EASTER-TIME. To most adults and children, unfortunately, this merely means a few days off work and the receipt of chocolate Easter eggs.
Easter is, however, the culmination of the religious calendar. Through the resurrection of Christ, life becomes eternal. What more joyous time of year is there?
Easter customs are many and varied and no less so in the Ukrainian home, be it far away in our native land, or entrenched in the hustle and bustle of everyday London.
For Ukrainians, religion is totally interwoven with nationalism and the traditions and heritage stemming therefrom. It is not, therefore, surprising that each religious event in the Ukrainian calendar is steeped in its own beautiful customs.
Traditionally, the 40-day Lent period is spent preparing the body, mind, soul and home for the religious climax of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Day. This is a time of great activity in the home. Everything is thoroughly cleaned and aired and thus made pure for Easter. The body, too, is cleansed and readied with a 40-day fast, involving various abstentions and rules concerning foods.
The last week of Lent is very church-orientated and the confessional is busy. There is also much activity in the kitchen with special Easter foods being prepared.
Most important too is the custom of decorating eggs pysanky (derived from the word pysaty meaning to write). The creation of these pysanky has traditionally fallen to the women and there is much secrecy during the decorating of the eggs so that no ideas are copied and the finished items of pride make their debut in church on Easter Day.
The egg has always been deeply symbolic. During pagan times, pysanky were created only in the springtime and used in rites of worship to the sun. Physically reminiscent of the sun, the yoke represented the victory of life over death, the return of the beautiful spring sun after the bleakness of winter.
Peasants were convinced too of the magical powers of the egg to protect them and their crops from harm and the danger of fire. The myth of fertility embedded in the egg was of paramount importance to the barren woman, with the egg being a perfect emblem of life's continuity and propagation.
The design of an egg was chosen with great care and thought. Sunflowers depicted the warmth of the sun's rays, chickens fertility, trees eternal youth and health, wolves' teeth protection, and so on. The circle was very popular, being impenetrable by evil.
Firmly entrenched in Ukranian life, pysanky were readily adapted from rituals of spring to rituals of Easter after the introduction of Christianity. Religious symbols such as churches, crosses, fish, a crown of thorns and the triangle, (representing the Holy Trinity) became popular. Spots were used to represent Mary's fallen tears as she wept for Jesus at the foot of the cross. These same ideas are still used today.
Colours too play an important part in a design. White symbolises purity, green rebirth (with all its connotations of freshness, innocence and youth), brown evokes the earth itself, yellow a prosperous harvest and wisdom.
In the past, the dyes used were made with natural materials. For example, a red dye would be extracted from cochineal, deer horn and sandalwood; green from sunflower seeds and wild elderberries. Nowadays, these dyes are obtainable in sachets.
Now to the method of operation! The pysanky are decorated using wax-resistant batik skills. Whole, whiteshelled eggs are used (the contents dry out in a few months leaving a small ball of dry matter inside that rattles when the egg is shaken).
Firstly, the egg has to be divided into equal segments, with vertical and horizontal lines. All "writing" on the egg is done using a kistka. This tool consists of a small wooden stick with a tiny metal funnel at the end. (Nowadays, these are even available electrically-powered!) The word kistka means bone which was probably what was used very early on. The head of the kistka is heated directly in the flame of a candle and once hot, a small portion of beeswax is scooped up. This is used to draw the design on the egg.
Any shapes requiring to stay in the original white are "coloured in" with the wax. The egg is then ready to be dipped into the first and lightest coloured dye usually yellow.
All dyes are kept in wide. necked jars to enable the egg to be carefully immersed into the jar using a large spoon. After a few minutes the egg can be lifted out and patted dry. Then the next part of the design (ie whatever is to remain yellow) can be filled in with the wax.
This process is continued through progressively darker colours usually ending in black, until the design is complete. The egg will, at this stage, look shapeless and black.
Next follows the most intriguing part of the whole operation as the wax is slowly and carefully melted away by holding the egg next to the side of the candle flame until the egg "looks wet" usually two or three seconds.
The egg must not be held directly over the candle as the carbon will blacken the design. It then has to be quickly wiped with a cloth before the wax hardens again. This continues until the entire egg is free of wax.
The much-awaited result is a truly exciting reward for the hours of skill and patience endured.