BLUEFIELD — While many think of the Easter tradition of egg decoration as a child’s activity, the members of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church have their own similar traditions this time of year, with much more intricate designs.
Pascha is celebrated by members of the Orthodox church around the same time of year as protestant Easter religions. One part of the Pascha celebration is the decoration of eggs with traditional Ukrainian folk designs written in beeswax.
The history of the symbolic egg in the Greek Orthodox tradition goes back centuries, all the way back to Mary Magdalene.
According to some religious traditions, after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, Mary Magdalene boldly presented herself to Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ, with an egg in hand to illustrate her message. Holding the egg out to him, she exclaimed for the first time what is now the universal Easter proclamation among Christians, “Christ is risen!” The emperor, mocking her, said that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. Immediately, the egg turned red as a sign from God to illustrate the truth of her message.
The tradition has grown and the symbolism of the egg during the holiday has become iconic.
Ranae Semonco Bailey is a parishioner at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church and teaches classes in Pysanka at the church annually. Bailey learned the practice from her grandmother, Mary Samonco as a child and still uses most of her methods when she teaches and creates these intricate designs.
“She (Mary Samonco) was over 90 when this picture was made and she was decorating eggs and this is all free art as far as, she did not have a pattern drawn on an egg, she would just pick up an egg and begin to work on it,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s family originates from the Carpathian Mountains which is now the Ukraine. Pysanka originates from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty” meaning, “to write.”
“That is where it all started for me was my grandmother,” Bailey said. “Even though I have tried many times to duplicate my grandmother’s eggs and her designs, I cannot do it, just like you or I could not handwrite like someone else, you just cannot do it.”
The particular type of Pysanky egg is unique to the part of the country that Bailey’s family immigrated from. It is called a drop and pull method. Meaning, the hot wax is dropped and pulled in one stroke over the egg to create the designs. Bailey uses a pen and pencil sealed together, a tool created by her grandmother.
“There are modern day tools, but I for some reason cannot get used to them,” Bailey said. “This is what she put in my hand and this is what I still use.”
The tradition of the eggs runs deep in Bailey’s family. She said that each “writer” of the egg must develop their own technique. She said that in her classes, she tells the participants that they should not feel pressure for their eggs to look like anyone else’s design.
“Her strokes are very long, my aunt’s strokes, she used a larger pen head and her strokes are very large and long,” Bailey said. “Mine tend to be very tiny for some reason. We can use the same pen head and come up with different strokes, just like someone’s handwriting is different individually and so are the eggs.”
For Bailey’s classes, the eggs are drilled with a Dremel, drained and cleaned in advance. She said the preparation process can be lengthy. In the past, the eggs were hard-boiled. Bailey said some of the eggs that her grandmother would decorate when she was a child would become eggs to search for during an “easter egg” hunt. However, the children needed to find all of the eggs because they wouldn’t last.
“She would give us these eggs and we would go out into the yard and she would say, ‘If you crack it just peel it and eat it’ because the dye was not toxic at that time, now the dye that I use has a very permanent, high tense dye that you could not do that,” Bailey said.
Now, the eggs are just shells that have been emptied and can be preserved for a long time if they are stored correctly.
Pysanka eggs are still done through a dyeing process. You start with a white egg, create designs with wax, dye the egg and then remove the wax.
“I will start with this egg and I might put this design on it. I will start here and start with my designs and along the sides. A darker dye is going to take a darker dye and black covers a multitude of sins,” Bailey explained laughingly.
Some of the patterns of the Pysanky eggs are representative. Some of the Greek Orthodox cross and more.
“There are some patterns that are very unique,” Bailey said. “This particular egg represents the crown of thorns and this is the cross and it is red because of the blood that Jesus shed for us. There are eggs with palm leaves on them.”
Ranae and her husband usually teach Pysanky classes annually. Due to some family illness, they have had to cancel the classes this year, but Ranae is hopeful that they will be up and running again in 2020.
— Contact Emily Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice