Washington Township family keeping ancient egg-decorating tradition alive
A “written” design using a raw egg, symbols, hot beeswax and brilliant colors keeps vibrant an ethnic Lenten custom that traces it roots to ancient Eastern Europe.
Each season, a Washington Township family continues to follow this tradition of creating beautiful Ukrainian eggs – pysanky – a batik process practiced by their Ukrainian-Russian ancestors.
Pysanky means “to write.”
“It's been a tradition in my family for many years, and I want to keep it alive,” Stefanie McCulloch said.
“I love the outcome. It's always a surprise. You never know exactly what the egg will look like until you take the wax off.”
McCulloch's father, John Senko, taught her the skillful art. She has since passed the knowledge on to her children – Shannon, 17, and Brock, 14 – and her friends.
“At a very young age, I used to watch my dad every year. I was too small to get near the flame,” McCulloch said. “But I thought the whole process was so interesting. When I was 8 years old, I learned with a unsharpened pencil with a straight pin inserted in the end of the eraser, because my dad did not want me to get burned with hot wax using a kistka.”
A kistka is a stylus used in pysanky.
“It was called the drop-and-pull technique, the easiest stroke to learn. It helps you get a steady hand, which is very important,” McCulloch said of the process to create teardrop images.
“Now I use a kistka. No electric needles, just the old-fashioned kind.”
Ukrainian egg decorating skills traditionally are passed from mother to daughter.
“My grandmother, Theresa Lewiski Senko, was an immigrant who had four boys, so she taught all of them. My dad and his younger brother, Ed, were the only ones to really continue the tradition,” she said.
McCulloch said her father stopped making the eggs after she and her siblings moved away.
“I was in my 20s. I missed making pysanky, and I knew my uncle still made the eggs each year. So I called him and asked him for a refresher course. He was very happy to help me revive our family tradition,” she said.
McCulloch said some eggs take less than an hour to complete. Other require days to decorate, depending upon the number of colors used and the intricacy of the design.
“We like to take our time and carefully do one layer at a time,” McCulloch said. “We do about a dozen or so every year. I give a few of them away.”
The numerous ornamental patterns found on pysanky have varying symbolic meanings, depending upon geographic region. Each egg, or pysanka, typically has a specific motif and meaning.
“My designs depend upon the mood I'm in,” McCulloch said. “I made a special egg with a deer on it for my husband (Donald), who is a hunter. When I was pregnant, I did an egg that symbolized fertility.”
The most popular pysanky designs are geometric, but can also include nature, fruit, flowers, animals, religion-based themes, and cosmic and man-made objects.
McCulloch said crosses in various shapes represent Christianity, pine needles mean health and eternal youth, wheat means good harvest, and sun and stars represent eternal life and good fortune.
“My favorite to make is a fish pattern that represents Christianity,” McCulloch said.
Colors are symbolic. For example, yellow is symbolic of light and purity, red for the sun and passion, green for spring and new hope, blue for the sky and good health, and black for eternity.
McCulloch said pigment powder mixed with distilled water and white vinegar are freshly mixed for each year's use. The finished eggs are sprayed with a shellac to keep the colors vibrant.
“White chicken eggs are most popular to use, but you can use brown eggs, goose or ostrich eggs,” she said.
“Traditionally, Ukrainian and Russian women would pray over the eggs before starting them.”
McCulloch prominently displays the family's handiwork on an Easter tree in her home. She has about 15 dozen boxes of pysanky in her collection.
“I have one egg my grandmother made in the 1970s. It is very special, because she passed away,” McCulloch said.
“My dad and uncle gave me several eggs that they made, and their designs are perfect. The brothers had very steady hands.”
McCulloch said her dad no longer decorates eggs but still helps with the process. Now 89, he blows the yokes out of eggs to make sure they are clean and shellacs them when ready.
Senko vividly recalls decorating eggs with his family while growing up.
“It was a pleasure to do with my brother and mother. We helped prepare the dyes and enjoyed making the egg designs while sitting at our kitchen table,” Senko said. “We would take the finished eggs to our church when the priest blessed the Easter baskets. The eggs made our baskets so colorful and beautiful.
“It is a very special tradition, and I am very proud of Stefanie for continuing our family tradition.”
Shannon McCulloch said she enjoys sharing the art with her grandfather.
“I like to make pysanky eggs because my pappy is happy when he sees us working on them,” Shannon said. “He is so impressed with my brother's and my designs. I think it makes him proud of us.”
Brock McCulloch looks forward to seeing the finished product.
“I like to hunt and fish, so I like to make the deer and fish designs,” Brock said. “I like dipping the eggs in the different colors and watching them change colors, too”
While Stefanie McCulloch's mother, Patricia Senko, does not participate in the Ukrainian custom, she does make paska Easter bread every year.
“I tell people it's not rocket science,” McCulloch said of the egg-decorating art. “Everyone has the talent to do it. I usually teach a pysanky class with my girlfriends at my house once a year.
“It's tedious work, but it's very relaxing, very therapeutic.”