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A fragile tradition

‘Fate of world’ said to rely on Ukrainian craft

(Published March 25, 2002)


Staff Writer

It can take as long as six hours to complete work on one pysanka, those decorative and delicate Ukrainian Easter eggs.

The young man concentrated intensely, as he heated a beeswax-filled tool over a candle flame before using it to draw intricate designs on his egg.

The result would be no ordinary Easter egg. He was creating pysanka, those delicate and colorful decorative eggs that are an Eastern European tradition.

Of those who gathered recently to make pysanka at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine in Northeast Washington, some chose to use their boundless creative abilities while others adhered to the customary and detailed symbols, patterns and colors that reflect the Ukrainian tradition. One mother, a novice at making this decorative art form, leaned over to catch a glimpse while her expert husband sketched lines and patterns on his perfectly shaped egg.

"I really don’t know how this is going to turn out," said one lady as she dipped her egg into an orange dye bath. To her amazement, the egg turned a vivid red – with white and yellow patterns still intact from a protective wax coating applied earlier in the process.

Others knew precisely how their decorated eggs would turn out, especially Mariana Kanyuka, a pysanka specialist and Ukranian artist. She carefully drew the designs with wax and dipped her egg into multiple jars of dye, from lightest to darkest, knowing full well that if she made one small mistake, she would have to begin again.

The process requires a lot of patience and practice and can take as long as six hours to complete, said Jurij Dobczansky, who led the 19th annual pysanka workshop on March 17.

"The final step of draining the raw egg is delicate and very important," he said. "Imagine if the egg was not drained and later suddenly exploded in your china cabinet."

The expressions of those who were making their pysanka ranged from furrowed brows to laughter as they spoke to their family and friends in their native language and watched their colorful creations come to life. They painstakingly punctured their eggs with a hypodermic needle to drain the inside after they melted all of the protective wax off with the help of a candle flame.

The process of designing pysanka requires different tools than what is found in a normal Easter egg kit sold at a local store. And those who are very serious about creating pysanka do so for 40 days during Lent, as opposed to dying a dozen eggs in one hour the day before Easter Sunday.

They use a kistka, the tool used to draw with hot wax, to protect from dye the surface that should remain white.

"After conserving the areas, you will put the egg in the first dye that’s yellow, and then all parts of the design that are yellow get covered with wax to seal in the color," Dobczansky said.

The same process is continued by "writing" with wax on different colored backgrounds that result from successively dipping the egg in a series of dye baths from yellow to orange, then blue. Green dye needs to be added with a paintbrush. The patterns are revealed once the wax layers are removed. "Pysanky" – the plural for "pysanka" – comes from the Ukrainian verb "pysaty," which means "to write."

The egg is a symbol of nature’s rebirth as part of Ukrainian tradition and the rich ethnic heritage is encoded with designs, symbols and patterns that date from more than 1,000 years ago. "The eight-pointed star symbolizes the sun, a hand symbolizes the hand of God, trees represent health and pines represent life because they are always green," Dobczansky said.

The Ukrainian Easter egg tradition is continued because it is thought to ensure peace and to alleviate human suffering, and – according to Dobczansky – "the fate of the world relies on the continuation of the tradition."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator