The tradition is called pysanky — the beautiful painted Easter eggs that were originally created to bless every part of life in Ukraine as talismans of prosperity, fertility, healing and protection, long life and bounty.
Each painted egg is called a pysanka and for millennia in Ukrainian life, were placed in homes and barns, under beehives, hung on trees, given as gifts on special occasions, even buried with the dead.
Pysanky are most associated today with Easter, as Christians celebrate the resurrection; many are inscribed with intricate Christian designs such as the cross and the fish.
But Ukrainians have been designing and painting eggs since before the time of Christ, said Ruth Radebaugh, a staff member at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson.
“The tradition has been going on forever,” she said. “The religious symbols (painted on the eggs) started after Christ.”
The exquisite egg decoration is done with what is called the wax-resist method, in which designs are drawn on eggs with wax and immersed in successive dye-baths to reveal different colors and designs when the wax is removed.
A wealth of different symbols drawn and dyed onto the eggs all carry deep meaning, Rebecca Young-Sletten told her class of students at Bismarck High School, who were learning pysanky this past week as an art form.
The egg carried sacred meaning in the Ukrainian tradition, she told her students. Each color has its own meaning, which along with specific symbols, can represent many things, from fall’s bounty to spring awakening, rebirth, happiness, fertility in marriage, and more.
To show how powerful symbols can be, Young-Sletten explained to the class that one which has become synonymous with the Nazi Party — the swastika, or broken cross — actually began as an ancient Sanskrit symbol of good luck.
Young-Sletten displayed some completed eggs to the class, each a kaleidoscope of vivid primary colors — black and red, blue, yellow, orange, green and white — to show them what experienced pysanky artists can achieve.
The eggs used for pysanky are not hard-boiled; instead, they are decorated — very carefully — then varnished. When complete, a small hole can be made in both the top and the bottom of the egg and the contents blown out.
Yolks of eggs that haven’t been emptied will eventually petrify — you can hear them rattle if shaken, Young-Sletten said.
Some people also design on wooden eggs, and Young-Sletten has an enormous ostrich-egg, which she is decorating with Irish motifs for her own heritage, she said.
Expert pysanky artists can hold the eggs in their hands as they draw the designs, she said, because with practice they have learned the right tension. For her students, she handed out baskets of thick crumpled newspaper to hold the eggs while they worked on them.
To begin creating a pysanky egg, she showed the students how to divide the egg into four quadrants with a light pencil line; from there, the design can blossom into unlimited decorative forms and shapes from flowers to birds to abstract geometrics, she said.
The design is applied with a stylus, or writing tool, called a kistka, which holds a tiny well of beeswax. Held over a candle, the beeswax begins to melt and is then dispensed through a pen-point opening onto the egg. The beeswax is dark gray, allowing the artist to see where they have applied the wax onto the egg, Young-Sletten said.
Wherever the wax is applied, the egg will remain white once the wax is melted off during the process, she said.
After the first wax lines are applied, the eggs are immersed into the first dye bath, usually yellow, she said. The next wax lines are then applied, and those second lines will remain yellow. The process is repeated through all the dye colors, in order from light to dark in the spectrum.
When the dyeing process is complete, Young-Sletten said she puts eggs into the oven under low heat to melt the wax. When she carefully wipes off the wax, the varied colors that the wax has protected during each dye bath are revealed.
Radebaugh said that she believes there is increased interest, especially among the young, in learning about their Ukrainian heritage. The Ukrainian Cultural Institute offers an annual pysanka workshop to the public.
There is a Ukrainian saying, Radebaugh said — that as long as people are still making pysanky, evil will not engulf the world.
Reach reporter Karen Herzog at 250-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.