Ukrainian Eggs In The Tradition Of Her Ancestors

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Centuries before Christianity and the Easter egg tradition, Ukrainian people used to color eggs after the day's chores were done and the children had gone to bed.

A woman would sit by candle light with a "kistka" tool that dripped wax through a fine metal tip. She would draw complicated, intricate designs on eggs and then color the unwaxed portions with dye.

Darlene Pierman remembers her grandmother making these "pysanka" eggs when she was a child.

"She never taught my mother and hence my mother never taught me," Pierman said. "You know, when you are young you don't realize how important those things are. My grandmother would have taught me if I had thought of it. When she was gone, I thought, I really wish I knew how to do this."

A year ago when Pierman moved to Arizona she was excited to meet Mitzy Paul of Strawberry who showed her how to connect with this part of her heritage.

"I'm so glad I found her," Pierman said.

Deciding on the design and colors is the first step on a half day to full day project of painting an egg.

It is also a source of meditation.

"You can't worry," she said. "You have to totally focus on that little line you are working on right then. You cannot think about anything else.

"Over the years, the designs have become less a symbolic thing and people are now just decorating these for beauty itself, but the symbols are still important."

Before Christianity, people believed that pysanka eggs actually had healing powers.

Pine needles symbolize health, stamina and eternal youth and curls were for protection and defense.

Pysanka eggs were also given to someone as a token of friendship.

Deer, horses and rams symbolized wealth and posterity, certainly good wishes for a friend. Poppies, the beloved flower of the Ukraine, symbolized joy and beauty.

After Christianity, the eggs also came to symbolize rebirth.

The cross that had symbolized the four corners of the Earth came to mean Christ.

Colors also had meaning.

Yellow meant happiness and hospitality, blue symbolized the sky with life-giving air and red stood for hope and passion. White and black for good and evil.

But, cautions Pierman, different sources may give different meanings. The design known as wolves' teeth in one book is called a saw in another and is used to depict the sun rays or waves of water, depending on the author.

"There is a design depicting the 40 tasks of life, but I have never seen anything written about what the tasks are," she said.

In Pierman's collection of pysanka, one egg she was given rattles with the long dried out white and yolk still inside.

"I actually decorate the eggs with the insides still in them," she said. "They are easier to work with that way."

Designing a image on an oval surface is a "huge challenge," she said. There are templates to find the exact top and bottom of the egg, but Pierman usually eyeballs the center.

Then, a typical egg must be divided into even quarters.

If you only have the front view of a design, it can be hard to see how it aligns on sides.

"Every egg is different and you never realize how imperfect eggs can be. They can have bumps, they can have cracks you can't see with your eyes until you put them under a light," she said. "I started using eggs bought from the grocery store and I learned they are very fragile. Now, I buy farm eggs from a local provider."

The kitska tool, with its different tips that Pierman uses to cover a color on an egg, is electric. The wax, color process is repeated until the design is complete. Before the last stage when several clear coats are added, in historic times, an artist would use the heat from a candle to melt the wax off the egg.

"I've tried it. It's a pain," she said.

She puts her pysanka in a 300-degree oven for seven minutes. The process isn't foolproof and she has cracked some finished eggs as she continues to learn to master the art.

Pierman doesn't make pysanka eggs to sell. She designs them with a specific person in mind as a gift.

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