Egg Decorating

Now that the Easter Holiday has passed I thought I might ruminate a bit on egg decorating traditions in my neighborhood. As I’ve written before, my hometown has a large population of folk of Eastern European decent, including Ukrainians. For those who are not familiar with Ukrainian Easter traditions, Ukie[i] women are famous for their Pysanky Eggs. This beautiful folk art involves the decoration of eggs with intricate geometric patterns using paints and waxes. The entire process is quite involved and very difficult, but for those interested in it, I suggest www.LearnPysanky.com. Here in the Susquehanna Valley, this ancient tradition is maintained by women of the Ukrainian tradition, but it is not the only egg art to be found in the area.

Since before I was born, my grandmother has come up to my home every Easter to decorate eggs with her grandsons and this year was no different. I was always intrigued by store-bought egg dyes because our technique was so different. I questioned Grandma about it this year and she told me that she had learned it “a long time ago” when she was young and that it was a “European tradition” that had been practiced in this valley for years. Beyond that, she couldn’t tell me anything of its history, though I do know that my Grandmother comes from an old York State farming family and had little experience with the world outside the farm community until she was grown.

Our egg dying art begins with a trip outside. We take bags and scour the yard for interesting leaves, stems and flowers. After collecting a few fistfuls worth apiece we head back to the house. We then gather up our ingredients, which are:

Squares (about 3” to a side) or toes of old pantyhose

A pot of boiling water
As many onion skins as one can find

A half cup to a cup of vinegar
Room temperature raw eggs
Your collected plants.

The basic process involves putting the leaves on the pantyhose and then wrapping the pantyhose and leaves around the egg very tightly and tying them with a string. The wrapped egg is then placed inside the pot where the boiling water, vinegar and onion skins have been cooking for 5-10 minutes. Your eggs remain within the water for about 10-15 minutes and are then removed and unwrapped. The result is that the egg is a dark brown except where the leaves sheltered the eggs, those spots remain white. Your eggs can now be put into a more traditional color dye, if you desire.

For a bit of troubleshooting: if you don’t tie the pantyhose as tight as you can, the water will seep under the leaves and you won’t get a very good print. The more onions you use, the darker your dye will be… though a bit of red food coloring can be added to fill it out if you think that it isn’t dark enough.

Though as a small child I was jealous of the kids who got to use the store-bought kits, today I look forward to our yearly Easter crafts project with Grandma as an important family tradition and a good way to spend an afternoon.

-Posted by Jesse

[i] I used to think “Ukie” was a derogatory term, one of the many from my home town (Litvaks, Hanacks, Polacks, Ukies and Ruskies) and the equivalent to “guinea” or “wap,” until recently when I attended a Ukrainian festival and the priest referred to the food booths as being run by “old Ukies.” I don’t feel bad using the term anymore.
[ii] It is very important that your eggs are not cool, as they will crack when boiled.


NYCO said...

Can I ask a question... I always wanted to try doing pysanky but I am confused what you are supposed to do with the egg before you start. You hard boil them like a regular egg to decorate, right? Or are you supposed to blow them out first? (the instructions on that website don't tell about that)

Natalie said...

I would suggest blowing them first, if only because you'll have to chuck hard boiled ones eventually, and you'll probably want to keep something as time consuming as a nice pysanky egg around longer than a hard boiled egg keeps. Having done some (horrible looking) pysanky eggs in the past, I would suggest capping the holes that you used to blow the egg with wax before you start dying them so they don't fill up with dye every time you dunk them. Have fun!