Of all the Easter eggs from Eastern Europe, Ukrainian eggs are perhaps the best known. They are so well-known that many people don’t realize that the type of eggs in Ukraine are actually made in most parts of Eastern and East Central Europe, calling Czech eggs, Polish eggs, or Romanian eggs “Ukrainian eggs.” The Ukrainians do not have a monopoly on egg decorating, though the popularity of eggs from this region means that they are highly collectible, and this art continues to be practiced with both modern and traditional methods.
Ukrainian Easter eggs are called pysanky, which derives from the verb for “to write.” The practice of decorating eggs dates back to pagan times. Though ancient examples of pysanky have not survived due to the delicate nature of the eggshells, ceramic “eggs” decorated with patterns and images have been found in burial sites and during archeological digs. Pagan symbolism, such as the “tree of life” or goddess symbolism, adorns eggs even today, hearkening back to the pre-Christian era and providing information about pagan religious worship and the priorities of their daily lives.
When Christianity was adopted by the people of what is today Ukraine, pagan symbols were repurposed and new symbols relevant to this new religion were introduced. In some cases, patterns and markings have lost their original meaning and experts can only guess what messages earlier generations were trying to convey through these images. Pictures of nature, such as plants, herbs, and animals, and insects are often incorporated into a pysanky design. Christian symbolism such as the cross or lamb also appear. The egg itself is also a symbol: with its unending surface, it represents eternal life.
In earlier times, Ukrainian Easter eggs were much more than decorative objects or crafts for the holidays. They were imbued with special powers that warded off evil, encouraged marriage and fertility, ensured good harvests and milk or honey production, and protected the household from disaster. Eggs were given as gifts after they were created as a way of sharing the good fortune they were said to have brought.
Traditionally, it was women who decorated eggs, and sometimes men were banned from the room in which eggs were being decorated. Various plants were gathered to create homemade dyes. Onion skins produced a brown or golden dye, beets gave a red color, and bark or herbs created yellow and green.
The most famous type of Easter egg in Ukraine are those made with the wax-resist method. This method requires the use of beeswax and a special stylus, sometimes called a kistka, to draw wax onto an egg. When the egg is immersed in a dye bath, the areas covered by wax do not absorb the color. At the end of several stages of drawing and dying, the wax is melted off to reveal the design underneath. In some regions of Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, the drop-pull method of drawing wax on the egg is used, in which a pin or nail is dipped directly into the wax and tear-shaped drops of wax are drawn on the egg. Lithuanian marguciai are well-known for exhibiting the drop-pull method. (This wax method is similar to using a white wax crayon in the United States to draw patterns on the Easter eggs before dying them.)
Though many Ukrainian egg artists are maintaining ties with tradition and imitating their ancestors, pysanky from Ukraine have achieved the status of art. Modern technologies, such as manufactured dye and electronic kistkas have streamlined the process and enabled artists to create more colorful and precise designs that dazzle. Both men and women egg artists sell their work at markets, fairs, and souvenir shops. An entire industry has developed around the production and sales of pysanky equipment, dyes, patterns, accessories, and packing materials. And for those who want to try their hand at making pysanky themselves—perhaps after a trip to Ukraine or the purchase of an egg by a traditional artist—workshops and online tutorials are available.