I was raised in Western Pennsylvania (Lyndora near Butler), where Grandpa and Grama Markiw settled. My father, Michael, was also from Ukrainian descent. With my father and my mother, Anne, I grew up in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church and was there for 18 years (until I married and left home)..during which time I was taught how to cook traditional Ukrainian cuisine, embroider pillowcases and aprons with Ukrainian designs, learn the Ukrainian language (dobree), Ukrainian folk dancing (hopak kolum) and also the fine art of egg decorating (pysanky). I have been doing this since I was 12 years of age, which makes that some 50 years!!
The art of making these eggs goes back many years.. but approximately the year 988 A.D. is when the Ukrainians accepted Christianity, and that's when the egg's symbols took on different meanings.. According to Ukrainian legend, people decorated eggs believing that great powers were embodied in the egg. To them, eggs symbolized the release of the earth from the shackles of winter and the coming of spring with its promises of new hope, new life and prosperity, and that as long as pysanky were decorated, goodness would prevail over evil throughout the world.
The symbols took on many different shades concerning good luck and tightening the chain on ‘evil' in the world....Must not be too many made??? Eh? We should send hundreds over the Iraq.. don't you think??
Many ancient Ukrainians believed the eggs possessed magical powers and that wealth could be obtained by decorating the eggs with certain symbols. When Christianity was introduced into the Ukraine, the symbols changed and others were added to reflect Christianity, the Resurrection and a promise of eternal life.
Making pysanky became a Lenten ritual in Ukraine. A family produced many eggs during this time to be shared with friends and family and the local priest. Some were planted or placed in the fields or feeding troughs to insure a wealth or abundance in their crops and livelihood. Some were placed by the family graves or placed in the coffins out of respect for their loved one. Others were kept in the home for protection. And then, some were presented to young men as signs of affection. It seems that the women of the house were to make all these eggs during Lent. They even had secret recipes for their own special dyes in the villages. These were always handed down from mother to daughter. An interesting piece of information I found was that before they would begin to create the pysanky, they would pray "God help me" and they also prayed that the person who received the eggs would be given joy, good fortune, happiness and protection from harm.
The process - although looking difficult - is very simple. It is a long process and takes a steady hand, time, and patience. Once completed, you have a real sense of accomplishment.
Begin using a clean smooth white egg, a candle, beeswax, and the tool, which is called a ‘kistka'. The egg must be at room temperature. If the egg is cold or even cool, when the wax is applied, it can come right off. Just like our skin has pores to breathe, the egg also has pores. When the egg is covered with the wax, it fills the pores, therefore preserving what is underneath. Be sure your hands are washed, clean and dried. Any oils or sweat from your skin can cause the dyes not to take or smear.
The kistka is a small wooden dowel with a hole drilled through one end where a small copper funnel-like cone is inserted and wrapped secure by copper wiring. It is a conductor of the heat and the tip comes in different sizes so the lines may be fine to thick as it's put upon the egg. The beeswax is a softer wax..and is inserted into the wide part of the funnel. Then the kistka is heated by direct contact to the candle. The design begins usually by encircling a line completely around the egg and then it becomes a series of adding or connecting lines in a geometric pattern. Sometimes..flowers, and other pictures and symbols are added to the eggs (to be explained later.)
After the initial design is put on the egg with the wax, the egg being white itself is sealed by the wax. It is then put into the lightest color dye (usually yellow)...(These dyes are chemical called analine dyes and are not edible and are permanent.) When the egg is removed from the dye, everything under the wax will remain white because it is preserved by the wax on it. The next step is to fill in with wax everything you want to keep yellow...whether it is filling in an area or drawing something new on will be protected. Then it is put into the next darker shade and so on and so on until the process is done and the egg is nearly covered with wax.
Above is a sample of an egg in 6 stages.
First white with initial design written, then dipped in yellow and covered with wax..then dipped in orange and filling in the spaces that need to be covered.
I then put it into a blue and repeated the procedure. And then it was placed in a deep red and wax was filled in to preserve the red. In the last photo..you can see that it's completely covered with wax and looks really pretty unattractive.. and black...the last dye was black and we will remove the wax to reveal the beautiful design beneath.
When finally complete, the egg is heated to the side of the candle until the wax begins to melt and is wiped away with a soft paper towel or clean rag to reveal the beautiful design underneath..The egg is then covered with a thin coat of varnish or polyurethene spray (I use this) ..to protect it and give it a shine. I have an egg drier made out of cardboard and many thumb tacks sticking up on which to dry them.
