Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center shares pysanky, decorative egg-dying craft with Bridesburg residents
By Melissa Komar
Ever find yourself eyeing up those intricately decorated eggs that make their way to Ukrainian craft festivals around the holidays, questioning how of those lines and colors came to be without a single crack on the shell?
Well, wonder no more.
As part of the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center outreach program, Chrystyna Prokopovych, curator of the program’s museum, and her daughter, Irena Gramiak, led a pysanky workshop at the Bridesburg Historical Society’s April meeting.
And, while, you’ve missed the opportunity to dress up your own egg, the program was chock full of tips and history about the ancient art to get you started on your own.
Kathy O’Hanlon reached out to the center because, in modern times, pysanky is tied to Easter, with the Ukrainian community performing the egg-dying and designing prior to the holiday.
And, the culture has always had a place in the neighborhood.
“The Ukrainian community was always a close second to the Polish community in Bridesburg,” she said. “And, they always had classes and presentations. And, we were thinking about what to do in April and it was a perfect fit.”
Prokopovych spoke about the history of the college and how it was originally founded to help Ukrainian women to get a college education.
“It’s our goal to reach as many people as I can and teach about the Ukraine and Ukrainian culture,” she said.
And, while pysanka, which means “to write,” has been associated with Easter in the 21st century, it wasn’t always so.
“Pysanka is the one thing we claim as totally our own,” Prokopovych explained. “The eggs were not considered part of religious ceremony until Christianity was introduced, but it has a place in the church now. The eggs are in the basket when it is blessed at church for Easter.”
After playing a video demonstrating pysanky in action, Prokopovych went on to elaborate on its evolution from a pagan art form to a Christian tradition.
“Grapes were initially a symbol of good harvest and came to symbolize the growing church,” she said. “The four corners of the Earth came to be a cross.”
Old traditions include placing pysanka in homes for good luck, in coffins for a safe trip, in the fields for a good harvest, and presenting them to the parish priests.
One legend states there is an evil monster chained in the mountains of Ukraine and if the number of pysanka created each year is low, his chains are loosened. The day no more pysanky are created, he will be unleashed.
“And, so, you are helping keeping the monster at bay,” Prokopovych said, laughing.
The history lesson led into the much-awaited topic of the night: decorating the eggs.
Unlike regular Easter egg dying, pysanky relies on wax, clear natural beeswax to be exact because “candle wax is too brittle and will pop of the egg.”
The dye, which should be kept at room temperature, must be purchased from a special vendor.
“The craft lies in controlling the wax,” Prokopovych said. “The wax seals the color of the surface it covers and the kistka controls the wax. The lightest dyes come first. And, as the wax melts, the design becomes visible.”
Colors frequently used include yellow, orange, red and black and “traditionally, you do not write letters, words or numbers on the eggs, although some people like to put initials and the year on it.”
The kistka is a small writing tool with a funnel for holding wax. It is held above a candle to melt the wax, making it suitable to write on the egg.
Any egg will do, although chicken eggs are used most frequently.
“I’ve seen finch eggs to ostrich eggs,” Prokopovych said. “I’ve seen eggs sell from $10 to $3,000.”
And, the egg should be raw.
“Drilling a hole in the egg and emptying it is the new way to avoid explosions,” she said. “Not putting varnish on the egg, storing it at room temperature in a well circulated area and rotating the egg every couple weeks or once a month until it dries out is the traditional way.”
Placing the egg in a china closet in the summer is not ideal, Prokopovych share, laughing, retelling a story when the fire department came to her family’s home for the smell of gas after a pisanka exploded.
This process usually takes one to two years.
Gramiak showed participants how to remove the wax using a candle.
“It’s a long process and you have to take your time,” she said. “You don’t want to hold your egg directly in the flame because you don’t want a cooked egg. So, you may have to let your egg sit and cool in between.”
The event with the Bridesburg Historical Society took well over two hours, with a couple of casualties and some participants opting to remove the wax at home, a testament to the intricacy of the art.
“When people start making the eggs themselves, they realize the value that can be placed on an egg,” Prokopovych said.
To purchase supplies necessary for creating pysanky and directions, visit ukrainiangiftshop.com.