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Ukrainian Easter Eggs

As we move into spring and I begin to pull out my bunnies and chicks; and the daffodils begin to bloom, brightening the once winter skies, I also pull out my Ukrainian Easter Egg given to me years ago by a friend. It is one of my treasured pieces.

But until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the intricately decorated egg, other than admire its intrinsic beauty. The alluring colors give way to a maze of seemingly endless lines and graphic intersections in what could appear a haphazard way.

One of my passionate hobbies is genealogy. In fact, I have to be very careful that it doesn’t consume too much time! But with years of research under my belt, it is as compelling today as it was when I began this journey.

In that light, I’m not sure why I never connected my love of Ukrainian Easter Eggs with the fact that part of my family, for more than 100 years, settled in a village just outside of Odessa, Ukraine. They were Germans from Russia, a group of Evangelical Lutherans who settled as a separate community of like-minded Germans accepting homesteads granted by Catherine the Great. I will write more about this later as I am even now preparing a book from my research of the area, combining it with genealogical research began by my mother and further researched by myself.

While the Germans lived a mostly separate life from the Russian peoples in the Odessa region, we know from research that some of their customs intertwined and melded together, making a wholly unique and beautiful folk history.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the Germans from Russia also collected these delicate eggs we call Ukrainian Easter Eggs. Not only did they create them with gathered dies, decorating them with intricate symbols, they even conveyed them on their journey to America eventually landing in the Dakotas, Washington State, and other communities.

While these eggs are exquisitely created, they are more than just something beautiful to admire. Those “seemingly endless lines and graphic intersections,” are symbolically significant portrayals and communications from artist to recipient. When studied, one can read the hopes and dreams and wishes and prayers of the artist for the future. A future of health and prosperity and protection. A future that no matter what heritage we hail from, no matter what corner of the globe we call home, we can relate to. Some eggs signify in their etching hope for fertility and a good harvest. Many times these eggs would be placed in a yard or a window sill as a symbolic gesture of prayer for the protection of their family from health crises and prairie storms.

One of the most compelling secrets to appreciating the beauty of these Ukrainian Easter Eggs is the knowledge and ability to understand the symbolism etched so carefully and creatively onto the paper thin, fragile wall of the egg. A master’s hand at work.

Most admirers associate Ukrainian Easter Eggs with that art form known as Pysanky, a colorful and intricately designed egg which is worked on the egg in a wax-resistant relief, similar to batik. Often you will see the symbol of a rose for love and care, a symbol of wheat for a good harvest, a triangle symbolizing the Holy Trinity, or a four-cornered cross symbolizing Christianity in the four corners of the world.

Here is a link that gives a more complete guide to the symbols and colors used in the art of Pysanky. If you have a Ukrainian Easter Egg, you’ll want to compare it to the symbols chart and see what the artist was trying to convey.

The story behind its creation is equally significant. The creation of these eggs was very regional, varying from village to village and family to family. Each of which had its own special rituals, symbols and secret formulas for dyeing eggs. These customs were preserved faithfully and passed down from mother to daughter through generations.

Pysanky were traditionally made during the last week of Lent. During the middle of the Lenten season, women began putting aside eggs, those that were most perfectly shaped and smooth, often the first laid eggs by young hens (also symbolic).

"The dyes were prepared from dried plants, roots, bark, berries and insects (cochineal). Yellow was obtained from the flowers of the woadwaxen, and gold from onion skins. Red could be extracted from logwood or cochineal, and dark green and violet for the husks of sunflower seeds and the berries and bark of the elderberry bush. Black dye was made from walnut husks," according to Wikipedia.

As I researched the symbolisms behind Pysanky, I found a continuing thread of fear that the art of Ukrainian Easter Eggs is an art form that is dying as our children grow up and distance themselves from the heritage of their ancestral past. A tragedy, truly. As we begin to lose our cultural boundaries and meld our ethnic diversities, my sincerest hope is that we don’t lose our distinctives as well; that which makes us unique and special.

As we begin to celebrate this most holy of seasons, may we look to the symbolisms of our past and see a bright hope for the future.

For a guide to creating your own Ukrainian Easter Egg, click here to visit Good Living Magazine.

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