The best part of demonstrating this to any group, is to watch their faces when they see this egg completely covered in black wax and I melt and wipe away the wax to reveal this marvelous treasure underneath. There's always "ooooohs.." and "aaaaaaahs" to be heard.. It never ceases to amaze me that no two eggs I've made are ever totally alike. It's like a snowflake..in a way. Even if it's the same design, the dye may not color it the same or I may add or take away something little. They are certainly unique and one-of-a-kind works of art. Each egg seems to have its own personality.
The eggs are raw and will eventually dry up. I now blow them all the time because in order to ship them, they must be blown out because of shipping (airplanes..and pressure) They would surly explode!!
I have since learned to blow them out after the egg is complete and before the wax is removed.. I also have begun to make ornaments for Christmas using a snowflake pattern.
Eggs can take as little as hour for me or as much as 3 hours..depending upon the intricacy of the design.. I usually like to work on three eggs at a time. This way I'm working on some, while dying others, and keep myself occupied doing so. In March, 2001 I made my first ostrich egg. The picture posted below is one I made a few years ago. It took over 22 hours to make. (not a one sitting:)
Here are some meanings of the colors:
Black - Remembrance, eternity, and death.
White - Purity, birth, virginity, and ignorance
Lavender - Patience, power, royalty.
Yellow - Spirituality, youth, light, purity, happiness, wisdom.
Green - Youth, growing, renewal, freshness, hope (in Christianity, victory of life over death.)
Red - Beauty, love, passion, enthusiasm.
Orange - Endurance, strength, power.
Brown - Earth
Blue - Sky and good health from good air
These are some meanings of some of the symbols:
The egg itself represents life and with the eternal cycle of creation
Birds - Fertility
Deer - Wealth/Prosperity
Horns - Nobility, wisdom, and triumph over problems
Roosters - Symbols of good fortune, masculinity, or the coming of dawn
Hens - Represent fertility
Butterflies - The ascent of the soul and the pleasure of childhood
Spiders - Patience, artistry, and industry
Leaves & flowers - Life/Growth
Circles - Protection and everlasting life, continuity, and completeness, as well as the sun
Suns - The life-giving, all-embracing, all-renewing nature of God
Stars and roses - Purity, life, the giver of light, divine will of God, and God's love for humanity (John 3:16).
Wheat - Bountiful Harvest
Rakes -Successful harvest
Plant symbols - Stand for rebirth and nature
Trees - strength, renewal, creation, growth and eternal life
Leaves - Immortality, eternal or pure love, strength and persistence
Flowers - Beauty, children, the female principles of wisdom
Fruit - Continuity, good fellowship, strong and loyal love, and love of God
Grapevine - Good fruits of the Christian life
Triangle - The Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)and the elements of air, fire and water
Lines, waves, ribbons encircling the egg - (In any style) Everlasting life
Ladders - Prayers going up to heaven
The 8-pointed star - Ancient symbol for Jesus Christ
Dots or small circles - Mary's tears or the sun
Curls - Symbols for protection
Spirals - The mystery of life and death, as well as divinity and immortality
Netting - Jesus was "Fisher of men" (and still is)
Cross - Jesus died on the cross for our sins, His crucifixion
Fish (IKTHYS)- Greek symbol for Christianity (secret symbol..used by the early Christians)
I have had the privilege and opportunity over the last 20+ years to share this ancient art to many different school classrooms and groups, libraries, art schools, teacher's workshops, school art festivals, and gift shops. It has been especially precious to me because it not only gives me the opportunity to share the wealth of my Ukrainian heritage and culture...but also to share my faith through the symbolism that it represents concerning God, Jesus Christ and many other aspects of Christianity. For that, I am very grateful and will always use this open door too.
You or anyone else you know is interested in having a group of 10 to 12 or even individuals. I give 4 hour workshops at my home through out the year. It doesn't only have to be the Easter season.
The workshops vary in price according to the number attending. For a list of prices, please email me. Fees include not only your tool to take with you, but also take-home papers with instructions and helps along with all the supplies used to give this classes and also a little lunch.
Groups of 10 or more are at a lower fee (which usually is for girl scouts, church, and home-schooling groups.) A one hour demonstration done outside my home (within a reasonable distance) is $45. If you have any further questions, please feel free to email me.