Message on an Eggshell

By Peggy Rogers

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    If you wanted to send someone a special Easter message, would you write it on the shell of an egg? For hundreds of years, that is how people in the Ukraine have sent Easter greetings to friends and family members. These beautiful eggs are called pysanky.

    In ancient times the people of the Ukraine worshiped the sun. They understood that all living things need the warmth and light that the sun gives us. Eggs seemed like very magical objects to them, because each egg had a little “sun” inside it. We call it the yolk, of course. The Ukrainians used eggs in their religious ceremonies, decorating them with beautiful colors and designs.

    About a thousand years ago, many Ukrainians were converted to Christianity. This new religion changed a lot of things in people’s lives. But the custom of decorating beautiful eggs in the springtime was too well loved for the people to give it up, so they changed the meaning of the custom.

    The egg had always symbolized the miracle of life. Doesn’t an egg look more like a rock than like a living animal? Yet out of this deadlooking object comes a living creature! When they heard the story of the Resurrection, people could see another meaning for the miracle of a hatching egg. The living bird coming out of the egg was a reminder of Jesus’ coming out of his tomb on the third day. So the pysanky came to symbolize the Resurrection.

    How are the designs on the pysanky made? Perhaps at Easter time you have written your name on an egg with a light-colored crayon before dipping the egg in dye. Then, after the egg was dyed, you could see your name. The wax in the crayon had filled up tiny holes in the eggshell so that the dye could not penetrate it there.

    In making pysanky, the same idea is used. But instead of crayons, the Ukrainians use a stick with a small metal funnel on one end. The funnel is heated in a candle flame and dipped into beeswax. The liquid wax is then used to draw on the egg.

    To make the delicate and complex designs of the pysanky, the process of applying wax and dipping in dye is repeated several times. The colors are added in order from lightest to darkest. For a white, red, and black egg, the first step is to cover with wax all parts of the egg that will be white in the final design. The egg is then dipped in red dye. Next, all the red parts of the design are covered with wax, and the egg is dyed black. Finally the wax is melted away, and the design can be seen.

    What kind of messages did people send each other on pysanky? Many were like the messages we send on greeting cards—wishes for happiness, health, and success. Because most of the people could not read, the messages were written in pictures instead of words. Animals such as sheep or horses meant a wish of wealth. Trees stood for long life and strength. Flowers represented love, charity, and goodwill. Even the colors could have meanings: white for purity, red for love and joy, black for eternity.

    For people who practice the ancient art of pysanky, the egg is a joyful symbol of the Resurrection.

    Illustrated by Ron Peterson

    Photography by Susan Lee Andersen and Craig Dimond; Pysanky by Ukrainian artists and Peggy Rogers