The dying of Easter eggs is a tradition that goes back thousands of years across many cultures. Painted eggs are common throughout Eastern Europe, with each country having a unique style all its own.
The painting of eggs originated in Ukraine centuries ago. As with most holidays, the painting/dying of eggs has its origin in paganism. The designs on the eggs and even the different color dyes all had specific meanings relating to pagan religions and myths.
Mostly they were thought to protect from evil, bring good luck, ensure a bountiful harvest and promote fertility. After the acceptance of Christianity in Ukraine in 988 A.D. the painting of eggs continued in the same way as it had always been done, just the meanings behind the symbols and colors changed.
The egg, symbolizing new life now became a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. New stories were adopted for the reason for dying eggs, such as the first eggs were dyed by Mary's tears or Jesus' blood as He passed by them on His way to Calvary.
In Ukraine, the decorating of eggs has turned into a legitimate art form, an activity that continues to this day utilizing traditional methods as well as modern techniques.
These painted eggs are known as Pysanka. The name means "to write" because the designs are drawn or written on the egg.
The process of decorating the Pysanka is long and slow and consists of a layering of bee's wax and dye. The wax is painted on the egg using a special tool, the egg is then dipped in the lightest dye, more wax is added to continue the design, then dipped in the next darkest dye, and so on until the design is complete. At the end of the process, all the wax is melted off the egg using a candle to reveal the intricate, colorful design.
These days artificial dyes are often used, however, some will still dye the eggs using traditional natural dyes. For example, yellow or purple dyes will be created by boiling onion or beet skins then the water will be used to color the eggs.
The designs used typically have geometric, plant, or animal themes and sometimes a combination of all. Animal designs are the most complicated to do and therefore are typically the most valuable. The Pysankya are considered collectible art and giving them as gifts is a demonstration of friendship.
The Pysanka eggs are never eaten. Krashanka eggs are hardboiled and dyed a solid color and are typically eaten for Easter breakfast. It is common to have a contest to see whose egg is the strongest by "bumping" the end of your egg into the end of your neighbor's egg and so on around the table until one egg remains uncracked. That person is the winner, there isn't a prize for the winner of this game but it is fun nonetheless!
In Ukraine, they have a Pysanka painting competition where different artists or schools will enter their masterpieces. We were fortunate to be in Kyiv during one of these occasions. The city square was filled with larger-than-life Pysanka. These eggs were painted and not dyed in the traditional way but the result was still amazing to see.
An easy way to participate in this cultural tradition is to boil and dye some eggs and play the "egg bump" game for yourself.