Pysanky Say Much More Than “Happy Easter”

There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson declared in her well-known poem.

There was also nothing like a circa-1975 16mm film to take five-year-olds to a faraway place where Easter eggs are serious business.

Every spring, my mother showed Pysanka: The Ukrainian Easter Egg to her Kindergarten class. They sat spellbound as they learned the history of making pysanky in the Ukraine, the symbolism behind the designs, and the technique of using dyes and beeswax to make these beautiful Easter eggs.

Pysanky by Ginny BaughmanFor centuries, people have decorated eggs to celebrate the return of spring, and the spiritual rebirth resulting from Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Ukrainian women became known for their colorfully patterned eggs, which they call pysanky, from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty,” meaning “to write.” The eggs are thought not only to keep evil away, but also to have special powers, such as healing the sick, bringing a baby to a childless couple, and protecting the home from fire. They were traditionally blessed by a priest on Easter morning, given to loved ones, placed on the graves of departed family members, and displayed in a special basket at home. Farmers hung them over a barn door or on fruit trees to bring a good harvest.

For what seems like centuries, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making a pysanka. This year, I finally registered for Ginny Baughman’s annual pysanky workshop at Inniswood Metro Park.

Ginny, a Westerville artist, became interested in Ukrainian egg decorating because her mother grew up in the Ukraine. For over 10 years, she has been teaching the skill.

Along with about 20 other participants, I took my place at a table set wiGinny Baughman's pysanky workshopth an egg whose contents had been blown out, candles, paper towels, sample designs, a cake of beeswax and a curious tool known as a kistka that we’d use to draw our design on the egg. The Ukrainian word “kistka” translates to “chicken bone,” which is probably what Ukrainians first used to transfer heated wax onto the eggshell in making pysanky.

Ginny told us about some of the meanings behind traditional pysanky designs so we could choose which ones we wanted to incorporate into our design. Triangles represent the Holy Trinity. Fish represent Jesus. Other patterns include birds, for good harvests and fulfilled wishes; flowers, for love; trees, for health; deer, for wealth and prosperity; wheat, for a bountiful harvest; butterflies, spiders, for good luck; crosses, for Christ’s death on the cross; stars, for success; and the sun, for life. Often, the surface of the egg is divided into wide bands where other designs are drawn.

First, we lightly drew the first part of our design in pencil on the surface of the egg. This was the part of the design that we wanted to stay white. Thinking in reverse was a big challenge.

Then, we scooped some beeswax into a small metal funnel at one end of the kistka and heated it over the flame of a candle until the wax melted enough to flow out a small opening at the opposite end like ink from a pen. A little gingerly and shakily at first, we traced the point of the kistka onto the design that we had drawn on the surface of the egg.

Carbon from the flame blackened the wax, making the lines drawn on the egg easier to see. Using beeswax is preferable to using paraffin, because beeswax heats to a higher temperature, draws a finer line on the shell, and adheres better to the surface.

Ginny Baughman's pysanky workshopMore tables were set with vinegar-filled glass jars, each one tinted with a different color of powdered aniline dye. Beside the traditional yellow, orange, red, green and black dyes used for pysanky, we could try other shades like blue, pink, purple and brown.

Ginny explained that the colors used to make pysanky have special meanings: white for purity; yellow for sunshine and warmth; orange for strength and ambition; green for springtime and life; red for charity, love and hope; blue for the sky, health and truth; purple for faith; and black for remembrance.

We plunged the egg first in the yellow dye because it was the lightest shade, holding it there as we counted to 30. PysankaAfter it dried, we applied the wax over areas on the egg that we wanted to stay yellow, to protect them during the next dye bath. Then, we dunked the egg in the next darkest shade: orange.

The slow, careful process of waxing and dyeing continued until our design was finished and the egg was covered in wax, depending on how elaborate the design was.

Pysanka

To remove the wax, we held our egg close to the candle flame to warm the layers of wax, remembering not to hold it directly over the flame so it wouldn’t scorch our work. As the wax melted, we carefully rubbed the egg with a paper towel and the design appeared like magic.Ginny Baughman's pysanky workshop

Some of us used as many dyes as we could. Others stuck with one color, making a very dramatic finished product.

Pysanka

Here’s how mine turned out.  Click here to see photos of the pysanky created by students Ginny taught in Miami University’sCraftWinter and CraftSummer workshops.  

Pysanka

If we wanted to try what we learned at home, we could purchase extra pysanky decorating supplies. They’re also available to buy from the Ukrainian Gift Shop.

Pysanky in the Ukrainian Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

Pysanky in the Ukrainian Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

For more on pysanky, see Ukrainian Design Book, by Natalie Perchyshyn, Luba Perchyshyn, Johanna Luciow, and Ann Kmit; Ukrainian Egg Decoration: A Holiday Tradition, by Ann Stalcup; “Pysanky: Craftsmanship, Ritual Meaning and Ethnic Identity,” a chapter by Doris J. Dyen in Craft and Community: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Society, edited by Shalom D. Staub; “Eggs of Heaven: Ukrainian Pysanky” in Enduring Visions: Women’s Artistic Heritage Around the World, by Abby Remer; Art from Many Hands: Multicultural Art Projects, by Jo Miles Schuman; Easter Eggs By The Dozens: Fun And Creative Egg-Decorating Projects For All Ages, by Rhonda Massingham Hart; and The Magic Babushka, by Phyllis Limbacher Tildes. Want to see some real showstopper pysanky with both traditional designs and unique ones inspired by quilts and lace patterns? Check out Decorating Eggs: Exquisite Designs with Wax & Dye, by Jane Pollak.

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