It doesn’t happen too often but in this year the Easter celebrations of both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of my childhood meet on the same Sunday. I heard the bells early this morning from both of the churches I have attended on Easter, the Catholic church where I also went to school, and the Ukrainian Orthodox church where I occasionally took my mother in later years. I remember both traditions of Lent and the Stations of the Cross on hot afternoon in a church with no air conditioning, filling a small old basket with some decorated butter and a small paska, a small jar of honey, a homemade pysanky and few slices of kielbasa, covered with a special embroidered cloth. Of all of it, the pysanky are what stay with me, and in the patterns and colors of the eggs and the cross-stitch cloth I see my own palette today.
Nearly every year I go to the annual pysanky sale at the Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in Carnegie, a huge event where people purchase eggs decorated in traditional East European designs, often using centuries-old tools and techniques. My grandparents helped to develop and build this church. Those pictured are mine, and only one is a traditional natural-egg pysanky while the others are wooden.
Many eggs are real eggs which have had the contents forced out through pinholes top and bottom, others have simply let the contents dry inside. These eggs are colored in much the same way as fabrics are batiked, using wax to draw a section of the design and then dipped in successively darker shades of dye.
Usually white eggs are used. For instance, the section of a design that was to be white would be drawn out in wax lines using a tool called a “kistka”, which is like a tiny metal funnel attached to a handle as long as but a little thinner than a pencil. The narrow end of the kistka is held over a flame, such as a candle, for a few seconds until it’s hot, then the narrow end of the funnel is pressed into a block of wax so it collects in the funnel, preferrably beeswax because it melts and stays soft long enough to work, but hardens quickly enough not to drip. The wax flows out like a fountain pen, and after the design is drawn and the wax is allowed to harden, the egg is dipped in the next lightest color, usually yellow. The areas where the wax was applied remain white. Then the yellow areas of the design are drawn in wax and the egg is dipped in the next color. When the egg is done being designed, it’s dipped in hot water which easily melts the beeswax, and what remains of the wax is gently rubbed onto the surface to protect the design and add a soft shine to the shell.
Other eggs are hand-tooled from wood and painted, still using the traditional designs, as are most of the ones in the photo above. Some appear purely decorative, but each element of the design, even what appear to be just patterns, are symbolic of something. You’ll frequently see wheat, the symbol of plenty from the “breadbasket” of Eastern Europe, in a land where many knew hunger, and flowers, symbolic of new life the world over. On the left-hand egg you see letters which are in Cyrillic script which looks like “Bockpec” but which is actually pronounced “Voskres”. On the other side of the egg is “Xpnctoc” (though the “n” looks backward) or “Christos”; together they are “Christos Voskrese” or “Christ is Risen”.
My grandparents made their own eggs every year, much simpler in design and always white with one color. I learned the traditional pysanky above later, but earlier I learned my grandparents’ technique through my aunt, who continued the tradition of making about a dozen of them each Easter. I remember punching holes in the top and bottom of an eggshell with a straight pin and blowing into one end or the other to force the contents out, usually destroying two or three of a dozen by making holes too large or breaking them while forcing the contents out.
But we’d press the straight pin into the wooden end of a matchstick, light a candle and dip the flat head of the pin in the melting wax, then draw quick lines on the egg, fat at one end, thin at the other. We’d usually create a starburst of a dozen or more lines on both ends, the thin ends pointing to the hole we’d made in each end of the egg, then around the middle we’d have some pattern resembling wheat or simple stylized flowers, always symmetrical, though the designs were nearly impossible to see. We’d let the wax cool and dip the eggs in strong tea or beet juice or simply commercial food coloring and suddenly there would be our design.
All those eggs are gone now, but I think I’ll take some time to make a few this week to add to my collection.