“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -
Pope John Paul II
Happy Easter to those of you celebrating this holiday on this Sunday!
The day has been a glorious one here in Melbourne and many people have been out celebrating, on vacation as well as in churches. We are in a strange season this time of the year – traces of summer with heat and bright sunlight during the day, but cool nights and even a little dew in the morning.
Easter has been traditionally a spring and fertility holiday that was syncretised with the resurrection of Christ when Chrsitiniaty overtook the pagan religions of Europe. Eggs are associated with springtime because the rooster is considered the herald of the sun and because egg production increases in springtime. Thus, from ancient time decorated eggs were believed to help the cycle of the seasons and to bring on spring and the new growth of animals and crops; the potential to bring fertility was enhanced by the symbols.
Ukrainian decorated eggs or pysanky, are world famous for the richness of the designs and colours. The designs drawn on the egg include ears of wheat, grapes, rakes, cross-hatchings symbolizing the plowed field, pictures of chicks, rams and other farm animals, and, of course, pictures of the sun. Decorated eggs were buried in fields to transfer their fecundity productiveness to the earth and in houses to protect the home. Archaeological excavations of these buried eggs tell us how ancient pysanky are. When Christianity came to Ukraine, pysanky acquired a Christian meaning. They became Easter eggs. Old symbols were reinterpreted in the Christian context. Thus, representations of the sun, the four-spoked solar wheel, for example, came to represent the cross. New symbols were added and pictures of churches were drawn on eggs, as were the first letters of the words “Christ is risen”.
Pysanka comes from the word "to write" - pysaty. Making Easter Eggs in Ukraine dates back to thousands of years. Many Slavic groups paint eggs with their own interpretations. The writing of Easter eggs was suppressed by the Soviets in the past century and many beautifully decorated eggs were destroyed in museum. Throughout Ukraine the pysanka has enjoyed a resurgence as with other customs. Every region decorates eggs in their own distinctive style and meaning.
Another form of the pysanky which is also very common at Easter time are the krashanky. It comes from the verb - krasyty - to color, to dye. The eggs are dyed a one single color. Years ago Ukrainians used various varieties of plant material to color the eggs. A very popular method even now is to save onions skins for any months and then boil them in water. The eggs are dropped in later, boiled and turn out various shades of brown.
Symbols of Easter Eggs can be grouped into 6 main categories which are: 1) solar symbols, 2) bezkonechnyk - never ending lines, 3) plant symbols, 4) animal symbols, 5) geometric symbols and 6) Christian symbols. When Ukrainians accepted Christianity in 988 AD, the eight-pointed star, the then sign of a sungod, became a symbol of Christ. Dots depict stars in the heavens, and also recall Mary's tears when a legend tells, Pilate refused her plea for mercy. Deer and other animals of the Carpathian Mountains signify prosperity. Waves and ribbons circling an egg, without beginning or end suggest eternity. Originally pysanky symbolized the release of the earth from the shackles of winter and the coming of spring with its promise of new hope, new life, health and prosperity. Folklore has it that a decorated egg can avert any evil, bring good crops, and help a young maiden to win the man of her desire. After the advent of Christianity, the decorated eggs took the new symbols of the Resurrection with its promise of a better world.
Colours also have a symbolic meaning. Some examples: Yellow - is the symbol of light and purity. It speaks of youth, happiness, the harvest, hospitality, love and benevolence. It is the colour consecrated to the light deities and is the Christian symbol of recognition and reward. Red - the magical colour of folklore is considered a positive colour signifying action, fire, charity, spiritual awakening. It also glorifies the sun and the joy of life and love. In Christian symbolism, it denotes the divine love and passion of Christ. As seen in spring renewals, green symbolizes the breaking of shackles, freedom from bondage. It is the color of fertility, freshness, health and hope. In the Christian context, it represents bountifulness, hope and the victory of life over death. It is the color of Christmas, Easter and Epiphany. Blue carries with it wishes for good health, blue skies or the life-giving air.
Pysanky are magic symbols of life. The egg itself is magic in that it resembles an inert object, and yet contains the potential for a new life, of food for those already living. When they become pysanky, eggs are become more magical in that they are dyed. This is done using a technique similar to batik: Colours are protected with beeswax from subsequent dyes, rather than painted on. As an egg is worked, colour after colour disappears under the dark wax, to be magically revealed at the end when the wax is removed.
Many folk tales have been told about the origins of Ukrainian Easter Eggs. These stories may vary somewhat from one to another, but all show the importance Ukrainians placed on their pysanky. A legend that is 1,000 years old tells of a young woman who was on her way home one morning from the market in town with a basket of eggs and a jug of fresh water. When she was traveling the home to her home, she met a stranger sitting on a rock. Thinking He must be tired, she offered Him a drink of her water and was startled to see there were wounds on His hands. The stranger said nothing but accepted her offer and then continued on His way. When the woman arrived at her home, she uncovered her basket and discovered her eggs were transformed into pysanky. The stranger was Jesus Christ - and that morning was the first Easter.
Another story tells of a poor peddlar who was on his way to market to sell his basket of eggs when he came upon a crowd who was mocking and jeering a man carrying a heavy cross. The peddlar ran to help the man carry the cross for a while. When the peddlar returned to his basket of eggs by the roadside, he found that they had been transformed into beautiful pysanky. The peddlar was Simon the Cyrenian, the man carrying the heavy cross was Christ.
A legend sometimes told is of one year long ago when birds who were traveling south were surprised by a sudden sharp freeze. The poor creatures fell to the ground, too frozen to fly. The generous Ukrainian peasants took the birds into their homes and nursed them until spring when they could fly away on their own. In gratitude for the kindness shown, the birds returned with decorated eggs for the peasants who saved their lives. And so, it is said, ever since then, eggs are decorated in beautiful pysanky every spring.