BRAMA, Mar 7, 2004, 1:00 am ET
Why you'll never find all the eggs in one basket
Ukrainian tradition of painting eggs at Easter to symbolise new life
by Tony Leliw
Marta Jenkala draws patterns on her Easter eggs. Photo by Tony Leliw.
It's that time of the year when Marta Jenkala picks up her kistka and starts
to decorate her Ukrainian Easter eggs.
In one hand she holds the small wooden holder with its funnel-like cone - in
the other, the raw egg - symbol of life and Resurrection.
She heats the kistka under a candle, collects some beeswax from a block of
wax, and then starts to draw on the white egg.
For the onlooker watching her sketch the various patterns, it looks quite
daunting, but for Marta, the Ukrainian craft of pysanky, from the word
pysaty, to write, it is something she has been doing for many years.
"Once you can control the flow of the wax you can do anything," she says,
adding another design onto the egg.
Once the wax has dried on the egg she dips it into a bath of yellow dye.
Marta explains that everything on the egg will now be that colour apart from
the areas covered in wax that will remain white.
The process is repeated with more patterns locking in colours that are
needed, while exposing the rest of the egg to darker dyes. The basic
sequence runs from yellow to orange, red to black.
When Marta does pysanky workshops to groups in and around London, the
highlight of the demonstration is taking the egg out of the black dye,
gently placing it under the candle to allow the wax to melt, and carefully
removing the wax with a cloth to reveal a rich kaleidoscope of glorious
The tradition of making these ornate eggs is something that is passed on to
"When my mother came to this country after the war I think she was probably
one of the first people to start making eggs and showing other people how to
make them in the UK," she says.
"She passed that skill on to me, and I started making pysanky as soon as I
was old enough to hold a writing implement."
The art of pysanky was practised several thousand years before Christianity
in Ukraine. The eggs symbolized the release of the Earth from the shackles
of winter and the coming of spring with its promise of new life, hope,
health and prosperity.
When Ukrainians accepted Christianity in 988A.D., pysanky became a ritual
carried out as a preparation to Easter. The symbols of the decorated egg
became that of the Resurrection and the promise of a better life.
Legend has it that when Christ was going to Golgotha to be crucified, Simon
of Cyrene who helped carry his cross was on his way to market with a basket
of eggs. When he came back to collect them they had been transformed to
beautifully coloured pysanky.
In a neat bookcase stands a collection of eggs that Marta has amassed over
the years. One was given to her when she was five-years-old by her mother -
there are many eggs she has made herself - and others she has picked up from
her travels to Ukraine - each with its unique regional motif, pattern and
On occasions one of the raw eggs may explode if it catches a bit of
sunlight. "There have been times when I've heard what sounds like a car
crash and then I come in to the room to be confronted with a mess I have to
mop up," she jokes.
Normally a raw egg dries out after a few years making a rattling sound of a
ball or leaves a light powder when shaken - though many people blow the egg
so that it's empty once they have decorated it.
When the Ukrainian community celebrates Easter in Britain, each family takes
a basket with pysanky and hard-boiled eggs, cold meat, horseradish and most
importantly Easter bread called paska. This is blessed by the priest and
eaten as an Easter meal.
In days gone by in Ukraine, boys after mass would have competitions to try
and throw their eggs over the church - others would give their pysanky to
their sweethearts, or as gifts to relatives.
Since independence more than ten years ago, eggs have once again become
associated with Easter, and more people are decorating them.
As Marta says of pysanky: "They are beginning to regain their rightful place
in Ukrainian culture, religious and traditional life."
This story first appeared in the Catholic newspaper "The Universe" on Sunday, March 24, 2002.
Tony Leliw is a London-based journalist whose articles have appeared in respected publications such as the London Evening Standard and The Times, as well as news services in Ukraine and the U.S.
Feature stories by Mr. Leliw that have been published on Brama include : On His Majesty's Secret Service (Dec 3 03)
Vilified, slandered and abused for telling the truth about Communism (Oct 1 03)
Malcolm Muggeridge Centenary: the journalist who reported that more than 7 million starved to death in Ukraine (Jul 30 03)
Christian fundamentalism and corruption: a member of the British House of Lords offers her views on the Iraq war and Ukraine (Mar 24 03)
Voting, for a song (May 27 03)
The road from Ukraine to Westminster and back (Jan 1 03)
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