By Lorraine Connelly
With Easter around the corner, Paas Easter egg decorating kits are already flooding the aisles of local supermarkets and drug stores. Every year, more than 16 million kits are sold in the United States. Paas egg dye was invented by William Townley, a New Jersey druggist who in the late 1800s, came up with a recipe for dye tablets in five cheerful colors. He named his company Paas after “Passen,” the word that the neighboring Pennsylvania Dutch used for Easter.
The Lenten season also marks another egg decorating tradition called pysanky, during which eggs are decorated in traditional folk patterns with a wax-resist technique and then dyed. Pysanky, derived from the Ukrainian verb “to write” or “to inscribe,” is a deeply meditative process.
I recently interviewed Nancy Dudchik, president of Hamden’s Regional Chamber of Commerce, and an accomplished pysanky artist. Dudchik, who grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was taught pysanky by her father. In 2008, one of her egg designs was chosen for display at The White House as part of the State Easter Egg Collection.
Eggs are decorated or “written” on with layers of melted beeswax applied with a stylus or kistka. The pen-like implement is filled with beeswax and heated. Designs are drawn on the eggs between bathing them in colored dye. At each stage, the most recently dyed color is preserved by covering it with wax. The egg is dipped in progressively darker shades of dye until all colors have been added. Finally, the wax is heated and removed, revealing a beautiful design.
Pysanky designs can be simple or elaborate, often incorporating abstract and geometric patterns or representational imagery. Many are symbolic of religious or cultural themes. There are eggs with 40 triangles, representing the 40 martyrs, the 40 days of Christ fasting in the desert, the 40 days of Lent. Color choices are symbolic as well, white for purity; blue for health; green for hope; black for remembrance and repentance. The color red represents the blood of Christ and symbolizes the prosperity of the household and the well-being of the family.
Dudchik, who has taught pysanky, notes that in the Orthodox tradition eggs are customarily made to be given as a gift. The pysanky maker, pysankarka, says a prayer or intention over the egg while decorating it in the hope that the recipient will benefit from the fruition of those prayers in their lives.
Says Dudchik, “Pysanky is one of the most amazing meditative spiritual art forms out there.” She adds, “There is a mental stillness that one must maintain until the process is brought to completion.” What she has found most fulfilling about the art form is “teaching others and helping them to experience the process of the tradition.”
During the pandemic many have turned to crafting activities to settle their anxieties and to afford them peace of mind. New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast turned to embroidery and pysanky for refuge — “to keep her hands moving and help quiet her anxiety.” Chast created more than 100 eggs incorporating her own distinctive imagery.
The New York Times noted the uptick in crafting during times of crises, “There has been an embrace of craft — and a search of meaning through making — following other recent moments of national crisis. Remember the subway knitters in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, head down, stitching as if in prayerful meditation? After the financial crisis of 2008, craft became associated with both thriftiness and political protest, or ‘craftivism.’”
Meditative crafting is needed now more than ever. According to Ukrainian folklore, the fate of the world depends on pysanky. “As long as people make pysanky,” it is said, “a monster personifying evil will remain chained to its cliff and the world will be safe.”
This Lenten season has been marred by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine, and the brutalization of its men, women, and children. His actions embody an incarnate evil whose very existence is a threat to human civilization. I, too, would like to believe that if pysanky persists, evil will lose its foothold and good will prevail. Whether we decorate with Paas or pysansky in the coming days, we need to set prayerful intentions for the safety and well-being of the more than 2.5 million refugees that have now been displaced by war.
Nancy Dudchik’s traditional and contemporary pysanky can be viewed on her Facebook page, Art of an Egg. Locally, the Wilton Historical Society will hold a Ukrainian Egg Decorating Workshop on Saturday, April 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. for adults and children ages 9 and up. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.