Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ukrainian Easter Eggs (Pysanky)

Lubap Creator:Luba PetrushaCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Weird mental associations: I scrambled up some eggs for dinner tonight and this brought to mind the intricately designed Ukrainian Easter eggs I remember classmates bringing into school when I was young. Growing up on the Westside, there were a number of Ukrainian families that preserved the art of making pysanky, the Ukrainian word for these intricately decorated eggs. After seeing these, our efforts to dye eggs looked pretty lame!

The name (plural of pysanka) means “to write” or “inscribe” and refers to the method used to create the intricate patterns. A tool called a kistka is used to apply beeswax (the inscribing) to areas you want to keep from dying. After each dying, new areas are inscribed, a process that leads to the intricate mosaic of the finished egg, which is often varnished to protect the colors and placed on a decorative stand.

The custom of painting pysanky has been traced back to pre-Christian eras. It was believed they could ward off evil. Later the eggs, symbolizing new life, were seen as symbols of Easter, when Jesus rose to new life. Some likened the egg to the tomb from which Christ arose.

The different color dyes, usually with deeper colors than typical Easter egg dyes symbolized different meanings:

  • White: innocence, purity, birth
  • Orange: endurance, strength, the sun
  • Yellow: light, purity, youth
  • Green: new growth, hope, spring
  • Blue: good health, air, the sky
  • Red: love, passion, happiness
  • Black: darkness, eternity

I’ve never done this and so the description that follows is based on online articles and videos. If you want to do this, you might contact a local Ukrainian church to see if there are workshops being offered or even someone willing to walk you through the process. I suspect there are lots of tips they can offer beyond this basic outline (there are whole books on doing this). You will need eggs, preferably the best quality possible, an egg blower (many available online), a kistka to apply melted beeswax to the egg, beeswax, and dye packets. You may want to use a finish of wood varnish. Aside from the eggs, most of these are available at a local hobby and craft store or online. The process:

  • Drill two holes in the egg and blow the contents out (you may need to use a paper clip to break up the yolk) and then rinse out the interior of the egg with a bulb syringe (often part of an egg blowing kit). Use beeswax to seal the holes. Some skip this step, but sometimes the inside contents expand and break the egg and you have a smelly mess on your hands.
  • Use a pencil to draw the pattern and designs. Then use the kistka with melted beeswax to draw your basic design. You might practice on paper first. The areas drawn on will remain white in the final design.
  • Begin with a light (yellow) die, or your lightest colors.
  • After dying, use the kistka to fill in the areas you want to remain yellow, and then die your next color.
  • Repeat this process with each dye color in your design. Dye from light colors to dark.
  • When you are finished, use a blow dryer or other heat source to carefully melt the beeswax without burning the dye. When you’ve cleaned off all the beeswax, you may finish with a wood varnish to protect the dyes.
  • Display the finished egg on a stand to show off your artwork.

Here’s a quick video demonstrating the process:

You might also enjoy this story, “Masury woman dedicates life hobby to Ukrainian egg art,” about Masury resident Carol Novosel, whose work will be on display and for sale at the 35th Annual Ukrainian Egg Festival will be held on Sunday, April 10, 2022 from 1-4 p.m. at St. John’s Church in Sharon. 

Pysanky were part of Easter celebrations for many Youngstown families, and many others who were attracted by the beauty of these eggs. And in this time, they represent the rich culture so many are fighting to preserve in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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