The Ukrainian tradition of egg decorating dates back to thousands of years before Christ when eggs were an integral part of the celebration of the festival of spring. A variety of techniques, designs and colours were used on the eggs many with symbolic meaning eg horse and reindeer (symbols of strength), bird (happiness) and never-ending line (eternity). With the advent of Christianity some of the symbols were incorporated into Christian traditions and new ones, such as the fish, were added.
In central Ukraine the predominant colours are black and red, whereas in the west in the Carpathian mountains the colours are warmer - green, orange, yellow and brown. Traditionally most dyes were natural, obtained from local plants and some inorganic substances. Nowadays most artists use chemical dyes. These can be kept in airtight containers for a long time. White is an important element in most traditional designs so white eggs should be used but they can be quite difficult to find these days.
Beeswax is used to decorate the eggs and can be applied in a variety of ways. The simplest method is to drip hot wax from a candle on to the eggs to produce uneven spots of colour. However the most characteristic Ukrainian eggs are made by 'writing' on the surface of the shell with melted beeswax using a traditional tool called a 'kystka', which consists of a cone of metal, usually copper, wired to a wooden handle.
Work begins on the lightest colour ie white so all parts of the egg destined to be white in the final design are covered with wax. Then the egg is dipped into a dye eg yellow and all parts to stay yellow are covered with wax. The process continues until all the desired colours have been blocked out and the final colour applied. The egg is then held to the candle flame and, as it melts, the wax is gently rubbed off with a soft cloth or kitchen paper. Any residue of wax can be removed with white spirit. Finally the egg should be covered with several layers of varnish or cold glaze.
If kept at a medium temperature, in a well ventilated place and out of direct sunlight, pysanky (decorated eggs) will keep for years and eventually the insides will harden. Alternatively the eggs can be blown, strung with ribbon and hung up as decorations.
Text by Sue Cowell