Friday, March 27, 2015

Pysanky, A Bit of Family History

Easter card from the 1940's

Easter is only two weeks away, so its time to get out those hard boiled eggs and dyes from the grocery store and make some Easter Eggs.  Yes, I made those eggs when I was a child, but I also learned to paint Ukrainian Easter Eggs from my Mother and Grandmother.  In those days, I really didn't know much about the history or symbols used in the eggs, or why people painted them.  I am going to share some of that information in this week's post.

When my Grandmother first came to St Paul Minnesota in 1914, nobody painted eggs.  As far as I know, no one in my grandmother's family painted eggs in Ukraine. It wasn't until a relative brought a pysanka from Ukraine, probably in the 1920's or early 1930's, that the they actually saw one. Painting Easter eggs caught on quickly in the Ukrainian community. Every spring, my Grandmother and Mother, along with other women members painted hundreds of eggs for the annual Easter egg sale which helped raise money for their church. When she was in high school my Mother demonstrated the art and craft of making Ukrainian Easter eggs all over the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul.

My mother, Julia Koshuba Noznick at an Easter egg demonstration, 1937. Photo: Minneapolis Star.

 The word for the eggs in Ukrainian is pysanka.  it is pronounced "pih-sahn-ka" all the vowels are short.  It is not pronounced "pih-zonk-ka" or "pie-san-kee".  The plural is pysanky, pronounced "pih-sahn-ki", again all short vowels.  Pysanky can be made from all kinds of eggs, chicken, quail, goose and even ostrich.  Most are made with white eggs, but brown ones are sometimes used.  
Making pysanky is called pysankarstvo in Ukrainian, which means writing pysanky.  It was  a folk tradition, practiced in the villages and small towns, but now is a decorative art practiced not only in Ukraine, the United States and Canada, but worldwide.  The pysanka is a national symbol of Ukraine.

Easter egg with Trypillian pattern. Source:

Trypillian pottery. Source:

Among the oldest civilizations in Ukrainian territory were the Tyrpillians, a neolithic people who lived between 5500-2750 BCE. If they decorated eggs, none of them survived. Trypillian patterned eggs are popular today, but it is Trypillian pottery that is the source and inspiration for Trypillian patterned eggs. 
The most ancient Ukrainian decorated eggs were ceramic, made in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. Decorated ceramic eggs were produced in the city of Kyiv during the 10th to the 12th centuries C.E.  The city was a center for making tile, bricks  and ceramics  which were exported to Poland, the Baltic countries and Scandinavia.  The oldest actual decorated egg was a goose egg and was found in the city of Lviv, Ukraine.  It dates back to the 15th-16th century.
The oldest known Ukrainian Easter egg, from Liviv, Ukraine.  Source: the Kyiv Post.

The Soviets tried to destroy the custom of pysanky making in Ukraine.   Between 1938 and the 1980's there was no egg painting or even any information about pysanky available in Ukraine.  In spite of the Soviet efforts, the custom survived in the United States and Canada.  Although all the parts of Ukraine were under the rule of the Soviet Union, the custom thrived in the United States and Canada.   Ukrainian folk dancing, folk singing, embroidery and pysanka making not only helped preserve Ukrainian culture and customs, it also informed Americans that Ukraine was a country, not just a part of Russia.
What compelled women in Ukraine to make pysanky?  Luba Petrusha,who has been making and studying about pysanky for over 40 years suggests several reasons:

 "Ukrainians have been decorating eggs, creating these miniature jewels, for countless generations. There is a ritualistic element involved, magical thinking, a calling out to the gods and goddesses for health, fertility, love, and wealth.  There is a yearning for eternity, for the sun and stars, for whatever gods that may be."

Why did Ukrainian immigrant women choose to decorate eggs?  They are fragile, hard to work with and easily destroyed. Writing on them using a stick with a funnel attached to the end is difficult--I know, since I have never been successful making pysanky.  Making eggs linked Ukrainian women to their homeland, a place that many would never see again. They were  expressing themselves by making something unique, because no pysanka is like another. As they created their designs on the eggs, they used symbols that dated back to ancient times.  In a way, they were linking themselves to their ancestors who painted eggs using simple tools, beeswax and the light of a candle. As they painted,they became part of something bigger than themselves, a culture, a heritage and  history that went back thousands of years.
My grandmother, Pauline Koshuba Haydak, painting a pysanka , probably in the early 1930's.

In many cultures the egg symbolizes new life. In Ukraine before Christianity,  pysanky represented spring and the rebirth of the sun.  They were a symbol of rebirth, the beginning of the agricultural year, the end of cold and snow.  When Ukraine became Christian, pysanky became a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ.

All the lines and designs on pysanky have meaning, some of them have several meanings.The drawings below explain some of the popular designs used in pysanky.

Source: Ukrainian Gift Shop, Roseville, MN

In next week's post, I will be explain the symbols in actual pysanky from my collection.

 You don't have to be Ukrainian to make pysanky! Kits with tools and dyes are available online, and there are many sites with instructions on line. The Ukrainian Gift Shop in Roseville, Minnesota, has all kinds of pysanka making items, as well as pysanky for sale. Click here for the link: Pysanky  

For more information about pysanky check out the link below.

Luba Petrusha's comprehensive site for all things pysanky