Decorated (Pysanky) Eggs

by Jodi Smith

These eggs are hand-decorated using the wax-resist (“pysanka”) technique used in central Europe since pre-Christian times.

The patterns are created by applying melted wax onto a genuine egg, then dipping the egg into dye. The wax prevents the dye from coloring the waxed area. Each color requires separate waxing and dyeing steps.

For the eggs in the Ukrainian style, the wax is applied in fine lines using a tool holding a small reservoir of wax melted over a candle flame.

For the eggs in the Lusatian style (also known as "Wendish" or "Sorbian", small "stamps" are made by cutting the tips of feathers into geometric shapes.  These feathers are dipped into melted wax, and then applied to the egg, forming triangles, squares, and diamonds of wax.  The Lusatian designs also include dots and lines formed by dipping the end of a straight pin into the melted wax, and touching or pulling it along the egg.

At the end, all the wax is removed, the egg is hollowed, and then varnished to provide a durable finish.


The egg is an ancient symbol of spring, new life, and rebirth.  People have always been fascinated by the ability of a seemingly inert egg to suddenly hatch into a new life.  In ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China, people colored eggs and gave them as gifts at festive occasions.

In pre-Christian Slavic territories, colored eggs were one of the traditional gifts offered to the spirits of the tribal ancestors, and such eggs were placed on the graves of loved ones during the spring festivals.  Many of the designs used on modern pysanky appear to have pre-Christian origins. Christianity officially arrived in Slavic central Europe in the 860’s, and in the Ukraine in 989.  Decorated eggs gradually became associated with the Christian spring festival of Easter, and Christian interpretations were added to the earlier meanings of the symbols used on the eggs.

Each geographical region has its own style of egg decorating.  Ukrainian pysanky eggs are especially famous.  (Perhaps it is the influence of the former Soviet Union that has encouraged people to think of these as "Russian" eggs.)

Lusatia is a region in southeastern Germany.  It is Jodi Smith's ancestral homeland  The native Lusatians are a Slavic ethnic minority, who call themselves "Sorbs."  The ethnic Germans call them "Wends", and the name "Wendish" has made its way into the English language.

Pysanky were exchanged among family and friends, girls gave them to their sweethearts, and farmers placed them in the barns in hopes of bountiful harvests and to protect against lightning.

The name “pysanka” (plural is “pysanky”) comes from the Ukrainian word pysaty, which means “to write”.

Before modern synthetic dyes, eggs were colored with plant dyes, similar to the dyes used on cloth at the time.  Onion skins give gold, orange, and brown colors.  Brazilwood gave the highest quality red.  Red cabbage gives blue.  Oak, sumac, or bramble leaves give black.  These plant dyes are more difficult to work with than modern dyes, and making a four-colored pysanka was considered a mark of great skill.
Ukrainian pysanka egg

According to legend, there is a monster who creates evil and discord. Whenever someone makes a pysanka egg, the chains that bind that monster are tightened. If ever there should be a year when no one made pysanky, the monster would escape and devour the world.

Many Christian folk tales relate the origins of pysanky to the events surrounding the first Easter. In one version, Mary, the mother of Jesus, colored a basket of eggs to offer Pontius Pilate when she went to plead for her son’s life. Her tears fell on the eggs, making the dots that are a common design element. When she came before Pilate, she fell to her knees. The eggs rolled across the floor, and continued to roll until they spread around the whole world.