I remember decorating Easter eggs when I was a child. Many of us likely remember poking the hole in the top and bottom of the egg, blowing the egg out that tiny hole in the bottom (and turning red in the face as we struggled to get the egg through the little hole) and then dipping the eggshell in the messy dye that also turned many fingers into springlike colors.
I was also quite fascinated with one Easter egg that my Nana had for many years – all of my life, at least – that was kept in her china hutch. The beautiful little egg sat in a shot glass and out of the reach of curious children.
That same egg is now in my china hutch, sitting, remarkably, in the same shot glass.
I’m not sure why I was so attracted to this Easter egg – maybe because my little home-dyed eggs never looked anything like this one. I remember asking Nana where she got it and the only answer I received was that she had had it for “many” years.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned about the Carpatho-Rusyn ritual of elaborately decorating Easter eggs.
I even found a book about the skill – and it is a skill, not an amateur play activity – that I have coveted for a long time.
I finally bit the bullet and purchased the least expensive copy I could find – $99.95 with free shipping. I’ve added it to my treasured reference shelf of books on Carpatho-Rusyn history, culture and language.
Rusyn Easter Eggs from Eastern Slovakia by Pavlo Markovych, published in Vienna in 1987 by Wilhelm Braumuller Universitats-Verlagsbuchhandlun GmbH is in English.
The back cover explains a bit about this beautiful Easter tradition and mentions that “specific attention is given to the pysanka eggs from the Presov region of Slovakia, which is the area in which my ancestors lived.
Table of Contents
1. The Historic Pysanka
2. The Names of Pysanky
3. The Origins of Pysanka Ornamentation
4. the Influence of General Ornamental Devices on the Pysanka Ornament
5. The Composition of the Ornament
6. The Structure of Pysanka Motifs
7. The Circulation of Motifs
8. The Stylization of Motifs
9. Pysanka Motifs in Everyday Life and Customs
10. Techniques Used in Painting and Ornamentation of Pysanky
11. Coloring Pysanky
12. The Symbolism of Colors in Folk Art and Folklore
13. Games Played with Pysanky
Bibliography (with books written in multiple languages)
List of Illustrations (60 pages, many of pysanky in full colors)
This isn’t mean to be a book review, but if this tradition interests you, or you are of Rusyn heritage and want to learn more, Markovych’s book is excellent.
What did I learn about psyanky?
First, historically, Easter egg decorating, unsurprisingly, has been around for centuries. In the Rusyn culture, this folk art tradition needed only eggs from the chicken and plant dyes to decorate them.
Unlike my child’s fun blowing out eggs, pysanky are often hard boiled eggs.
Rusyn psyanky designs are quite intricate and include many motifs from nature – flowers, trees, water, birds, fish, wheat, etc. – which celebrate life. However, ordinary objects found in the home, such as a broom, a ladder and even a house, have been depicted on Easter eggs.
As you can see, my Easter egg is covered in flowers. Given the heavy coating of paint that was used to decorate, I suspect that Nana was given the egg as a gift, made by a Rusyn friend, sometime during the first half of the 20th century. It’s also possible that a friend or relative brought it back from Udol, Slovakia for Nana.
Interestingly, pysanky were also used to comfort children who died during the Easter season. Beautifully painted eggs were placed in the shape of a wreath around the child’s body in the coffin. The eggs provided two supports for the child – food to eat and something to play with in the next world.
It is also said that only the most beautiful pysanky were given to the deceased child to take with them on their heavenly journey.
How are pysanky decorated?
There are several techniques used to create these beautiful designs. There are non-wax techniques, which involve dyes and scratching designs using tools such as a razor, needle or knife.
Using dye is an ancient technique, but these particular tools have only been used from the 20th century through today.
The second technique, using hot wax, is applied using different types of strokes and applications.
Easter egg decorating materials have modernized through time.
There are many images of pysanky viewable online. It’s fun to look at them and see the huge array of varied colors and styles.
If you’d like to try your hand at decorating pysanky, check out this YouTube tutorial.
The Carpatho-Rusyn Society blog features posts about Easter and the popularity of pysanky.
There are a number of websites that offer pysanky for sale – just do a quick online search.