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'I find it very zen': The delicate art of pysanky, an enduring Ukrainian Easter tradition

During Orthodox Easter, which falls on Sunday this year, Ukrainians around the world gather to write 'pysanky,' eggs that are decorated using beeswax and dyes. The eggs have a history as colourful as their designs.

The process of writing pysanky was 'a real pain,' especially in the pre-modern area

Called pysanky — from the Ukrainian verb pysanty, meaning 'to write' — these eggs are a form of traditional Ukrainian folk art that dates back thousands of years. (Submitted by Luba Petrusha)

Originally published on April 28, 2019.

When Luba Petrusha was a young girl, she remembers being fascinated by a collection of colourful and intricately decorated eggs in her mother's china cabinet. 

"You could look, but not touch," she recalled.

The eggs were called pysanky — from the Ukrainian verb pysanty, meaning "to write" — a form of traditional Ukrainian folk art that dates back thousands of years.

Petrusha, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, eventually learned how to write pysanky — a complex, time-consuming process — while attending Ukrainian school as a child. 
Luba Petrusha, who runs the website pysanky.info, poses with her niece, Maria. (Submitted by Luba Petrusha)

"I find it very zen," she told CBC Radio, adding that when she gets home from work, she often writes pysanky. "My mother's always going … 'Why don't you relax?' I go, 'This is a relaxation for me.'"

These days, Ukrainians around the world still gather to write pysanky during Orthodox Easter, which falls on Sunday this year. But in pre-modern times, the eggs served a more functional purpose: they were thought to have magical properties, Petrusha says.

The eggs had to be kept intact, which meant they would inevitably rot. "These were real eggs, and you know, they would leak and they would stink, if you're not careful."

Some were kept inside the home to guard against storms and fire; some were placed with animals to promote fertility, and a few were saved to place in the coffins of loved ones who died during the year.

"It was for protection, for fertility, for good luck," Petrusha said.

Pysanka-writing was traditionally done every Easter by the women in Ukrainian families. (Submitted by Luba Petrusha)

Not child's play

Petrusha, who runs pysanka-writing workshops and a website devoted to cataloguing the art and history of the practice, says traditionally, writing pysanky was reserved for adults.

"It was part of the women's sphere of activity."

The process of writing pysanky was "a real pain," especially in the pre-modern area, she said.

"You had to make dyes from natural substances. You had to collect those substances, and you need a lot of material to make a small amount of dye, and natural dyes don't last."

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During Orthodox Easter, Ukrainians around the world gather to write 'pysanky,' eggs that are decorated using beeswax and dyes. Ben Shannon and Althea Manasan attempt to make these intricate pieces of art. 10:16

A wax-resist method is used to create the elaborate designs of pysanky. 

"You apply wax, whatever's under that wax stays that colour, and then you do a [series] of dye baths," Petrusha explained. 

A special stylus, called a "kistka" or "pysak," is used to apply lines of melted beeswax onto the shell to create the designs. 

"You heat the head of the stylus on the candle, you scoop up a little bit of wax [into the well of the stylus], and you write on your egg," Petrusha said, noting that these days, many use electric styluses to keep the wax warm. 

"And you do all that until you finish all your lines, then you go into the various dyes."  

A stylus is used to apply melted beeswax onto the egg. Layers of wax and coloured dyes are alternated to create unique designs. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

After all the layers are finished, the egg is held over a candle to melt off the wax, revealing the different colours beneath.  

Petrusha said there are thousands of traditional designs — like stars, roses and crosses — that have been preserved, with various regions having their own twist. 

"Every corner of Ukraine you look, you find patterns, designs."

Keeping the art of pysanky-writing alive

In the town of Vegreville, Alta., 103 kilometres east of Edmonton, the Ukrainian-Canadian community has taken pysanky to another level. It's the site of the second largest pysanka in the world — a nine-metre long, 2,500-kilogram structure known as the Vegreville egg.

Built in 1975 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the RCMP, the massive egg features more than 1,000 black, yellow and white triangles on its surface. Thousands of tourists visit every year.

"It's really something," said Elsie Kawulych, a longtime resident of Vegreville. "The colours have never faded, so it's kind of neat."

The giant Vegreville egg was built in 1975 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the RCMP. Queen Elizabeth II visited it in 1978. (Rod MacIvor/Canadian Press)

Kawulych is also a board member of Vegreville's annual Ukrainian Pysanka Festival, which celebrates the country's food, music and, of course, pysanka-writing.  

Ukrainian immigrants were instrumental in preserving the pysanka tradition. After the Second World War, pysanka-writing was deemed a religious practice and banned in Eastern and Central Ukraine by Soviet authorities. Thanks to Ukrainians around the world, the tradition survived, and it re-emerged in the homeland after Ukrainian independence in 1991.

"It's something that's been part of our culture for at least a thousand years, if not longer," Petrusha said. "It's just so deeply ingrained in us."

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