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  • Caylie Gnyra

Saving The World, One Pysanka At A Time


Lillian deJong led a workshop on pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) at the Vermilion Public Library on March 2. Photos Caylie Gnyra

The Vermilion Public Library generously hosted a free pysanky (Ukrainian Easter egg) workshop on the afternoon of Saturday, March 2, with local expert Lillian deJong sharing her detailed knowledge of the delicate craft.

deJong opened the workshop by explaining a little bit of the history of the tradition, which dates back over ten centuries. Prior to the nation’s acceptance of Christianity in 988 AD, eggs were tremendously symbolic in pagan beliefs and rituals and were decorated with symbols in hopes that the sun god would return after the dark winter and grant those wishes. Another pre-Christian legend maintains that evil, personified in the form of a monster, is chained to a huge cliff in the Carpathian mountains, and the monster’s servants encircle the globe each year, taking stock of the number of pysanky being made. When there are few, the chains holding the monster loosen, and evil is able to flow freely, wreaking havoc and destruction; however, when many pysanky are made, the monster’s chains tighten, and love conquers evil.

As Christianity took hold across the region, the meaning of the pagan symbols were adapted to reflect a Christian cosmology, centering on cycles of death and rebirth through the emergence of spring. Geometric, plant, and animal motifs and the colours used to create them all have special meanings: for example, a rake motif invites rain, while the colour green denotes spring, freedom, and victory over death.

Traditionally, pysanky and the tools and natural dyes used to create them are made by women during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, with mothers passing down their secret dye recipes and family patterns to their daughters. Women would work by candlelight after children had gone to sleep, keeping the designs a secret until the eggs had been blessed by a priest on Easter Sunday, and then given away. deJong explained that darker eggs are given to elderly people who are in their last season of life, while lighter eggs are given to younger people, as their life is still a blank page. Pysanky has always been used as protective talismans; even today, pysanky may be buried in gardens and farmland to ward off evil, fire, lightning, and hail while improving the harvest.


Pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) at the Vermilion Public Library on March 2.

The word pysanky comes from the Ukrainian word “pysaty,” meaning “to write.” deJong walked participants through the process of writing on the eggs with melted beeswax using a special stylus called a kistka heated over a candle flame. Layers of wax are progressively applied to the egg using an infinite assortment of designs, punctuated by a succession of dye baths starting with the lightest colour and ending with the darkest. Once the design is complete, the wax is melted off and wiped away, revealing the colours in their full vibrance. The egg is then covered in varnish, poked at the bottom with a syringe, and its contents are gently blown out, leaving a delicate masterpiece.

The idea that as long as people write pysanky, the world will continue to exist is not so far-fetched for anyone who has really sat down to practice this meditative technique. The ritual requires a soft but attentive focus, gentle hands, slow movements, and relaxed muscles, attuning the nervous system to a sense of calmness, peace, compassion, love, and gratitude toward the craft, the culture, the self, the wonder of nature, and the person the egg is being made for.

Thoroughly relaxed and excited about their creations at the end of the snowy day, participants expressed gratitude to the library and to deJong for offering such a high-quality workshop.

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