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#AceNewsRoom With ‘Kindness & Wisdom’ Apr.16, 2022 @acenewsservices
#AceDailyNews – This year, the Easter tradition of Ukrainian pysanky eggs is ‘more important than ever’
In Ukraine, where churches lie in ruins and the invading Russian army has been accused of war crimes, Easter in 2022 will be a sombre affair.
In normal years, this would be a time of celebration.
“People have huge parties,” says Iryna Roik, a member of the SLAVA Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Adelaide, who emigrated to Australia from Ukraine in 2017.
Street festivals with food stalls, entertainment, and displays of giant Ukrainian Easter eggs known as pysanky mark the end of the Lenten period and the resurrection of Christ.
In Ukraine, pysanky – eggs decorated using beeswax and dye – are synonymous with Easter.
However, pysanky writing is an ancient tradition dating from pre-Christian times when the egg symbolised rebirth and abundance in springtime festivals.
With the arrival of Christianity in Ukraine in 988, the pagan tradition of pysanky became part of the rituals observed at Easter.
Celebrating Easter in Ukraine
In the Orthodox Church, Easter is observed one week later than in Western Christianity.
A family traditionally sits down on Easter Thursday to make the year’s pysanky to add to a special basket of Easter goods, says Sonia Mycak from the Ukrainian Association of Sydney.
Also added to the basket are paska, a sweet bread only baked at Easter, hunks of ham and cheese, and krashanky, hard-boiled eggs dyed a single colour.
“On Easter Saturday, you go to an all-night church service, and you take with you the special wicker basket,” says Sonia, who was born in Australia to Ukrainian parents.
“At about three or four in the morning after the church service is done, the priest blesses these baskets with holy water.”
It’s a magical moment, she says.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a religious person or not, it’s a spiritual experience, a rebirth, a feeling that something new is happening.”
The blessed basket is then taken home and its contents consumed for breakfast, breaking the long Lenten fast and kicking off a day of Easter feasting.
A renaissance of Ukrainian culture
For much of the 20th century, pysanky writing was outlawed in Ukraine under the atheist Soviet regime.
“All Ukrainian cultural traditions, and particularly religious traditions, were banned,” says Sonia.
Sonia’s maternal grandmother, who grew up in a village in eastern Ukraine, made pysanky as a child in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
While Sonia has heard of people in Ukraine secretly making pysanky late at night during the Soviet era, she says her grandmother was too afraid to try it herself.
It was only after she emigrated to Australia in 1949 as a 50-year-old that she started making pysanky again. “She had to make the implements herself,” says Sonia.
Banned in Ukraine, the Easter ritual of pysanky writing flourished among the Ukrainian diaspora in places like Canada, the United States and Australia.
Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has seen a resurgence in local traditions such as pysanky.
“It’s an opportunity to hand down cultural knowledge from elders to little kids,” says Iryna, who remembers receiving pysanky lessons sitting on her grandmother’s knee as a child.
In Sonia’s family, pysanky writing is a cherished tradition that has also been passed down through generations.
“My grandmother is now deceased, but she wrote them, my mother wrote them, I wrote them, now my daughter writes them.”
Men, too, participate in Easter pysanky making. Sonia remembers her father, who was from western Ukraine, making pysanky with simple patterns.
Sonia runs annual pysanky making workshops for families who attend the Ukrainian Association of Sydney’s school. “The fathers will be sitting and writing them too,” she says.
How to write pysanky
Sonia gives me a pysanka writing lesson via Zoom with the demonstration eggs she uses at workshops as props.
She picks up a kistka – a specialised tool with a small scoop at the end that funnels into a nib-like aperture – that she uses to mark out the basic design on a plain egg.
“Instead of writing with ink, you’re writing with wax.”
Sonia demonstrates how she scoops melted beeswax with the kistka to draw on the egg, explaining that “what is underneath the wax will remain white”.
Next, the egg is dipped in dye – yellow first, followed by darker colours. Where melted wax is applied to the dyed egg will stay yellow.
She dips the egg in red dye next, drawing on the shell once more with melted wax before subjecting the egg to one final dip in green dye.
At this stage, the egg is an unbecoming shade of brown and covered in ridged patterns created by the layers of melted wax.
“It’s hideous,” Sonia says with a laugh.
The final step removes the wax with a candle flame, a painstaking procedure that requires patience.
Hold the flame too close to the egg for too long and it can crack, destroying your handiwork. “It can be a heartbreaking process,” she says.
Wiping away the layers of wax reveals a brightly coloured and surprisingly intricate pattern underneath.
Preserving a family keepsake
With the egg’s contents blown out via small holes in each end, pysanky can last for years. In fact, the oldest recovered pysanka dates from the ninth century.
“If you leave the yolk in there, that’s when they’ll explode, and there’s nothing worse than an exploding pysanka,” notes Sonia.
Sometimes – “if you’re lucky” – the yolk and albumen dry in the egg. “But then a year later, there’ll be an inexplicable smell in the room, and you know it’s time to go and check your pysanka eggs.”
Preserved pysanky serve as a family record, says Sonia, who still has the first pysanky her daughter Polina, now 19, made as a child.
Also in Sonia’s collection are pysanky she wrote after she finished high school.
“It’s almost a kind of meditative process,” she says.
“I found it a very soothing thing to do when I was contemplating my next phase in life when I was 17.”
Pysanky designs and motifs vary from region to region in Ukraine.
“Now when we do them, we don’t necessarily stick to the regions of our ancestors – we do funky patterns we like,” says Sonia.
Sonia favours geometric patterns, while Polina prefers figurative designs depicting motifs such as animals and churches. “You find your own style,” she says.
Ukraine at war
One pysanka in Sonia’s collection shows her grandmother’s village in eastern Ukraine, not far from the besieged city of Chernihiv near the border with Belarus.
Sonia, whose last trip to Ukraine was in November 2019, still feels a sense of disbelief at Russia’s invasion of her family’s homeland.
She says that Chernihiv has been destroyed after coming under fierce attack from the Russian army.
“Streets that I walked on are rubble. People I probably passed on the street could be dead. The Russians cut the water supply, so there was no water, no electricity, so no heating, and it was cold. People were lining up for bread.”
Sonia says the tradition of making pysanky has taken on extra significance this Easter.
“At a time when Ukrainians are fighting for their very existence – their lives and land, their culture and identity – it is even more important than ever that we express our Ukrainian cultural specificity through our traditional practices.”
Iryna’s family lives in Kyiv, which also endured bombing before Russian forces withdrew from the city in early April.
This year, Iryna will be making pysanky eggs with her eight-year-old son Roma in Australia.
She feels guilty that she can celebrate Easter while her family and friends suffer such hardship in Ukraine.
However, she says, “we decided that kids should have their Easter – it’s OK. We have to preserve our culture, and we have to keep our spirits up.”
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