Of all the multicultural traditions that make up the Canadian mosaic, the pysanka, or Ukrainian Easter egg, is one of the most beautiful and symbolic. Every year, in preparation for Easter, Ukrainian-Canadians spend busy hours "writing" Easter eggs, as their ancestors have done for generations.
Pysanka: A family tradition
Joan Nakonechny of Vernon, B.C., author of Pysanka: Easter Egg Art, learned to write eggs as a little girl growing up in Pine River, Man. "For two weeks before Easter," she recalls, "we would meet at Granny's to decorate eggs. Hers was the kind of house you wanted to visit, because Granny knew how to make learning fun. She always had lots of time to help you and she always had a cookie or a hot cinnamon bun waiting when you finished."
For Linda Lazarowich, former director and chief curator of the Ukrainian Museum of Canada in Saskatoon, decorating eggs was a tender, quiet family time. "At the end of a long day on the farm, after the dinner dishes had been done, the dyes would come out. The eggs had been gathered that morning. We had our own bees and beeswax. My father made the stylus (writing instrument) with dowelling and little pieces of brass saved from large wall calendars. Only the dyes were purchased. Before beginning, Baba, my grandmother, would always recite a prayer: 'God, please give us the help to make these eggs.' "
The origin of Pysanka
The word pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb psalty, to write; the art involves writing designs on an egg with melted beeswax, which flows from a stylus called a kystka. This wax-resist technique is done on different coloured backgrounds produced by dipping the egg into a series of dye baths ranging from light to darker colours.
The colours and design motifs used are steeped in symbolism. For example, the star represents God's love, and a straight line encircling the egg stands for the continuous thread of life. Yellow is the symbol of light and purity and speaks of youth and happiness. Red, the magic colour of folklore, is associated with children.
Once the eggs are finished, they're taken to church to be blessed, after which they are believed to have the power to bring God's grace into a household. So pysanky have become special Easter gifts to family members and friends -- a token of love and respect and a wish for health and happiness. At Easter, a pysanka blesses every Ukrainian home.
Many women still pass on their knowledge to the next generation, in true Ukrainian fashion. With the skilled direction of Joan Nakonechny, Canadian Living Magazine presents this heritage to you.
Page 1 of 2 -- Learn how to decorate a Ukranian Easter egg on page 2
• Egg rack, made by hammering small-headed 1-in nails, 3/4 in apart, into a 1-in-thick board (See a detailed diagram).
• Clean, white, unblemished raw eggs that are free of cracks (at room temperature; you can blow out insides if you wish, but it's not necessary)
• White vinegar (called for in some packaged dyes)
• Soft tissues or a soft lint-free cloth and paper towels
• Fine rubber band
• Hard lead (H) pencil
• Kystka or tjanting tool with a medium point (stylus with a small bowl for writing with wax – available at Ukrainian stores and craft supply shops)
• Powdered or liquid aniline egg dyes (yellow, green, orange, red, black)
• 5 wide-mouth pint jars with lids
• 5 tablespoons
• Small soft paintbrush
• Cleaning fluid
• Urethane varnish
Notes: Be sure hands are clean and free of perspiration or grease before beginning. Always work from light to dark dyes. Use rack to hold partially decorated eggs and to allow varnished eggs to dry. These eggs are not edible.
1. Place rubber band around egg, dividing it in half vertically. Using rubber band as a guide, lightly draw a straight line around egg with pencil.
2. Repeat step 1 to draw the following lines:
(i) a second vertical line to divide egg into quarters.
(ii) a horizontal line around middle of egg.
(iii) Two diagonal lines through centre, dividing egg into 16 equal parts, eight on each side of egg.
3. Make a pencil dot in centre of each section and on each line. Join points to form a star. Repeat on other side of egg.
4. Add short strokes around star.
5. Draw smaller star in centre, using same method as for large star.
Note: Pencil lines will not show on completed egg. Do not erase them, as the dye will not adhere properly to the erased surface.
6. Heat kystka head in candle flame. When hot, scoop a little beeswax into funnel and retrace all pencil lines with wax. (The heat of the kystka will melt the beeswax. Be careful -- overheating the kystka will cause the wax to form blobs. Check for the right temperature by running the stylus over a paper towel to make sure the wax flows evenly.) Hold kystka as you would a pencil, at right angles to egg. To steady your hand, rest your little finger or your last two fingers on the egg. As soon as kystka stops writing smoothly, reheat, add wax and continue. Be sure lines of wax are unbroken. Rotate egg toward you and write away from you.
The egg is now ready to be dipped into the first colour.
7. Prepare dyes according to package instructions; fill pint jars at least half full.
8. Place egg on spoon and carefully lower it into yellow dye. When desired color is reached, remove egg. Pat dry with tissues or soft cloth. Do not rub; wax lines are easily broken.
9. Cover alternate sections of the small star solidly with wax. Dip toothpick in green dye and apply it to unwaxed sections of small star. Blot dry.
10. Repeat this wax-and-dye sequence as follows:
(i) Using kystka, cover small star solidly with wax. Dip egg in orange dye. Pat dry.
(ii) Draw wax dots on each side of lines leading away from large star. Dip egg in red dye. Pat dry.
(iii) Cover large star with a solid coating of wax. Dip egg in black dye. Pat dry
11. To remove wax from egg, hold egg in side of candle flame for a few seconds until wax starts to melt. With tissues, gently wipe away melted wax. Do not attempt to heat too large a portion of egg at one time. To remove any remaining carbon residue, gently wipe egg with a tissue dipped in a small amount of cleaning fluid.
12. With paintbrush, apply a thin coat of varnish to egg to give it a lustre and prevent colours from fading. Place on rack to dry.
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