Writing Pysanky: How the Nelsons Decorate Their Easter Eggs
April 7, 2017
My mother began practicing the art of pysanky when I was a kid. I assume it was so she could do something away from us children. Making something beautiful was just a bonus. Pysanky (the word pysanka comes from the verb pysaty, “to write”, as the designs are not painted on, but written with beeswax) egg decorating is a complex and painstaking process, and I really had no interest in getting anywhere near it in my young parenting years – eggs, hot wax, permanent dye, and small children are one of those combinations that parenting books warn you about. But then one year, my very youngest, very artistic sister came to live with us while she finished up her last year of college. And it just so happened that my small children had, by this time, become sort of grown up children who adored their fashionable and artistic aunt. So, pysanky.
That was several years ago, but it is now tradition in our house that every Palm Sunday, the girls (and sometimes boys) get down to work. Each egg takes several hours to complete, so most years each person only does 1 or 2 eggs; but after several years we have quite a collection.
The tradition of pysanky is old, old, old – probably pre-Christian; and superstitions abound surrounding it. But what I like are the pious legends that sprang up around it, as wikipedia tells us:
“One legend concerns the Virgin Mary. It tells of the time Mary gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel to her son and she wept. The tears of Mary fell upon the eggs, spotting them with dots of brilliant color.
Another legend tells of when Mary Magdalene went to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Jesus. She had with her a basket of eggs to serve as a repast. When she arrived at the sepulchre and uncovered the eggs, the pure white shells had miraculously taken on a rainbow of colors.
A common legend tells of Simon the peddler, who helped Jesus carry his cross on the way to Calvary. He had left his goods at the side of the road, and, when he returned, the eggs had all turned into intricately decorated pysanky.”
Probably not true at all, but who cares? The stories are sweet. And pysanky eggs are lovely. Good enough.
Our egg designs have ranged from the traditional to the sacred to the secular. (As an amusing aside, you know those gilded frames we make? One of my sons used some of the gold leaf to make a golden egg which he planted with the newly collected eggs from our chickens. Not pysanky, of course, but it comes out every year with the other eggs).
Last year, we lowered the age range to let certain unquenchable 6-year-old’s take part in the process. Her designs are understandably much simpler, but she’ll be an expert by the time she’s 16. If we all survive the process.
The passage of time gives perspective. And now I feel that making pysanky is a metaphor for the artistic process, our spiritual walk, and just life in general: an exercise in patience and self-control, a little meditative as you get lost in the process, dismay at a few broken eggs, but hopefully something beautiful (or at least pretty good) by the end.