Over the past weeks, some Ukrainian-American women in Tucson have busied themselves in creating beautiful, intricate works of art — pysanky, or Ukrainian Easter eggs. Here’s how older women have told me they do it:
They start with a raw, white egg. They wash the egg and their hands and say a prayer. Then they dip the egg in the lightest color of a series of dyes. Then they write a design on the egg with melted wax. This design remains white. Then they dip the egg again in a slightly darker dye. This process of writing and dipping is repeated until they have applied all the designs and colors they want. The egg is then passed through a candle flame and the wax melts and is rubbed off. The result is an egg with intricate designs in red, yellow, white, black, and other colors.
The very fact that the process begins with prayer and cleansing suggests that more is involved than making pretty eggs. Each color and each design element has a traditional meaning in Ukrainian culture. The eggs are intended as gifts, and the colors and symbols should reflect the gender, character, and status of the intended recipient. The egg should be raw, I am told; to give a raw egg is to give the gift of life. Finally, the finished pysanka should be blessed by a priest.
One woman told me that after Jesus was captured, the Virgin Mary brought Pontius Pilate a bribe to free Him, as was the custom. Being a poor woman all she had was a dozen eggs. When Pilate refused her gift, in her agitation she dropped the basket on the floor. Instead of breaking, the eggs rolled around on the patterned marble floor of the palace, taking on designs and colors as they did so. She went back to where the eleven Disciples were and told them that her quest had failed. However, she showed them the beautifully patterned eggs, saying that this must be some sort of a sign from God. These were the first Christian pysanky.
Centuries later, when the first Christian missionaries preached in Ukraine, they would illustrate their sermons with the Christian symbols on the pysanky. When the pagan soldiers came to arrest them, they would throw the eggs down and crush them, saying “What eggs? What symbols?”
Nowadays, not all pysanky writers know these stories or follow these customs. Some eggs are emptied of their meat before being decorated, and pysanky may be put up for sale. But many Ukrainians can still tell you, as I was told, that every time a pysanka is made, the devil is pushed farther down, and on the day when the last woman makes the last pysanka, evil will reign triumphant in the world. May that day never come.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Alexandra Romanenko, “Babunia,” who was so generous with her knowledge and understanding.