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Ukrainian Easter Egg (Pysanka) – Tradition And Design

4easter-eggs-decorated-by-my-children2Once the winter season is nearing its end, the days become longer, the sun feels warmer, and the earth wakes up and shows signs of new life, we also feel refreshed and ready to celebrate Spring.  Some of the more popular spring celebrations in the United States include the visit by the Easter Bunny, Easter Egg Decorating, and Easter Egg Hunt.

Our family celebrates Spring with preparations for the Easter Sunday Holiday and the decorating of Easter Eggs.  There are many ways to decorate eggs, such as coloring them with edible dyes in all different pastel colors, placing colorful stickers, beads, ribbons, drawing designs with markers, etc.  There is also a very intricate egg decorating style, which I will introduce to you, and that is the Ukrainian Easter Egg, Pysanka, design.

My parents were my first mentors, and storytellers, about this old tradition, which was very popular in their native countries, Ukraine and Poland, and it continues to thrive in the Diaspora.

Egg decorating tradition dates back to pagan times, well over 2000 years before the time of Christ.  People believed that great power was embodied in the egg, so they decorated eggs in the Spring to celebrate the warmth of the sun which in turn brought back joy and vigor to life, after the cold winter months.

Decorated eggs were used by well-wishers for good luck, prosperity, and even fertility.  Single girls would make sure to have a nice collection of freshly decorated Easter Eggs to present to every young man who would visit their home during Easter time.

Also, on Easter Monday (still being an Easter Holiday in Ukraine and Poland) if girls ran out of Easter Eggs to give away as gifts, their male friends would bring them outside, and drench them with buckets of water.  This custom has died out somewhat, but children, especially boys, still have fun spraying the girls with water held in specially designed color plastic eggs with a sprayer top.

There also was an old legend that if you are lucky enough to preserve an Easter Egg for 100 years, the insides will dry out and turn into a diamond.  The 80-year-old Easter Eggs I have in my collections, will not prove this legend right or wrong, since these eggs are hollowed out, actually to my advantage (believe me, you don’t want one of these old whole eggs to crack open on you….).

With the introduction of Christianity, the ancient customs were absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.  The new meanings expressed in the design blended harmoniously with the old, so today the decorated eggs display a mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism in their design.

Ukrainian Easter Egg decorating is very intricate, since it requires the use of hot liquefied beeswax, flowing through a stylus, kistka, a metal funnel-like vessel attached to a wooden, pencil-like handle with which the artist is outlining a design on the shell of a raw white egg.  The color usage sequence is extremely important in Ukrainian Easter Egg decorating, to capture the most vibrant colors in the design of the final product, so it requires very thoughtful planning of the design as the first step, before starting to decorate the egg.

There are four basic colors used in Ukrainian Easter Egg decorating:  yellow, orange, red, and black.  Of course, there are numerous other colors incorporated in small amounts into the design, and some styles require other major colors, but the main four colors are almost always found in all designs.

What makes the Ukrainian Easter Eggs different from other designs, is the geometric pattern used in the majority of the designs.

The design elements also have a symbolic meaning, pagan and Christian, and here are some examples:

  • Flowers – a symbol of love, charity, goodwill
  • Wheat – a symbol of good health, and wishes for a bountiful harvest
  • Storks, chicks, hens, roosters – symbol of fertility
  • Triangles – symbol of trinity (air, fire, water; heaven, earth, hell; father, mother, child; sun, thunder, bonfire; Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  • Net – a symbol of “fishers of men”, used in Christianity
  • Pine needles – a symbol of long life, youth, and health
  • Sun and stars – symbol of life itself, growth, good fortune
  • Various forms of ribbons – a symbol of a never-ending line representing everlasting life

Now that I have introduced you to the egg decorating tradition, and a brief description of the Ukrainian Easter Egg decorating style, my next post will describe this process step by step, so stay tuned until then.

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