Pisanki: An age-old tradition of egg decoration


The art of egg decoration has been passed down through many European ethnicities, like Croatian, Polish, and Ukrainian.  These cultures, over time, have created many variations on egg decorating.  It is a time consuming process that requires practicing with steady hands to draw various symbols on the eggs.  These designs also represent seasonal changes, a new rebirth, and Christianity.  This tradition continues to survive today because of such artists as Arnie Klein, who travels the country educating and displaying his egg decoratingtechniques.  With the approaching Easter holiday, it is important to remember that traditions never die if there are those who learn the craft and preserve them for future generations.



Different cultures use different words to describe types of egg decorating and dying techniques. Pisanki is the Polish word meaning "to write." In Ukrainian this is "pysanky," and in Croatian "pisanica."  Originally, pisanki was a pagan ritual involving parallels between the yolk of the egg and the sun, and the white of the egg with the moon.  These eggs were believed to possess magical powers and were often used in sun worshipping ceremonies.  As Christianity developed throughout the land, it was eventually adopted as a religious symbol of the Easter season.  The egg is now viewed as a food that breaks the fast of Lent, and in pisanki, is decorated with symbols of Christian significance.  These symbols are centered on the rebirth of Christ and the emergence of Spring, so it is not uncommon to see eggs decorated with various palms, birds, deer, and crosses. Farm animals were also drawn on these eggs as they represented strength, good fortune and a prosperous family.

In contrast with contemporary eggs, Ukrainian pysanky eggs are used only for decorative purposes and are not consumed, even though they are given to family and friends on Easter morning.  In ancient Polish culture, there was a ban on eggs being consumed, because the eggs represented life and rebirth and to eat them was tarnishing this symbolism.  Eventually the ban was lifted and a special prayer is said before the eggs are eaten on Easter morning.

Women were the only people allowed to decorate pisanki eggs as men were thought to possess bad luck.  They had to prepare themselves spiritually and physically for this arduous task, as goodness was believed to be transferred throughout the home during this time.  Special songs were sung so as not to disturb the dead souls who traveled through the night.  There were many types of pisanki eggs created for various people.  For priests, it was a sign of respect to be given an egg, and eggs were also made for friends so they would be able to exchange them on Easter morning.

Materials and Tools
In both Ukrainian and Polish cultures, as well as the many other European cultures that adopted this tradition, the Pisanki method of decorating these eggs is very similar.  White chicken eggs, like ones bought at a grocery store, should be used for decoration.  Light brown eggs can be occasionally used, but do not develop distinctive colors when the egg is dyed.  Occasionally, goose and duck eggs have been used in decoration when they are available.  The use of raw eggs symbolizes fertility and life, and is the preferred egg to use.  Cooked eggs have no potential for life, and therefore the symbolism for them does not exist.  These eggs still have the yolk inside, and although there is a method of blowing out the contents of eggs, this is not required.  Eggs are washed with vinegar or lukewarm water, and then left out to dry.  (Wet eggs will not allow the wax to adhere to them). Once the eggs are dry they are ready for decorating.

Egg Tools

The tool used to "write" on the eggs is called a kistka, a type of writing stylus.  Most kistka are made from wood, although electric ones can be bought.  Using this tool, the artist heats it and applies beeswax to the egg, and depending on the size of the funnel attached, regulates the flow of the wax.  The problem with the old fashioned wood kistka is that the wax needs to be re-heated continuously by a candle so that it does not dry too quickly.  An electric kistka eliminates the need for re-heating making the overall process less cumbersome.  The advantage of using beeswax over other waxes is that it colors the soot from the kistka black, making it easier to see and draw with.  Beeswax also melts quickly and absorbs well onto the egg.  After the drawing is done, a candle is then used to melt the wax onto the egg and then to remove the layers of wax, revealing the designs underneath.

Although commercial dyes are available, most Ukrainians and Poles made their dyes from various materials found around the home such as crepe paper.  Commercial dyes, however, allowed the colors to last longer in most eggs and were a lot less work to make.  If the eggs are going to be eaten, it is wise to take precaution and not use aniline dyes as it is not edible.

The practice of blowing out the insides of eggs is not required as it does make the eggs more fragile, and the process should only be done by an experienced artist.  Using a small pin or a fine drill, two holes, one small and one large, need to be made on either end of the egg.  A small pin will be needed to burst the yolk sac and mix the insides so it can become a liquid.  Blowing through the mouth or using a small drill will allow the contents to be flushed out.



Egg on angle

Of the vast color paeltte used in decorating, white and green are the primary colors for innocence and purity.  Yellow is for wisdom, recognition or reward for a good harvest.  Orange is used for strength, endurance and ambition and red for happiness, hope and passion.  Darker colors like blue symbolize good health, and purple means faith and trust.  Brown is used for happiness and black is usually used for remembering the dead.

Aside from Pisanki there are other methods used which involve boiling eggs in natural plant products, scratching the egg with a sharp tool to reveal the white surface, painting designs on the eggs using oil or watercolor paints, or decorating the eggs with leaves from shrubs or yarn.  In addition, there are eggs that are drawn and painted upon that follow a similar process of decoration.

Though the craft of egg decorating is steeped in a rich history, the commercialization of Easter has taken emphasis away from these types of customs, and raises the question of whether future generations will learn these tradition.  If one could look past the Easter bunny and the pounds of candy, they would see that these eggs are part of an age old tradition that should never die. Furthermore, these eggs are made to symbolize friendship and strong bonds which is something that needs to be reinforced for future generations.

The Polish and Ukrainian Museums are just two establishments who take great pride in displaying and preserving the history of this great tradition.  These museums contain massive displays of decorated eggs in the pisanki style.  The Polish Museum is located at 984 N. Milwaukee Ave. and can be reached at 773.384.3352.   The Ukrainian Museum is located at 2249 W. Superior St. and can be reached at 312.421.8020.

Many of the symbols associated with egg decorating have much to do with springtime and nature.  In Ukrainian egg design, geometric symbols such as lines or ribbons have been used for generations.  Spirals, and nets are used to reflect the Christian symbolism of a fisherman's net, and sieves reflect divisions of good and bad.  Combs, rakes and ladders represented good husbandry and prosperity.  Plant designs like pine trees and small shrubs signified the rebirth of spring and good health.  Animals, such as spiders, butterflies and snakes often symbolize good luck, patience and protection from harm.  Deer, rams and horses represent strength, prosperity and leadership.


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