Post Independent Staff
An ancient springtime tradition that goes back before the birth of Christ is still alive and flourishing among Eastern Europeans and their descendants in the United States. Since the dawn of Christianity it’s become an Easter symbol as well.
Decorated eggs mean colorful fun for kids at Easter, but in pagan times, and indeed even now, eggs symbolized the promise of new life in the spring.
In the Ukraine and neighboring countries and among the descendants of those immigrant families in America, decorating eggs with complex patterns and exchanging them at Easter is still a strong tradition.
One of the best know traditions are the “pysanky” or Ukrainian eggs with their finely drawn patterns of triangles, diamonds, chevrons and squares in the traditional colors of red, yellow and black.
Locally, Jaci Spuhler, director of the Garfield County library system, has kept the tradition alive. She teaches the technique during Lent each year, and offers classes in local schools.
The process of coloring the eggs in the traditional patterns is painstaking. The patterns are traced with a fine-point stylus called a “kistka” that drops hot wax onto the surface of the egg.
As successive colored dies are applied, the stylus is used to apply wax to areas that will retain a particular color. At the end of the process, the wax is heated and removed.
The eggs are colored with aniline dies that leave brilliant and permanent hues.
Spuhler, who also teaches Russian language through Colorado Mountain College, became interested in the folk art when her kids were little.
“It’s cheap and easy,” she said.
She learned the technique from a Romanian woman while she was the librarian and teaching Russian at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Newport News, Va.
“I wanted to bring in the cultural aspects (to the class) and I got tired of eating borshcht,” she said. “I took a class and I loved it and I started doing it with all my students.”
Every element of the traditional patterns is symbolic.
The ancient patterns, such as triangles, hash marks, wheat and pussy willow designs and the cross are meaningful.
The triangle is the Carpathian Mountains that dominate the landscape of the Ukraine. The hash marks within the geometric shapes represent Jacob’s Ladder to heaven, Spuhler explained.
The wheat pattern symbolizes the harvest and fertility.
The blocky cross, called the Christ Star, has a Christian meaning and stands for the four corners of the Earth.
The pussy willow pattern is distinctly Russian. They are carried during Palm Sunday, Spuhler said. In that cold country, no palms are available and pussy willows are the first flowers of spring.
Even the traditional colors have a meaning. Black stands for eternity, she explained.
“It is the darkness before the dawn of Christianity,” she said. “Eggs were meant as protection from evil spirits.”
“The Ukraine was Christianized in 988 A.D., when King Vlad of Kiev was baptized,” Spuhler explained. Traditional folks artists then embraced the meaningful symbols of the new religion.
During Holy Week, the decorated eggs are blessed at the Saturday Easter Vigil Mass. Also blessed are loaves of sweet bread made with the XB letters, which represent the first two Cyrillic letters of Khristos Voskres` which means Christ is risen.
Pysanky eggs keep the ancient traditions alive while reminding folks about their Christian heritage. In the early days of Christianity, Easter combined the pagan celebrations of spring, the rebirth of living things, and the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, with its promise of eternal life.
The holiday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the first day of spring, the vernal equinox. So it falls sometime between March 22 and April 25.
This year, the first full moon of spring appeared this Wednesday, April 16.
Easter is thought to come from the word Eastre, the name of a pagan goddess of spring, and was also the name of a spring festival.
To bring folks into the fold, early Christians gave the pagan rites religious significance, weaving in with the theme of the rebirth of spring, the coming of new life, reflecting the resurrection of Jesus, who came to Earth to die for the sins of man and who offers rebirth in the church.
For the Ukrainians, the old ways are still alive.
“There is a Ukrainian myth about the giant who is chained up under the Earth. He sends out his little minions in the spring every year to check on the number of decorated eggs. If there aren’t many, they unchain the giant and he comes up and unleashes war,” Spuhler said. “I guess there aren’t enough this year.”
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