton)

• Let stand to air dry completely before storing

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